While most people are familiar with the pleasure and excitement of time spent in the company of seas and oceans, far fewer are aware that seawater and its constituents have a long history of specific therapeutic benefits, and have led to an entire category of luxurious and healthful spa treatments – with a very fancy name.
By Meena Dandridge
From the aquatic vocabulary-development department, today’s word of the day is “thalassotherapy” (THəˌlasōˈTHerəpē).
Based on the Greek word “thallos,” the decidedly erudite term refers to the use of seawater and oceanic lifeforms for therapeutic purposes. That is, using various combinations of seawater, seaweed and other marine-borne derivatives for a spectrum of potential health benefits.
And, it sounds really cool. As much as I enjoy dropping those fancy syllables into conversations like the name of some famous artist I once met, it’s far better to sprinkle thalassotherapy elements into spa and vacation experiences, and daily rituals.
At its briny core, is the warmed seawater bath. The idea is to draw out toxins while the skin absorbs nutrients including: sodium, iodine, magnesium, potassium, fluoride, sulfur, carbonates, phosphates, chloride, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other trace elements. The temperature of the bath should be around 100 F for maximum “vasodilatation” and the resulting exchange of toxins and nutrients. It’s out with the bad and in with the good, simultaneously.
Not at all surprising, a thalassotherapy bath typically results in wonderful sensations of relaxation and rejuvenation. But that’s just one part of a bigger picture.
Thalassotherapy has been typically associated with high-end luxury spas and oh-so new agley, experiences, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m personally an advocate of a more egalitarian approach to the use of ocean stuff for health purposes, and so are many other fellow thallo-enthusiasts. (I just made up that one.)
The treatment, popular in many European spas and luxury cruises, often encompasses not only seawater, but algae, marine mud and seaweed, as well. Thalassotherapy pools also often include hydrotherapy massage jets to add to the healthful bliss.
Pioneered in France by Benedictine monks in the 19th century, the term was coined by Dr. Jacques de la Bonnardiere in the 1860s. Conceptually, however, its origins date back much further.
On the most basic level, saltwater has for centuries been considered a natural antiseptic, and it is especially helpful in treating scrapes, cuts, rashes and other skin irritations. Likewise, heated seawater has been renowned since ancient times for its healing properties and today is believed to benefit a wide range of conditions including back pain, fibromyalgia, degenerative rheumatism, circulatory disorders, skin problems, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
A form of algae, seaweed has long been thought to nourish the skin and stimulates cell function, (and it’s essential in most Sushi. Arigato, very much). In France, gathering seaweed dates back to the Neolithic times where it was a diet staple and used for medicinal purposes.
But, there’s always the “but” . . .
It is important to note that although the practice has long been believed to benefit all those conditions, there is little to no existing scientific research supporting its medical use. Full stop.
In all fairness, the benefits are not entirely without credible foundation, even if only based on the experiences of enthusiastic practitioners. When thalassotherapy is associated with the broader world of aquatic benefits, exercise, hydrotherapy, steam baths, or perhaps floating in a sensory-deprivation tank, the concept gains much stronger footing.
Swimming in a natural environment, like the ocean, is unquestionably relaxing and soothing, and exciting and invigorating, often all at the same time. Time and again, research has proven that aquatic therapy and swimming reduce depression and anxiety, along with a long list of known benefits.
In his 2014 book “Blue Mind,” author and marine biologist Wallace “J” Nichols assembled data pointing to reasons why people find themselves in a meditative and relaxed state, i.e., Blue Mind, when they are “in, on or under, water.” One reason Thalassotherapy works, Nichols explains, is the breathing patterns used during swimming and diving.
Makes sense to me, and as an open-water swimmer I can attest to the emotional exhalation and physical elevation of interacting with the ocean. But even if all you do is look at it and mindfully regard it’s complexity, dimension and ever-changing nature, the benefits are self-evident.
SPREADING THE PRACTICE
Today, thalassotherapy is promoted on an international basis in a diverse and concerted effort to make it more widely available.
In 1986, the International Federation of Thalassotherapy was incorporated with the purpose of establishing an official group of facilities that adhere to a charter with rigorous standards for quality. The group defines thalassotherapy as taking place in “a privileged marine facility, the combined use, under medical supervision and with a preventive and curative aim, benefits of the marine environment which includes/understands: marine climate, sea water, muds marine, algae, sands and other substances extracted the sea.”
As defined by the federation, a quality program includes hydro massage in sea water, exercise in heated sea water pools, body treatments using seaweed products and sea water, massage, relaxation, good nutrition and exercise outside in the sea air.
Thalassotherapy has given rise to a number of related forms of treatments including: Balneotherapy: Bathing in hot spring water, either directly in the spring itself or in a spa that uses naturally sourced mineral waters. The therapy is also believed to reduce mild, stress-related inflammation.  Algotherapy: The use of seaweed or algae in baths, body wraps, or facials to promote wellness.  Halotherapy: Inhaling salt air in a room filled with mineral-rich salt. Although it’s believed to help some people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), no existing evidence supports its use as a medical treatment.
More big words that all come down to the simple and profound reality that we are intrinsically bound to the ocean. It is where life began, after all, and remains the gravid source of our very existence.
On one hand, thalassotherapy in the formal sense is rarified, perhaps even elitist. It is very much a part of the vernacular of indulgence. Still, I can’t help but believe that it applies to a much broader spectrum of experiences and is available to anyone who seeks it. Isn’t a simple ocean-scented candle a form of thalassotherapy? Certainly a walk on the beach would apply.
In that context, I believe it’s a beautiful choice of words.
Meena Dandridge is a self-described luxury nature connoisseur based in Soquel, Calif. She is a competitive orienteer, yoga instructor, ocean enthusiast and manicure artist. She is known to say, “In the presence of water, we’re never alone.”
Opening image by Vlas Telino Studio | Shutterstock