The healing powers of the sea: From soothing your skin to clearing up sinuses, expert reveals the benefits of swimming in the ocean

  • Ocean water differs from river water in that it has higher amounts of minerals
  • These include sodium, chloride, sulphate, magnesium and calcium
  • This is why it’s highly useful for skin conditions such as psoriasis
  • Ocean swimming has benefits for eczema, another immune-mediated condition
  • Because it’s rich in other mineral salts, it can considered an antiseptic
  • Historically, doctors would recommend their patients go to the seaside

If you live near the sea, make frequent trips to the beach, or are planning an island holiday this summer, chances are you’re getting more out of it than just enjoyment.

It has long been thought sea frolicking has many health benefits.

Historically, doctors would recommend their patients go to the seaside to improve various ills.

They would actually issue prescriptions detailing exactly how long, how often and under what conditions their patients were to be in the water.

Using seawater for medical purposes even has a name: thalassotherapy.

In 1769, a popular British doctor Richard Russell published a dissertation arguing for using seawater in ‘diseases of the glands’, in which he included scurvy, jaundice, leprosy and glandular consumption, which was the name for glandular fever at the time. 

He advocated drinking seawater as well as swimming in it.

To this day, healing and spa resorts by the seaside abound.

They are thought of as places where people can not only let go of their troubles but, in some cases, even cure arthritis.

But does the evidence actually stack up? Does seawater cure skin conditions and improve mental health symptoms?

Ocean water differs from river water in that it has significantly higher amounts of minerals, including sodium, chloride, sulphate, magnesium and calcium.

This is why it’s highly useful for skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Psoriasis is a chronic, autoimmune (where the immune system attacks healthy cells) skin condition.

People with prosiasis suffer often debilitating skin rashes made of itchy, scaly plaques.

Bathing in natural mineral-rich water, including in mineral springs, is called balneotherapy and has long been used to treat psoriasis.

BENEFITS OF THE SEA

Ocean water differs has significantly higher amounts of minerals, including sodium, chloride, sulphate, magnesium and calcium.

This is why it’s highly useful for skin conditions such as psoriasis.

It also has benefits for eczema, another immune-mediated condition.

Ocean swimming and exposure to the salt environment are associated with reduced symptoms of hay fever, sinusitis and respiratory symptoms.

It is also said to be relaxing, meditative and reduce stress.

Cold-water swimming activates temperature receptors under the skin that release hormones such as endorphins, adrenalin and cortisol.

This has been linked to an increase in the release of dopamine and serotonin.

Frequent exposure to cold water has also been shown to increase the body’s immunity.

There is also evidence for climatotherapy (where a patient is relocated to a specific location for treatment) in the Dead Sea being an effective remedy for the condition.

Patients suffering from psoriasis have themselves reported feeling better after swimming in the ocean, but this may also have to do with sun exposure, which has been found to improve psoriasis symptoms.

Bathing in natural mineral-rich water, including in mineral springs, is called balneotherapy and has long been used to treat psoriasis.  There is also evidence for climatotherapy in the Dead Sea being an effective remedy for the condition

SEA SWIM AND LIVE LONGER

As well as distracting from the pain, repeated exposure to cold water over time may improve the way our bodies cope with other physiological stresses.

A study Professor Tipton and his colleagues conducted in 2010 found that when we experience stress — such as getting into cold water — our heart and breathing rates increase.

But the rate of this increase can be halved with regular short periods of immersion (between three and five minutes) in cold water, according to a report in the Journal of Physiology.

Meanwhile, an earlier Czech study found that people who immersed themselves in cold water three times a week experienced a significant increase in their white blood cell count — immune cells important for fighting off infection.

The researchers put this down to cold water acting like a mild stressor, activating the immune system and giving it a workout.

Ocean swimming also has benefits for eczema, another immune-mediated condition. 

Swimming in the sea can be a good exercise option for those with severe eczema as they often struggle to exercise in the heat and chlorinated pools.

But the response of eczema sufferers to saltwater is variable: some find it soothing, others uncomfortable.

There is some evidence to support the idea magnesium absorption is beneficial for the skin of eczema sufferers – presumably because it makes it less dry – as those using Epsom salt baths will attest.

Because it is rich in other mineral salts such as sodium and iodine, ocean water can be considered an antiseptic, meaning it may have wound-healing properties.

People with prosiasis suffer often debilitating rashes made up of itchy, scaly plaques on their skin

On the other hand, swimming in the ocean with open wounds may expose you to potential bacterial infections.

Nasal irrigation, or flushing of the nasal cavity, with salty solutions is used as a complementary therapy by many people suffering from hay fever as well as inflammation and infection of the sinuses.

