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Soak It Up!

Most sources recommend adding 1-2 cups of Epsom salt to the tub for an effective soak.

Most sources recommend adding 1-2 cups of Epsom salt to the tub for an effective soak.

Chances are, you’ve come home a time or two from a great day of snowshoeing or hiking, or maybe bicycling or running, and looked forward to a nice long soak in the tub. What better way to ward off sore muscles, you figured, or just relax body and mind by slipping into the warm water. Maybe you lit a candle, put on some music and poured in a generous sprinkling of Epsom salts. How’d you feel after the soak? Did you make it a regular part of your routine, something to do after a long, stressful work day? Are you convinced Epsom salt soaks make a difference?

Bath soaks and Epsom salts are getting plenty of attention these days, and depending on who you talk to or what you read, the soak/salts combo can take care of everything from chronic pain to gout to toenail fungus to detoxifying your body and improving mineral balances. Flotation tanks have popped up all over the country, touting the rejuvenating mind/body benefits to be had from floating in up to a foot of water infused with up to a thousand pounds of Epsom salts.

Let’s take a look at this trending practice.

Epsom salt, composed of crystalized hydrated magnesium sulfate, is named after the small town of Epsom, England, near London, where the pure mineral magnesium sulfate was discovered hundreds of years ago in the waters of a bitter saline spring. 

As Dr. Martha Taylor, Family and Sports Medicine physician and Medical Director of Centura Urgent Care for Southern Colorado and Kansas, points out, baths have been traditionally used as a naturopathic treatment in several cultures such as China and Egypt. 

“Recently,” says Dr. Taylor, “a large evidence-based medicine publication reviewed the effects of soaking—in medical jargon, termed ‘hydrotherapy’—and found some interesting results. There are many biochemical changes that occur in the body when exposed to submersion in both hot and cold water, which can include hormone changes that in turn contribute to relaxation, chemical reactions that kick in detoxification and even some healing properties.”

Regarding chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, says Dr. Taylor, “most of the evidence points to simply the hydrotherapy alone as beneficial to relieving the symptoms of fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). Patients who regularly participated in sauna therapy and pool-based exercise showed significant improvement in FMS pain scores, stiffness and general health.”

Is hot water better than tepid? Cold? “It really depends on what you are trying to achieve,” says Taylor, “what illness you are combating etc., as different biochemical reactions occur in the body from exposure to different temperatures. For example, warm-water bathing and low-temperature sauna bathing improves heart function in patients with chronic heart failure, and can even improve cholesterol levels. Conversely, recovery from post-exercise muscle pain is significantly faster when using contrast water therapy - alternating hot and cold baths, one minute each for a few rounds.”

So, there you are after a fun day of partaking in your bodybashing sport of choice, preparing a nice bath with a cup or two of Epsom salts thrown in and dissolved. Some sources claim the first 20 minutes of an Epsom salt bath serves to pull toxins out of your body, and the second 20 minutes allows for the absorption of the magnesium sulfate.

“Unfortunately,” says Dr. Taylor, “there are not a lot of solid evidence-based medicine studies out there to really illustrate what effects Epsom salt soaks may have on the body. Magnesium sulfate ingested orally or through an IV is used for many purposes including low magnesium, some irregular heart rhythms and such. There may be some small benefit with regard to decreasing inflammation and detoxification, but more studies would be needed to confirm this. … In theory, should enough of the magnesium sulfate within the Epsom salts be absorbed through the skin, detoxification would occur. One study by a professor at the University of Birmingham in England did show an increased absorption of the salt within the body after a soak. Again, I feel that further studies are needed to identify the exact level of magnesium that would be needed to induce these beneficial chemical reactions.”

Whether Epsom salt soaks have significant curing properties or are merely relaxing and enjoyable, you may find soaking in an Epsom salt bath beneficial. “There are several medical and psychological benefits that are starting to come to the forefront with regard to hydrotherapy and soaks,” says Dr. Taylor. “As with anything, safest in moderation.” 

Did you know

People use Epsom salts as a home treatment for arthritis, bruises and sprains, fibromyalgia, ingrown toenails, insomnia, psoriasis, sunburn, swollen feet and soreness from diarrhea during chemotherapy.

Contraindications

Don’t use soap with Epsom salt soaks. Soap is a drying agent.

Don’t use Epsom salt baths if you’re allergic to sulfur.

There’s some evidence that, if taken as too long of a bath, i.e. more than 45 minutes, the magnesium in the Epsom salt can increase the risk of diarrhea as magnesium has a laxative effect.

 If you’re pregnant, the water should be kept slightly cooler - below hot tub temperature.

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