When you add a bit of art, science, and ritual, taking a bath is much more than getting clean—it's balneotherapy. A form of therapeutic bathing, balneotherapy has been practiced since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans to preserve health and treat a range of ailments from injuries to eczema. Like yoga, it's also a great way to melt away stress and bring the body back into a more balanced state. "Submersion in warm water calms the physiological part of the fight-or-flight response," says Jonathan P. DeVierville, vice president of the International Society of Medical Hydrology and Climatology and director of the Alamo Plaza Spa in San Antonio, Texas. In other words, as you soak in the tub, your blood vessels dilate, your circulation increases, your muscles relax, and your nervous system chills out.
Balneotherapy is popular overseas, especially in Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain, Russia, and Turkey, where a "bath master" typically walks you through the process. Some U.S. spas now offer balneotherapy treatments, but you can also enjoy the benefits at home. To create a therapeutic bath on your own, try these tips.
HEAT UP. The temperature should hover somewhere between 98.6 degrees (body temperature) and 104 degrees Fahrenheit—find out what feels best to you. "Warmth is key for stress relief, but we're not cooking lobster," DeVierville says. You don't want to risk overheating.
GET IN DEEP. "The more skin surface is touched by warm water, the more benefit you'll get," DeVierville says. That means water up to your neck is ideal (unless you have respiratory or heart problems, in which case the water level should not rise above your heart). You may find that keeping your hands and feet submerged brings stress relief too.
GO LONG. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes, provided you're comfortable. If you feel too warm, dizzy, or light-headed, get out of the tub and lie down.
STAY SIMPLE. Experts agree that pure water with a low mineral content is key, but some prefer plain water while others recommend particular herbal formulations to soothe and calm. Juniper, orange, linden blossom, and valerian are all known to soothe, sedate, and relax. Adding essential oils isn't effective in balneotherapy, DeVierville explains, because they float on top of the water instead of mixing throughout. And before adding anything to your bath, it's a good idea to rinse the tub thoroughly to get rid of any chemical residue from cleaning products.
SLOW DOWN. Once you're out of the tub, resist the urge to towel off and resume life's frantic pace. Instead, slip a cozy robe over wet skin and crawl straight into bed. Lie down for at least 10 minutes or, ideally, for as long as you bathed. "The biggest mistake you can make is skipping the rest," DeVierville says. "We believe this is when healing takes place, and it's just as important as the soak."