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Water for good health

It is difficult to associate boosting the immune system with cold water treatments. However, John Floyer, a British doctor, wrote The History of Hot and Cold Bathing in 1697 and advocated treatments to boost the immune function. Unbelievably, this 300-year-old therapy still works today to boost immunity.

Taking a shower with alternating hot and cold water can boost the circulatory and immune systems
- Kathryn Borg

Prior to the 1950s, hydrotherapy, as this treatment is known, was commonly used for infections and mental illnesses. However, due to the invention and common use of antibiotics, as well as other drug treatments, hydrotherapy use in mainstream medicine declined and almost disappeared.

The basis of hydrotherapy is that it uses water for therapeutic benefit. It absorbs, conducts and transmits heat efficiently, so it is also a form of ‘thermotherapy’. Thermal stimuli either above or below skin temperature perturb physiological stability forcing the body to respond.

Therefore, circulation in the body is increased or decreased through the application of hot or cold water either directly or by immersion in water. I am sure you have seen people who swim in ice cold water, especially in the Nordic countries. It clearly must have some health benefit.

In the 19th century Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest, developed 100 different hydrotherapy treatments including self-care treatments. Kneipp’s water cure is still being practised and researched in Germany.

When the hydrotherapy treatment arrived in the US, Otis Carroll (1879-1962) developed it into a specific naturopathic method called ‘constitutional therapy’. This works by using hot and cold water applied through towels with the main aim of enhancing internal organ function. Only a few registered naturopaths in the UK practise this form of hydrotherapy.

This treatment works based on the idea that all living systems possess self-healing capacities, the primary aim of naturopathic hydrotherapy is to facilitate the healing power of nature by promoting a healthy internal environment through improving the quality and efficiency of blood flow.

That, in turn, improves the quality of blood oxygenation, nutrient content and immune function. Hydrotherapeutic applications enhance circulation through the digestive and other organs such as the liver, intestines, skin, lungs and kidneys.

They are the organs that encourage the elimination of waste products while enhancing nutrient uptake. (Eclectic Medical Publications, 1988). This may sound familiar to those of you who have benefited from successful detoxification.

Three German studies investigated the effects of hot and cold showers on immune system function and consistently found an upregulation of cell mediated immunity, which is important for fighting off viruses and bacteria (Phys. Med., 1996).

Other studies showed that regular cold applications for several weeks led to increased immune function in both healthy volunteers and patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Once again there was a strong shift towards improved cell mediated immunity.

How can we use self-care at home? Hydrotherapy can be used at home as part of a daily routine. Taking a shower with alternating hot and cold water can boost the circulatory and immune systems.

After the usual cleansing routines, slowly raise the water temperature for one to two minutes, and then turn it down to a cold setting for about 15-30 seconds. The body only needs a temperature change to react, so the important thing is the change from hot to cold, not the hottest and the coldest settings – just a temperature change, this is important to clarify so that those try-ing it for the first time do not harm themselves.

This may be familiar to those who use spas regularly where sitting in the sauna or steam bath and then standing under the cold shower and then a hotter shower makes one feels invigorated, despite the immediate shock to the system.

When trying this at home the procedure should be repeated for up to three or four times per shower. Hydrotherapy has increased benefits when repeated as part of a daily routine. This is supported by various studies (Phys. Med., 1998).

It is advisable that a competent naturopathic practitioner advises to make sure the application of the techniques is being paced correctly if this is going to be part of a long-term procedure.

Interestingly, the importance of self care was emphasised in the 2005 White Paper on Health Reform in the UK, which outlined the need for NHS support of patients through self-care. This was based on the evidence that it improves health outcomes and encourages more appropriate use of services.

Finally, those with heart or kidney disease, arteriosclerosis, allergy to cold, or diabetes should discuss the use of these applications with their medical practitioner or registered naturopath.

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