Mineral Miracle: The Healing Power of Hot Springs

Driving from LA to a wedding in Napa last June, my friend Sarah and I stopped halfway for a soak in the tubs at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort in San Luis Obispo. After climbing three staircases up a woodsy seaside hill, we parted ways and each of us slipped into a sulfur-smelling, Jacuzzi-sized outdoor tub (Sarah’s was named Atlantis; mine, Retreat). Though the water was much hotter than what I’d ever run in my own bath, I speedily plunged my whole body into the gently bubbling liquid, eager to steep in the natural infusion of straight-from-the-earth minerals.

It took me about 10 minutes of soaking to decide that I could probably live in this water forever, and about five minutes more to realize that the rotten-egg scent of sulfur is actually quite sweet. But for the rest of that heavenly hour I stopped thinking and just played, floating on my back and staring up at the canopy of shimmering leaves that stretched over the hill, sinking to the bottom and staying under for too long like a kid in a breath-holding contest, turning the hot and cold faucets on and off and cupping my hands underneath the tap to splash my face. When it finally came time to reluctantly emerge from my bath, I made two lovely discoveries: One, I felt more serene and carefree than if I’d downed a half-bottle of pinot grigio (but with a more pleasurable kind of lightheadedness); and two, the cluster of blemishes that had decorated my chin upon entering the tub seemed to have magically vanished. Sarah, on the other hand, had shaken off the sniffles she’d acquired on her flight from Boston the day before.

The calming of my oft-jangled nerves made sense—who wouldn’t feel less keyed-up after letting her muscles melt for an hour in steamy-hot water?—but my skin’s newly attained glow and the disappearance of Sarah’s cold felt near-miraculous. As it turns out, that kind of transformation is typical of the mineral bathing experience. “When you soak in mineral springs, the body absorbs those minerals, which can help with skin disorders, muscle aches, stress and other health problems,” explains Nathaniel Altman, author of Healing Springs: The Ultimate Guide to Taking the Waters (Healing Arts Press). And unlike, say, pouring a cup of bath salts into your tub at home, bathing in mineral springs lets you ingest magnesium, calcium, sodium chloride, bicarbonate and other nourishing substances that come directly from the depths of the earth, untainted by the sort of undesirable chemicals that might be found in your tap water.

In Europe and Japan, balneotherapy (the practice of healing through bathing) is a form of conventional medicine, used to treat a cascade of conditions including asthma, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, athlete’s foot, urinary tract disorders, migraines, eczema and depression. “People in Japan go to hot springs as often as every other day,” says Altman. “I think it’s interesting that they’re the healthiest and live the longest of everyone in the world.”

In the US, though, mineral springs are insufficiently tapped as a resource for natural healing. Deborah Coryell, health and wellness director for King Ventures (owner of Sycamore Springs and Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs) attributes that oversight in part to our coziness with mainstream medicine. “For more than half of American history, allopathic has been the most powerful form of medicine in the world,” says Coryell. “But in Europe and Asia, balneotherapy has a 2,500-year tradition behind it.” And since allopathic medicine is all about speed and convenience, balneotherapy is rarely explored as a treatment option.

“If you have arthritis in Europe, you can get treated with balneotherapy,” says Altman. “But most people don’t want to take a three-week course of balneotherapy when they could just get a medication that acts right away.”

Even if you don’t take to the springs to remedy your every ailment, mineral bathing can still help nurture your wellbeing. “Some of the effects include stimulation of the immune system, production of endorphins and normalized gland function,” says Kristy Benedict of Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Corona, CA. “Mineral springs also contain high amounts of negative ions, which can help promote physical and psychological wellness.” Coryell recommends integrating mineral springs visits into your self-care regimen as you would a trip to the massage therapist. Most bathing spots charge between $10 and $50 per soak, while national forest sites like Deep Creek Hot Springs (located in Northern California's San Bernardino National Forest) can be accessed for free.

Each spring possesses a distinct concentration of minerals, and each mineral delivers its own unique healing properties. “The mineral content of each spring depends on the type of rocks in the area,” explains Altman. “Some will have more sulfur; some have more magnesium.” But all allow you to take in your essential minerals in a way that’s far more restorative than swallowing a dietary supplement.

“Hot water alone is beneficial in terms of its effect on your nerves and muscles,” says Coryell. “But when your skin—your largest organ—absorbs these healing elements in the water, the effect on your body is very powerful.”

Freelance writer Elizabeth Barker is learning to type under water.

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