The ocean’s healing powers
As a source of healing, the sea contributed to the pharmacopeia of classical times, with early Greek medicine promoting the use of sea salt for skin lesions, the drinking of salty water for digestive troubles and the inhaling of saltwater steam for respiratory diseases. Salt water was also used externally to combat skin diseases and freckles.
The father of medicine, Hippocrates (5th century BC), mentions the use of saltwater steam inhalations in his great works. The Greek physician Galen (2nd century AD) referred to sea salt and sea foam in his medicinal recipes for skin diseases, infectious wounds and digestive troubles.
Paracelsus, the 16th century Swiss-German physician and alchemist, recommended salt water for the treatment of wounds and intestinal worms. He believed that a saltwater hipbath was a remedy for skin diseases and itching. “This brine,” he said, “is better than all the health spas arising out of nature.” Sea water was administered for rheumatism and general rehabilitation in Europe throughout the 1500s. It was also common practice among seaman with gastric problems to drink half a glass of clean sea water each day, for several days, with reportedly excellent results.
Seawater therapy was the main healing modality at the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate, Kent, which began operating in the late 18th century. Seawater baths also became extremely popular in France at the time. Numerous centres for marine cures were set up in Europe and some still exist today. In 1935 more than 400 seashore sanatoria and preventoria were in operation worldwide.
Salt water as therapy
Approximately 65 per cent of our body weight can be attributed to water, and there is a strong similarity between sea water and our mineral make-up. As demonstrated by French biologist René Quinton (1866-1925), our blood plasma is constitutionally comparable to sea water itself. The “ocean” of extracellular fluid bathing our cells is even more similar in trace mineral content. You could say that the ocean is within us all. Recognition of this close affinity between our body fluids and sea water has spawned many theories about the healing powers of this resource, and the health benefits of consuming sea water as a complete mineral source are becoming evident.
A major medical breakthrough occurred when it was discovered that salt water could be used as an isotonic saline solution for intravenous infusions. Saline solution can temporarily replace large amounts of lost blood because of its similarity to human blood plasma. Salt water is also used in modern-day medicine intramuscularly and subcutaneously. Externally, it can be valuable as a wash and as an enema.
Salt baths have been used in the treatment of psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, chronic eczema and arthritis. Saltwater steam inhalations are often recommended for respiratory disorders, including the common cold. Seawater enthusiasts drink salt water to assist with digestion, as the expectorant effect of salt water on the stomach increases the secretion of gastric juices.
Thalassotherapy (sea therapy) utilises the sea in a variety of ways for healing. It incorporates exposure to a maritime climate, the consumption of sea water and the healing effects of the sea’s pounding waves. It also uses heated seawater baths and combinations of electro-acupuncture and seawater therapy. Thalassotherapy promotes freeing oneself of stress with a change of lifestyle and surroundings. It also incorporates heliotherapy (sun therapy) and aerosol therapy (from salt particles in the sea air). In days past, it was common practice to take children with weak muscles or deformed limbs down to the seaside to bathe them in the salt water or put wet sand packs on them as they lay in the sun at the water’s edge.
Some research highlights the use of sea water to boost the immune system, suggesting it can be effective in treating immune disorders like chronic fatigue. Other research claims that sea water can reduce acidity in the body and has the power to counteract various acid-related conditions such as arthritis, sciatica and skin disorders. Some believe that drinking sea water can re-establish the acid/alkaline balance in individuals with an acidic system, thereby aiding recovery from digestive disorders such as gastritis, especially if it is attributed to nicotine abuse.
Salt is said to symbolise life itself. Essentially, our basic physiological functions depend on a balance in the body between salts and liquids. When this balance is upset, disease may occur. The late Dr Fereydoon Batmanghelidj, author of Your Body’s Many Cries For Water (1992), believed that many health disorders are directly related to chronic dehydration and a lack of mineral salts in the diet. He advocated a saltwater cure for many conditions, including lower back pain, asthma, hypertension, morning sickness, obesity and even high cholesterol.
In Africa, purified sea water is used to “wash away” physical, psychological and even spiritual conditions. It is hailed as a great healer and used for body purification, enemas, colon cleansing, massages, poultices, steaming and bathing. Some Africans use it as a natural solution for dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, athlete’s foot and spots. They believe that bathing in sea water increases the elasticity of the skin and improves its appearance.
American Indians residing near the Great Salt Lake, Utah, drank small quantities of inland sea water for health and to enhance the efficacy of their herbal remedies. Some people continue to drink sea water to boost the health properties of superfoods such as chlorella and spirulina.