Close your eyes for a moment and imagine stepping into a very warm natural body of water, with birds singing around you and refreshing outside air. Feel relaxed yet? That’s just one of the many possible wellness benefits to soaking in a hot spring.
The act of soaking in a natural hot spring is also called hot potting, balneotherapy in a therapeutic and complementary health context, hydrothermal therapy, and immersion therapy.
These waters can be found in a variety of settings, from naturally occurring outdoors to being directed into pools at spas and wellness resorts.
Because the waters originate from deep within the earth, they accumulate minerals on their way to the surface, explains Marcus Coplin, ND, a primary care naturopathic physician and the director of hydrothermal medicine for the Balneology Association of North America.
The result? Water that is rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sulfur and that may provide health benefits. Sometimes these waters arrive at the surface naturally heated; other times, these mineral-rich waters are cold, then heated artificially, according to the Balneology Association of North America.
Every hot spring offers a unique makeup of minerals. However, “There are benefits to soaking in warm or hot water regardless of the content of the minerals,” says Krista Ingerick, a licensed massage therapist and the spa operations manager at The Springs Spa, a wellness center that provides integrative therapies for Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic in New York. “In general, most people enjoy soaking for the relaxation and pain-relieving effects, so arriving with the mindset that you’re ready to tune out to the outside world and the stress of daily life is the first step.”
Possible Wellness Benefits to Relaxing in Hot Springs
Here are some other potential benefits of hot potting.
1. May Provide Potential Pain Relief
“The heat of the water helps relax the muscles and can have pain-relieving effects,” says Ingerick. “Essentially, this therapy can act as a whole-body immersion heat pack.” Research suggests that people who have arthritis and other pain conditions found that soaking offered some pain relief. In a study published in 2021 in Inquiry that looked at nearly 1,300 people with joint or muscle pain, including from rheumatoid arthritis, 83 percent said that bathing in a hot spring provided relief from their symptoms by the end of the bath.
Still, it’s important to understand the role of hot springs within the overall conventional medical management of disease and adjust expectations as necessary. In a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, many participants with musculoskeletal conditions had hoped that soaking would provide a permanent cure, which was not the case. Others also noted that this was something they had to do regularly since pain-relieving effects were only temporary.
Indeed, this may become part of a treatment plan. “One thing I do want to caution is that I don’t want it to sound like if you have arthritis, you can soak in hot springs and be fine. Though it is effective [as a complementary therapy for some people], part of the efficacy is the proper application of prescription medication and physician monitoring,” says Coplin.
2. May Relieve Certain Skin Conditions
Minerals such as sulfur and magnesium have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and these and other minerals may be useful in treating some skin conditions, says Ingerick. A review published in September 2020 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine concluded that soaking in warm, mineral-rich water may benefit those who have psoriasis or eczema the most, with some perks for skin itchiness, acne, and seborrheic dermatitis, or an itchy, flaky scalp, thanks to the theorized anti-inflammatory effects of the waters.
3. May Help You Relax
Relaxation is one well-known potential benefit to hot potting. “The simple experience of soaking in a warm bath for relaxation can have profound effects by turning off our fight-or-flight stress response, allowing our bodies time to heal,” says Ingerick. She adds that relaxation is a nice antidote to fatigue and can help improve resilience in the face of stress. There may also be a role for the setting, like in nature or a spa, that further supports the relaxing effects of hot potting.
4. May Support Weight Loss
Research suggests that the heat from a soak may increase your metabolic rate (this is, in part, the speed at which your body burns calories), lower markers of inflammation, and help regulate your stress response, says Coplin.
A study published in 2017 in Temperature evaluated 14 men and found that those who sat in a water bath burned an additional 61 calories per hour compared with a resting condition not in the water. (Exercise burned 556 calories per hour compared with rest, making it more efficient than either sitting at rest or soaking.)
Another study, published in December 2018 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, considered eight overweight, sedentary men. Two weeks of regular hot water immersion sessions affected inflammatory markers, which may help decrease chronic inflammation and improve fasting glucose and insulin, thereby improving metabolic health to support weight loss. The authors found that hot water immersion may be an effective adjunctive therapy for improving metabolic health in people who cannot exercise. Federal guidelines note that exercise such as walking can be safe for almost everyone, and the benefits generally outweigh the risks, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
What’s important about these results is that a hot springs soak can’t do it all. “While hot springs soaking can be a nice component of a comprehensive weight loss program, it is unrealistic to think you will soak and come out 20 pounds lighter. This is something you would do regularly in addition to a mindful-based diet and exercise program,” Coplin says, and in conjunction with your primary healthcare provider under your doctor’s guidance.
5. May Provide Cardiovascular Benefits
One of the most notable things that affects your body is the heat of the water, which may improve circulation of blood and lymphatic system fluid, which helps clear waste out of the body, says Coplin. A study published in September 2016 in The Journal of Physiology of 20 sedentary young adults found that hot water therapy improved circulation in ways similar to exercise, and those who participated in four or five sessions over eight weeks improved blood vessel dilation, reduced stiffness of arteries, and improved blood pressure in ways that could potentially benefit heart health.
One important thing to keep in mind if you are looking to use hot potting as a complementary therapy for any health condition: Hot soaking is not a substitute for routine conventional care. Be sure to discuss your goals for treatment and how immersion therapy may fit within those goals with your healthcare provider, according to the Balneology Association of North America.