Everything You Need to Know About Water Therapy and Its Proven Health Benefits

Marisa Cohen
·3 mins read
Photo credit: andresr - Getty Images
Photo credit: andresr - Getty Images

From Prevention

Aqua therapy is making a splash, promising to soothe muscles, increase focus, and reduce stress. If you’ve ever had the chance to lounge in a hot tub on vacation, you know what it can do for your emotional state. “Water is like medicine for a stressed-out mind—it has an immediate calming effect,” says marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., author of Blue Mind. We asked experts to weigh in on some trending treatments.

Flotation Therapy

What it is: Floating in shallow water infused with Epsom salts to reduce stress. It was a fringe practice in the 1950s, but temperature-controlled cabins have replaced tight, enclosed sensory-deprivation tanks.

What we know: In a 2018 study, a one-hour float significantly reduced stress and muscle tension in participants, who also reported feelings of serenity. “It’s a shortcut to a meditative state,” says study coauthor Justin Feinstein, Ph.D., who uses flotation therapy to treat patients with PTSD, severe depression, and other mental illnesses at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa. Feinstein says that he has seen blood pressure drop 10 to 20 points in just 20 minutes.

Should you try it? Yes. There are no major risks, and it has been proven to help. Just keep in mind that at up to $100 or more per session, it can be costly. Find a facility near you at floatationlocations.com.

The Cold Plunge

What it is: A frigid dip (especially right after time in a sauna or hot tub) is said to offer a mental reset, relieving mild depression and increasing focus. You’ll find cold plunge pools in many gyms and spas.

What we know: “Cold is a well-known treatment for inflammation, which is why athletes sit in cold baths after games. But a sudden plunge into icy water also activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing neurotransmitters that make you feel good,” says Andrew Gregory, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville.

Should you try it? Yes, as long as you’re not at risk for heart problems. “For young, healthy people, there’s little concern. But if you have heart disease, flooding the system with adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine could cause arrhythmia or even a heart attack,” Dr. Gregory says.

Photo credit: satit_srihin - Getty Images
Photo credit: satit_srihin - Getty Images

Aquarium Therapy

What it is: Focusing on marine creatures—in a tank, at an aquarium, or even on a livestream—to soothe anxiety.

What we know: A 2016 study at the U.K.’s National Marine Aquarium revealed that participants’ heart rates dropped within five minutes of watching a tank fill with water—then fell further as fish were added. In another study, subjects showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels and blood pressure after walking through an immersive naturalistic exhibit. “People can gain similar stress relief and health benefits to those they’d get in nature at an aquarium, or even by watching a livestream of one,” says Deborah Cracknell, Ph.D., an honorary research fellow at Exeter University Medical School in the U.K.

Should you try it? Yes! Visit an aquarium if you can, and consider getting a tank at home—Cracknell says you can get some of the same relief from watching fish swim around that way.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Prevention.

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