Hydrotherapy may be defined as the use of water, in any of its forms, for the maintenance of health or the treatment of disease. It has been employed since ancient times as a way to balance the body and mind. According to Hippocrates, water therapy "allays lassitude."
Have you ever taken a cold swim? How does it make you feel? After you get over the initial shock of the cold, it's usually very invigorating. This is because when you go to a cold temperature quickly, your blood moves from the surface of your body to the core, and this helps bathe your brain and organs in fresh blood while also cleaning out your system.
Throughout evolution, primates have endured physiological stressors like swimming through a cold river or hunting in very hot weather. Naturopathic hydrotherapies are designed to take advantage of the natural body reaction to these stressors. It has been theorized that brief changes in body temperature are important for proper brain function. As I have seen it help other people with low mood, hydrotherapy may help you return some of the good old-fashioned physical "stressors" that are missing in modern life.
Hydrotherapy: Useful To Treat Cancer and Chronic Fatigue as well as Depression
One group of researchers in Virginia suggests that hydrotherapy may be useful to treat cancer and chronic fatigue as well as depression. Cold exposure therapies may actually be the best choice for depressed patients. The simultaneous firing of all skin-based cold receptors—thought to be three to ten times denser than warm receptors—from jumping into the cold may result in a positive therapeutic effect. It has also been shown that lowering brain temperature protects neurons and decreases inflammation. In addition, exposure to cold has been shown to activate the sympathetic nervous system, increase the blood level as well as brain release of norepinephrine, and elevate production of beta-endorphin, a feel-good molecule that gives a sense of well-being.
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Cold water exposure may have a mechanism similar to another proven antidepressant treatment: electric shock therapy. Electric shock therapy has long been used to treat drug-resistant forms of depression with a procedure called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). These effects may well help depressed patients, especially those who do well with increased release of norepinephrine as with duloxetine (Cymbalta) or other serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
Dosage and Toxicity of Hydrotherapy
I recommend patients with depression use a brief whole-body exposure to cold water in the form of a cold shower. Start the shower at a comfortable warm temperature and slowly cool the water over a five-minute period down to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and stay at that temperature for two to three minutes. You can use a thermometer to check the temperature as you go. This can be performed once or twice a day for a duration of a couple weeks to several months.
Although mild cold stress seems to help the brain work better, animal research has shown that extreme cold may actually worsen mood. To avoid this, follow the directions I've detailed here.
Clinical Case: Len's Return To The Water
Len is a thirty-seven-year-old film music production technician who came to my office with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety. His digestive system had started going awry about a year earlier, and he had to run to the bathroom because of gas and diarrhea a few times a day. After a colonoscopy and a few visits, Len's gastroenterologist recommended he start Imodium to stop the diarrhea and antidepressants to suppress both his anxiety and the nervous function of the intestines.
I asked Len what had been going on in his life when this started. He had recently taken a "real job" in music production, for his own music writing career was not paying the bills and his living situation was too expensive. At that point, two things had changed: he stopped his daily morning swims at the YMCA, and he ate mostly Chinese takeout while slumped over a sound board. As a plan of action, I asked Len to change his takeout food to something more healthy: he found a macrobiotic vegetarian place and a sushi restaurant nearby that delivered. The food change helped about 60 percent after two weeks.
At that point, I asked Len to get back to his exercise routine, which he said he had no time for right then, for the production schedule had him at work early and leaving late. Because exercise was not an option, I asked Len to try contrast hydrotherapy over his abdomen in the shower. I had him first place a few drops of lavender essential oil on the shower floor, so he could smell it as the shower heated. Then he simply turned the water up to a hot (but not scalding) temperature and let it rain on his stomach and intestine area for two minutes. Then he quickly switched it to cold for forty-five seconds. I asked him to repeat this cycle three times.
Len wrote to me that "although it seemed time-consuming, it had a wonderful calming effect" on both his mind and his stomach. Within the next week, his bowel symptoms disappeared. Len and I also discussed a plan to move him back into the music writing world and leave his job, which he realized was the catalyst for his original stress.
©2012 by Peter Bongiorno. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
How Come They're Happy and I'm Not?: The Complete Natural Program for Healing Depression for Good
by Peter Bongiorno, ND, LAc.
Dr. Bongiorno explains that depression and chronic low moods often have roots in physical ailments: inflammation, digestive problems, poor nutrient absorption, disease. Depression can also be brought on by spiritual concerns, life events, or simply insufficient resources in dealing with day-to-day stress. How Come They're Happy and I'm Not? offers a safe alternative to drugs for treatment of depression as well as a way to safely wean oneself off medication without relapsing or side-effects.
Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.
About the Author
Dr. Peter Bongiorno is a licensed naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist with offices in NYC and Long Island, and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. He is a graduate of Bastyr University, the leading accredited university for science-based natural medicine. Dr. Bongiorno is vice-president of the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians, a member of the American Association for Naturopathic Physicians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and a Diplomat in Acupuncture. He has contributed to The Textbook of Natural Medicine, and The Biology of Depression and Dr. Michael Murray's Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. He has worked as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and Yale University, and has co-authored numerous medical journal articles in the field of neuroendocrinology. Visit him at www.innersourcehealth.com.