A Nutritional Medicine Physician On Why We Should Practice Hydrotherapy

Nutritional medicine physician By Andreas Michalsen, M.D., Ph.D.
Nutritional medicine physician
Dr. Michalsen is the head physician of the Department of Naturopathy at the Immanuel Hospital Berlin. His specialties include homeopathy, physical medicine and balneology, nutritional medicine, acupuncture and mind-body medicine.

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At mbg, we know how important it is to always keep yourself hydrated. However, most people don't know that water actually can promote healing in other ways besides quenching our thirst. That's why we're excited to share an excerpt from The Nature Cure, by Andreas Michalsen, M.D., Ph.D., in which he discusses how we can use the practice of hydrotherapy in our everyday lives, as well as the importance of using water as a healing tool. After checking out this chapter, you'll be a firm believer in all things H2O.

Water is the best medium for transporting heat and cold. Hot stimuli through water relax muscles, stimulate circulation, and raise body temperature. These processes have positive effects on the body—defense cells are activated, and hormones and other messengers are released. Cold stimuli through water, on the other hand, have a pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effect. As blood vessels contract and the body works to keep its internal temperature up, there is a distinct stimulus-reaction that influences the entire metabolism. For this reason, water treatments where the body is exposed to heat and cold in turns are most effective.

Hydrotherapy—the application of water through various methods, temperatures, and pressures to create a healing effect—has been a part of my life since I was a child. The town near where I grew up, Bad Wörishofen, was where Sebastian Kneipp (1821– 1897) made hydrotherapy famous. Kneipp was a Bavarian priest and is considered one of the forefathers of naturopathic medicine. Because my father and grandfather practiced medicine in accordance with Kneipp's teachings, Kneipp's hydrotherapeutics were part of my daily life.

And now, I share with you how hydrotherapy can benefit your own life—and the best ways to practice Kneipp's methods in our modern world.

Water can help you sleep better.

If you have trouble falling asleep, have you ever considered the possibility that it might be because your feet are cold? In 1990, a study by Kurt Kräuchi and his team at the University Hospital of Basel proved that this was indeed the case, and the results were published in the prestigious journal Nature. When patients' feet were warm, it took an average of 10 minutes to fall asleep. But when the feet were cold, it took an average of 25 minutes to fall asleep.

The reason for this considerable time difference lies in the way that blood flows to the small blood vessels that supply our tissue, and to the peripheral vessels that affect the cascades of messengers that lull us to sleep. So if you have trouble sleeping, placing a hot water bottle in bed by your feet can be immensely helpful. What helps even more is taking a warm foot bath before going to bed. You can add herbs like mustard flour (careful with the dosage!) or ginger to amplify the effect.

For the general prevention of health issues and for training the immune system, a mixture of warm and cold treatments—cold and hot Scotch hose treatments, baths, or compresses—are far superior to applications that only use warm water. Scientists have been able to prove that water treading, a simple treatment in which you stand in cold water and walk like a stork (meaning you raise one leg so high that it leaves the water while the other remains in the water) also has positive effects on the immune system. Though it may seem as though water treading in cold water will cool off the feet, it actually has the opposite effect. It warms the feet, because after water treading a physiological counterreaction occurs in which blood vessels in the legs and feet dilate. These signals to the immune system build up protection from common colds.

In Kneipp therapy, as with other naturopathic therapies, the right dosage is critical. People who are especially sensitive to cold temperatures adapt more easily when they receive treatments with warm water only during the first week and move on to interchanging douses in the second week. Close self-observation helps here. Perhaps you have experienced this yourself in the sauna: When you stay in a sauna for too long or go too often, you usually achieve the opposite of the desired effect. The next day, you notice a cold coming on or you feel worn out. The allure of the Kneipp methods lies in the fact that they are suitable for individualized self-application. But this also entails carrying responsibility for your own well-being and taking care of yourself.

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What does hydrotherapy look like in practice?

Every morning after a hot shower I perform a full-body Scotch hose treatment with cold water. I start by directing a jet of cold water at my outer right foot, then move upward to the groin, and back down again on the inside of the leg; after that I repeat the process with my left foot and left leg. I use the same principle to treat my arms, followed by circular motions along the chest and face, and finally I douse my back. When I’m tired or exhausted, I stick to a shorter treatment in which I only direct the water up to my knees (this, by the way, also helps with headaches). Kneipp therapies are wonderful preventive health care measures and easy for anyone to practice—even children and the elderly.

I highly recommend integrating these pleasant water treatments into your daily routine. You don't need many tools to incorporate them into your life: just a showerhead that can be modified to send out a focused jet of water. Maybe also a bucket, for foot baths. A cold Scotch hose treatment is wonderful in the mornings, after a warm or hot shower. When carried out daily, you'll build a tolerance for the cold water. The water should ideally be below 64.4 degrees. Dousing your face with cold water is also especially refreshing.

If you have trouble sleeping, a hot foot bath should always be the first step you take. It carries far fewer side effects than medication and is often successful. Should you have a garden at your disposal, try a dew cure in spring or fall, or treading snow in winter (these are treatment methods in which you go outdoors in snow or while dew is on the ground and walk barefoot for seconds or minutes, until you feel a prickling, sparkling sensation in your feet). 

As harsh as cold stimuli may seem, they are excellent tools for preventive health care: Stimuli and challenges make us stronger! In our affluent society, we can be appreciative of the fact that we are not exposed to these stimuli on an existential basis; and so, it is all the more important to present the body with challenges—always in appropriate doses, of course.

Excerpted from The Nature Cure by Andreas Michalsen, M.D., Ph.D., published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Andreas Michalsen, M.D., Ph.D.

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