There’s nothing more naturopathic than water therapy. It’s a method of stimulating the body’s vitality and ability to heal itself, first invented by one of the fathers of naturopathic medicine, Dr. Sebastian Kneipp.
Water immersion confers a certain set of benefits—perhaps due to relieving the strain of gravity upon the body (and today, it’s also a way of grounding, to counter EMF toxicity).
Water is also a wonderful conduit for temperature. The temperature of the water stimulates blood flow, and the healing is in the blood. Dr Kneipp employed water as a therapy by alternating between hot and cold (in the shower, or contrast bath immersion) in three to five one minute to 30 second cycles, starting hot and ending on cold.
Here are some of the health benefits of this process.
The Physiology of Hot Water Applications
Heat increases blood flow locally (by vasodilation) while cold decreases it locally (by vasoconstriction). Since the overall blood volume remains unchanged, this really has the effect of shunting blood from one part of the body to another—rapidly, in the case of contrast bathing.
Heat activates the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system, which aids with relaxation of muscles as well as mentally. (This might be terrific if you’re looking to become drowsy before bedtime, but might not be ideal if you’re showering first thing in the morning.)
The steam from a hot shower can also help the bronchioles dilate in the lungs, and loosen stubborn mucus in those with acute or chronic respiratory problems.
However, the body always tries to seek balance—so while a brief burst of heat can be helpful to drive blood flow, prolonged heat tends to produce stagnation. This may be why hot showers tend to ultimately dry out skin and hair.
The Physiology of Cold Water Applications
Conversely, cold water seems to brighten skin and hair by closing hair cuticles and tightening pores.
Cold applications of course also decrease superficial blood flow (that’s why it’s helpful to ice a swelling injury). Superficial vasoconstriction leads to corresponding vasodilation deeper in the body, which can mean a temporary increase in heart rate blood pressure, and metabolism—this latter due to increased blood flow to vital organs. But as the body seeks to balance this initial effect, ultimately cold temperatures serve to decrease cardiovascular risk.
Cold also stimulates the body to compensate and generate heat by burning fat. This may, over time, help to speed up metabolism.
Dr Kneipp’s method of contrast bathing prevents stagnation, optimizing benefits of both temperatures while pumping blood flow through organs of elimination faster than would occur physiologically. As an added bonus, the constriction of the vessels and muscles also helps to flush the lymph as well: a critical element in detoxification.
The Balancing Effects of Hydrotherapy
You might expect that alternating hot and cold would produce a balancing effect, or promote homeostasis—and indeed it does, having been proven helpful for a wide variety of conditions.
Full body immersion in water at various temperatures, even without the contrast element, tends to balance heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone release. For this reason, it’s been shown to aid in managing pain in conditions such as fibromyalgia.
Hydrotherapy Stimulates Immune Function
Particularly cold water seems to stimulate an immune boost, which might be a surprise for those who associate cold temperatures with illness. In fact, in a controlled environment, the cold seems to produce eustress (or good stress) on immune function—much like lifting weights might initially produce microtears in the muscles, but ultimately serves to make them stronger.
This study shows that repeated cold water stimulation decreases frequency of infection, while boosting white blood cells and modulating inflammatory cytokine release.
Hydrotherapy Lifts Depression
Probably because cold water therapy boosts catecholamines in circulation, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, it has been associated with lifting mood. This study shows that brief cold showers were indeed effective in relieving symptoms of depression.
Contrast showers are one of my go-to techniques to include in a detoxification protocol, but they’re also terrific for boosting what naturopathic theory calls the “vital force.” This concept includes the idea of boosting the immune system, the metabolism, and helping the body return to a state of homeostasis, or balance.
I typically recommend contrast showers as Dr Kneipp prescribed them: 1 minute hot, 30 seconds cold, 3 cycles, starting hot and ending on cold.