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Hydrotherapy: water for health

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British doctor John Floyer (1649-1734), who wrote The History of Hot and Cold Bathing in 1697, advocated cold-water treatments to boost immune function. Before the 1950s, hydrotherapy was com-monly used for infectious and mental illnesses. However, with the advent of antibiotics and other drug treatments, the use of hydrotherapy in mainstream medicine declined.

Hydrotherapy uses water for therapeutic benefit. As a solvent, it absorbs, conducts and transmits heat efficiently, so it’s also a form of ‘thermotherapy’. Thermal stimuli either above or below skin temperature perturb physiological stability (homoeo-stasis), forcing the body to respond. Thus, circulation in the body is increased or decreased through the application of hot or cold water either directly or via materials, or by immersion in water.

In fact, the 19th-century Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp developed 100 different hydrotherapy treatments, including self-care treatments. His ‘water cure’ is still being practised and researched in Germany. Kneipp’s hydrotherapy also arrived in the US, where Dr Otis Carroll (1879-1962) develop-ed it into a specific naturopathic method called ‘constitutional hydrotherapy’. Using hot and cold water applied through towels, its main aim was to enhance internal-organ function. Nowadays, only a few registered naturopaths in the UK practice this form of hydrotherapy.

Philosophical bases
Based on the idea that all living systems possess self-healing capacities, the primary goal of naturopathic hydrotherapy is to facili-tate the vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of Nature) by promoting a healthy internal environment via 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 elimin-ative organs (liver, intestines, skin, lungs, kidneys), thus encouraging the elimination of waste products while enhancing nutrient uptake (Boyle W, Saine A. Lectures in Naturopathic Hydrotherapy. Sandy, OR: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1988; ISBN O-9623518-1-4).

The science of water
Three German studies investigated the effects of hot and cold showers on immune-system function, and consistently found an upregulation of cell-mediated immunity, important for warding off viruses and bacteria (Phys Med, 1996; 6: 72-9; 1998; 8: 37-45; Forsch Kompl Med, 2007: 14: 158-66).

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 (COPD) (M”unch Med Wochenschr, 1998; 140: 566-9). Again, there was a strong shift towards improved cell-mediated immunity.

Hydrotherapy self-care
Hydrotherapy may 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 routine, slowly raise the water temperature for one to two minutes, 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 coldest settings from the outset. The temperature difference may be slowly increased over time, but should always begin with hot and end with cold. 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; 8: 37-45; Forsch Kompl Med, 2007: 14: 158-66). However, patients still need the support of competent naturopathic practitioners (level 5 in hydrotherapy) to make sure they are pacing the application of the techniques correctly. The importance of self-care was also emphasized in the 2005 White Paper on Health Reform, which outlined the need for NHS support of patients through self-care, given the evidence that it improves health outcomes and encourages more appropriate use of services (

A word of caution, however: those with heart or kidney disease, arteriosclerosis, allergy to cold or diabetes should discuss
the use of these practices with their medical practitioner or registered naturopath.

Sybille Gebhardt and Harald Gaier

WDDTY ISSUE 22 NO.9, NOV. 2011

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Article Topics: immune system
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