Friday, November 7, 2014

Sulfur Springs: To Soak or to Avoid?

My wife on the rooftop pool at a hotel in Kitzbuhel, Austria
Who doesn’t like to take time out of their hectic schedules and relax? Whereas we all define relaxation differently a vast majority of people consider a hot tub, natural mineral spring, hot bath or even a pool as a means to unwind and rejuvenate. Bathing in water is as old as time itself, but soaking in sulfur springs is one of those things that many people have questions about.

Sulfur is a naturally occurring mineral and soaking in sulfur springs water, though it has the inescapable and unpleasant smell of rancid eggs, traces its roots to ancient Egyptian and Roman times. Sulfur springs are located across the globe and have long been popular methods of early hydrotherapy – the use of water for healing purposes. Here in the U.S. in diverse places like Paso Robles, California; Hot Sulfur Springs, Colorado; Sulfur Springs Texas, and perhaps the best known sulfur spring located at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, continue to allow people to succumb to the sulfur springs soak.
The natural thermal springs at Arrowhead Mountain in California
Though there are no conclusive medical studies in the U.S. regarding the benefits of soaking in sulfur water, studies in Japan, the Mid-East, and throughout Europe have shown that soaking in sulfur water can help kill germs and viruses in and on the skin including psoriasis, dermatitis, and fungal infections, though these are not cures, only therapies. Known as balneotherapy, (the term ‘balneo’ comes from the Latin word for bath and means soaking in thermal/mineral waters) or medical hydrology, it is considered a medical science outside of North America and is an integrated part of allopathic medical practices and preventative medicine and in some cases, like in France, partial costs of medical hydrology are covered by their healthcare system.

The U.S. has been slow to respond to the benefits of medical hydrology and though the Balneaotherapy Association of North America provides some comprehensive information about the positive effects, it needs to be noted that the traditional and conservative group, the American Medical Association does not recognize this kind of treatment. However, not all American healing centers are so skeptical. The University of Maryland Medical Center states, “well-designed studies, most conducted in Israel, suggest that balneotherapy can help treat several different kinds of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis. People who took sulfur baths and other spa therapies improved strength, had less morning stiffness, had better walking ability, and less inflammation, swelling, and pain in joints, particularly in the neck and back.” These water treatments can also include mud baths containing sulfur. The University of Maryland Medical Center also states, “Some people claim these baths are useful for allergies and respiratory problems, but there is no scientific evidence for these uses.” What’s important to understand is that water as a type of medical therapy has been around for centuries and is indeed a viable alternative and/or compliment to medications or surgeries.

Taking a soak at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur
The interest in non-pharmacological, complementary and alternative methods of treatments are growing. There is a strong desire for non-invasive and natural ways to treat certain medical issues and sulfur springs can be a compliment to your regimen with less cost than medications and literally no side effects, with the probable exception that you’ll simply feel better. Soaking in water, sulfur or otherwise, increases hydrostatic pressure on your body - that compacted pressure you feel when underwater - and what that means is that it increases blood circulation which can improve nourishment to your vital organs, and that soak can aid with removing toxins from our bodies, similar to soaking in your bathtub using Epsom salts. What you don’t want to do is drink sulfur water as that can cause excessive diarrhea, which can lead possibly to dehydration. Livestock and your pets are also susceptible to diarrhea from too much sulfur in their water. The Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study to determine the health effects of sulfur and their research concluded that drinking water with high levels of sulfate could cause diarrhea, especially in infants. You should talk with your physician before using a hot tub or natural sulfur spring, as it’s not recommended for pregnant women or individuals with high blood pressure or people on blood thinning medications. Sulfur, by itself, is not toxic to our bodies; after all low doses are found in eggs and chicken for example. However, some people are allergic to sulfites and sulfa drugs so you should talk to your doc before soaking in sulfur water if you think you may be allergic to any sulfur-containing substances.

Any soak, even in a hotel is beneficial (wine not included).
And lastly, even if a sulfur soak does not provide relief for you in the ways mentioned above, any time we can relax our bodies we are reducing our physical and emotional stress load and promoting a sense of well being. Personally I swim and love the steam room at my gym, and have found lately that water is a terrific element to be in and around. So, take that sulfur soak, assuming you can handle the smell!

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