Ocean swimming and exposure to the salt environment are possibly associated with reduced symptoms of hay fever and sinusitis, as well as other respiratory symptoms.

This is because the saline effect on the lining of sinuses may reduce inflammation, although scientific evidence for this is less robust.

The director of clinical services at the medical charity Allergy UK claims people who live by, and swim in, the sea tend to have healthier respiratory systems.

She says because seawater is cleansing and mimics the body’s own fluids in the lining of the airways, it doesn’t irritate them.

THE HEALING POWER OF THE SEA

Dead sea salt flotation: Famous for its healing powers the Dead Sea, lying on the border between Israel and Jordan, has long attracted those seeking the benefits of bathing in its rich warm minerals. Apart from relaxation, dead sea salts are known to relieve the skin disease psoriasis, eczema and muscular tension.

How it works: If you can’t make it to the Middle East, submerge yourself in a flotation pool. The high levels of magnesium, potassium, calcium, bromide, iodine, calcium and sulphate cause the upper layer of the skin to swell and absorb the valuable minerals.

Potassium, magnesium and bromide all play a role in feeding nerves and muscles, while helping to remove fluid from the cells.

Salt water bath: If the Dead Sea is out of reach, even a simple salt bath can heal and soothe the body. A strong salt solution not only has antiseptic properties, it is also an anti-inflammatory agent and helps stimulate the lymphatic drainage system.

How it works: Bathing in a warm salt solution encourages you to sweat by kick starting the body’s diaphoretic – or perspiratory – system. This in turn helps flush out toxins from the body.

Run a deep warm bath. Pour about 1 kg (2lb) of Epsom salts into the water and stir well until it has all dissolved.

Massage yourself with slow gentle strokes before lying down and allowing the Epsom salts to strut their stuff.

Thalasso treatments: Favoured by the ancient Egyptian priests and Romans as a source of health and eternal youth, thalasso or seaweed treatment is a relaxing way to detox.

How it works: Rich in amino acids and minerals, seaweed nourishes skin tissue, encourages blood circulation and stimulates cell function.

With over 70 minerals and vitamins from the sea, fresh seaweed applied to the entire body deeply cleanses, exfoliates, nourishes and draws impurities from the skin.

There are many different kinds of treatments on offer. The most popular is the Thalasso wrap where you are pasted with a warm application of seaweed.

The heat, minerals and vitamins from the seaweed extracts any toxins from the body and helps refine the skin.

Nasal irrigation, or flushing of the nasal cavity, with salty solutions is used as a complementary therapy by many people

Exercising in natural environments has been shown to have greater benefits for mental health than exercising elsewhere. 

This is because it combines the benefits of exercise with the restorative effects of being in nature.

Swimming in the ocean is no less the case.

It can be relaxing, meditative and reduce stress.

In his 2014 book Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols brought together evidence for why people find themselves in a meditative and relaxed state when they are in, on or under water.

One reason is the breathing patterns used during swimming and diving.

These stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the system that controls organ function and quietens the brain) and have effects on brain waves and hormones that influence the brain positively.

It can help provide a distraction from life, giving a sense of mindfulness, which is a state in which one is aware of one’s surroundings in a meditative sort of fashion.

Hydrotherapy (water therapy) and swimming have also been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.

One study showed the effects of balneotherapy were comparable to a commonly used anti-depressant drug called paroxetine.

Hydrotherapy has been extensively used in rehabilitation, but here I will focus on the health benefits of swimming in cooler ocean water.

Cold-water swimming activates temperature receptors under the skin that release hormones such as endorphins, adrenalin and cortisol.

These have therapeutic benefits for musculoskeletal conditions – such as fibromyalgia, which is a condition with chronic pain and tenderness all over the body – and skin discomfort.

Recurrent cold water exposure may also lead to enhanced function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps with organ function.

This has been linked to an increase in the release of dopamine and serotonin.

Depending on the temperature, swimming in colder waters will use up more calories to preserve body temperature – although the overall effect on fat mass is controversial.

Swimming in the ocean can also help provide a distraction from life, giving a sense of mindfulness, which is a state in which one is aware of one’s surroundings in a meditative sort of fashion

Frequent exposure to cold water has also been shown to increase the body’s immunity.

Overall, you would be wise to make ocean swimming a health habit.

By Sergio Diez Alvarez With The Conversation
Sergio Diez Alvarez, Director Of Medicine, The Maitland and Kurri Kurri Hospital, University of Newcastle
By | 2017-05-07T10:00:19+00:00 May 7th, 2017|Health|