In the hippest health circles, aura photography and nootropics are having a retro aggressive revival. Yet, nothing beats the potent healing power of simple H2O, says academic and wild swimmer Dr Catherine Kelly.
I have always been drawn to the wild landscape and raging ocean of County Mayo, on my native Ireland’s Atlantic western coast.
When my mother died without warning from a brain haemorrhage and my world was turned upside down, it gave me solace when I could find it nowhere else. This is the place, I thought. Grief, especially sudden grief, is like a wound of sorts, and it seemed I could make it better by cleansing it with salt water and allowing the air to heal it. I instinctively felt that being in or near the ocean would help.
Six years later I returned to the UK, first living in London and now in Brighton, where the sea sits at the bottom of my street. Yet, the link between salt and well-being is more than a feeling. Science shows us that salt — a compound made of NaCl, or sodium (Na) chloride (Cl) — plays an important role in maintaining human health. We need it in our diet: sodium is essential for nerve and muscle function and regulates fluids, while chloride helps to control blood pH and is a key element in stomach acid, which is necessary to digest food.
It’s well known that seawater has been used since ancient times as a remedy — from bathing to drinking it (classically sweetened with honey). In the 18th century, the evolution of the seaside spa resort spread throughout Britain and Europe, and thalassotherapy is still a much-practised treatment. The Japanese have a wonderful phrase, “living water”. The notion is that when we get into the water, we pour something of ourselves, and in return, the water takes away our worries and gives us joy. Saltwater is heavier than freshwater, which reduces the relative density of our bodies and increases buoyancy. Floating in the ocean, we invite it to hold us and trust in something bigger, gaining perspective on what may be troubling us.
Psychologically, seawater wellness allows us to get out of our heads and come immediately back into our bodies. It is instant, effortless mindfulness. Why? Our breathing regulates and slows when we are near water, reducing the circulation of harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and encouraging the release of serotonin and dopamine. Negative ions are abundant in the air in natural environments, but especially in salty ocean surf; these ions increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, which gives us more mental energy.
We know that swimming in cold seawater increases the body’s anti-inflammatory response. Inflammation is often medically attributed to modern malaises such as irritable bowel syndrome, depression, migraines and arthritis. The salt in seawater can also help to loosen mucus in respiratory disorders, while the magnesium in it is a muscle relaxant.
There is a unique relationship between humans, water and salt. On average, 60 per cent of our body consists of water (our brain and lungs have even higher percentages) and we contain up to half a pound of salt at any given time, sweating to release any excess. Rather than being
unsavoury, this is an indication of proper organ function, allowing our body to cool itself and maintain both a healthy weight and blood pressure. Sweat contains different salty compounds, which explains the taste (hence the need for salt in our diet). When we run or exercise sufficiently to break a sweat, our skin glistens but our blood circulation also significantly improves, which allows oxygen and nutrients to flow freely around the body.
Perspiring has other wellness benefits too: it clears our skin pores of bacteria (the proteins in sweat bind to bacterial microbes and get washed away); removes toxins from our bodies, and lowers the risk of developing kidney stones (if you hydrate well at the same time, proteins and minerals that could cause kidney issues are released). In short, being drenched in salty perspiration and gasping for air after vigorous activity keeps us well.
Not all tears are equal. Did you know that we produce three main types of tears, all of which consist of roughly 98 per cent water and two per cent salty substances? The regular tears that keep our eyes hydrated and bacteria-free are called basal tears and are our main infection-fighters. If
you cry while cutting onions, these are reflex tears, formed in response to a strong stimulus. And then, there are psychic tears, produced in response to strong emotional experiences, both happy or sad. Interestingly, these are triggered by another part of our nervous system, have a different cellular structure and contain a soothing analgesic, which is why we often feel better after a good cry.
For my part, being in or next to saltwater certainly helped to ease my grief. I spent many hours walking along the coastline, salty tears mixing with the salt in the air, each balancing the other out perhaps. Now, whenever I run by the sea, I’m never quite sure if the salt on my skin is my own sweat or a healing offering from the ocean beside me. But it doesn’t really matter. We are connected in our body and mind to water and salt in more ways than we realise — and what a wonderful natural gift that is.
Dr Catherine Kelly is the author of ‘Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better’ (Welbeck Publishing Group). Her essay was originally published in the pages of Belmond’s in-house magazine, Mondes.
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