Salt Bath: Good for Body, Mind & Soul?

A recent article in the BBC News Magazine, Hygge: A heart-warming lesson from Denmark, really got me thinking about what it is that we can all do to help ourselves as the leaves turn, the days draw in, the light fades, and autumn descends upon us. This coincided with a week when several clients had reported that they were experiencing quite a bit of cramp (mostly in their calves or feet), and I realised that whilst these are two seemingly unrelated issues, I have come to a common conclusion about this - run yourself a warm salt bath.

Hygge - pronounced “hoo-ga”

In an ideal world, the expansiveness of summer gives way to the drawing in that occurs in autumn. The abundance of summer, gives way to nature’s abundance for our harvest. We dig out cosy clothes, hot water bottles, rugs, scarves. Curtains are drawn to keep the warmth of inside in and the cold darkness from outside out.

In the article I read, one of the people quoted explained that her understanding of the essence of hygge is to be kind to yourself. Let’s face it, this isn’t exactly something us Brits are renowned for! We appear to be much better about living in a world of ‘shoulds’, of ‘oughts’, of ‘could try harder, achieve more, be better’.

“Hygge could be families and friends getting together for a meal, with the lighting dimmed, or it could be time spent on your own reading a good book … It works best when there’s not too large an empty space around the person or people” ~ Susanne Nilsson, lecturer at Morley College in London, where they are teaching students to achieve hygge as part of its Danish language course.

Let’s get cosy

So not everyone has access to a log fire, and at this time of year, you might actually be feeling quite anti-social. But we can still get cosy and generate a sense of hygge right here, right now. Grab a warm jumper, slip on a pair of slippers or large sloppy wool socks, snuggle under a blanket and clasp your hands around a hot chocolate, with dimmed lights or or candles. There you are. Don’t check your social media, leave your emails until the morning (or at least wait for a good 30-40 minutes), put your phone onto silent and if possible invite someone you want to spent time with to snuggle under the blanket with you.

Don’t feel any pressure to do, or be. Rest your head on their shoulder. Be together or be on your own. Savour the moment.

OR … you could run yourself a warm bath.

Where the bath fits in …

The part that really got me in the BBC article was the phrase “it works best when there’s not too large an empty space around the person or people”. I know this feeling, I recognised it as soon as I read it. As autumn starts to show its colours, I find myself drawing curtains at home even during the day, shutting doors in rooms I am in, constantly wrapping my hands around a mug of warm water, and even draping a blanket over my knees. I know, I look like a right grandma! Between October and March, I am nearly always wearing a scarf when I’m not working, I have a haramaki around my midriff to keep me slightly warmer, and as soon as I get home slippers are on my feet. All of these things I do to provide me with a sense of containment. A bath does the same thing.

In a bath, the waters can envelop you, surround you, heat your body, ease your muscles. A bath is not like a shower where you step in, wash and step out. It took me years to figure out that the joy of having a bath is the being in the bath. Just being. Ok, maybe reading a book, talking to your other half, relishing a drink of something. But in the age of showers and convenience, the remit of a bath doesn’t have to be about cleanliness, rather it can become an indulgence, a way of caring and nurturing yourself.

And the salt?

Apparently the Chinese led the way with this, but we know that Hippocrates encouraged his fellow healers that salt water could be used to heal various ailments. Different salts have different properties, with some softening skin and aiding exfoliation, whilst others act as water softeners and will change the way soap lathers.

Our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them knew a thing or two about life, which is why the pharmacy of yester-year was the perfect place to pick up a packet of Epsom salt. They might not have known the science, but an Epsom salt bath was good for you. Today, you are more likely to find Epsom salt in a health food shop, but at least we now know ‘why’ and ‘how’ they are good for you.

The two most common forms of salt soaking involve sea water (magnesium chloride) and Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate), which is also known to chemists as heptahydrate sulphate mineral epsomite. It takes its name from the “bitter saline spring in Epsom in Surrey, England, where the salt was produced from the springs that arise where porous chalk of the North Downs meets non-porous London clay.” ~ Wikipedia entry for Magnesium Sulfate

I personally like adding salt into my baths, and whilst I’m not particularly fussy, I prefer how I feel after using Epsom salts. I started trying this when I was training really hard at the gym and working as a personal trainer, on my feet for an average of 14 hours per day, excluding my own training. The thing I was really suffering from was sore, tired feet, but I felt that the bath or the salt or the combination was helping my body recover, ease the ache in my muscles … and here’s why:

Magnesium, along with zinc, plays a central role in the recovery process of rebuilding muscle tissue after exercise. It also helps your body convert carbohydrates to glycogen, is good for nerve function, helps the body absorb calcium … I could go on, but I’m not an expert! Whilst you could take a magnesium supplement, it can be absorbed very effectively through the skin (known as transdermal) and explains why you may well find magnesium oil sprays available in health food shops, along side Epsom salt or magnesium flakes. Interestingly, these magnesium sprays are typically a mixture of magnesium chloride in water, rather than an oil. When pondering this, our resident dietary expert and fellow massage practitioner Zoe was my go-to-gal ...

“Magnesium chloride shows slightly better absorption, but both forms are suitable and used for clinical supplementation. There is limited evidence to prove the reported wonders of Epsom salt baths, however many people say they help with muscle aches. Most people can get plenty of magnesium from a wholesome diet (one of the richest sources is chocolate!). However, magnesium is lost in our sweat and urine, and particularly during heavy exercise, which may explain why athletes report benefits on their recovery.” ~ Zoe Macpherson, massage therapist and registered dietitian, part of the BMT Team!

So, sea salt or Epsom salt … it’s your choice, but the advice would be if you are having lots of them, veer towards the sea salt / magnesium flakes / magnesium chloride. I don't live in a bath, so making the time to indulge in this ‘hyggeligt’ activity means I'm happy using Epsom!

Magnesium deficiency

Now, you do a quick search on the internet about magnesium deficiency and you’d imagine that as a generation we are all suffering from this - in the same way that a search for iron deficiency or adrenal fatigue would flag many of the same issues (Although I do rate this article from the Winscombe based company Vivo Life: 9 signs you need more magnesium). However, the point I want to make here is that if your muscles are tending to cramp, then a soak in a warm bath may help to ease those muscles into relaxing a little and recovering from their last ‘spasm’. But by throwing in some salt and allowing your body to absorb some of the magnesium whilst you lie there getting your hygge on … well it’s a win win. Particularly if you can hear the rain lashing down outside, and know that you that there’s a hot water bottle with your name on it waiting for you when you get out!

So yes, a salt bath might just be a tonic to the British attitude to autumn, and be good for your body, mind & soul!