Water, all about its benefits (proven and suspected) for health

“Water […]. You are not necessary for life: you are life. In 1935, stranded in the Libyan desert after a plane crash, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry understood the primordial importance of water. Without it, our planet would still be an inert desert, the sterile erg it was 4 billion years ago, before the first microorganisms appeared in the heart of the primitive oceans.

Science has taught us: water is the source of life. But it has not always been seen that way. In the Middle Ages and up to the 17th century, the liquid element caused fear. Hydrotherapy, though very modern in ancient Rome, has hardly been practiced since the barbarian invasions. As for sea bathing, it seems common among the Greeks – “the sun cure and the sea cure are decisive in most diseases”, Herodotus would have said – they have become unthinkable. We fear water for fear of drowning, but also for disease. In Europe, successive plague epidemics traumatized populations. Water is believed to be a vector of miasma, sometimes rightly so, during this period when tanners and butchers throw their waste into the rivers.

Water and its virtues

As evidenced by the letters of Madame de Sévigné recounting her stay at the thermal baths of Vichy, interest in “water” reappeared in France at the turn of the 17th century. The medicinal virtues of these streams, which spring from the depths of the earth and are filled with mineral salts, are once again praised. Their chemical composition was the subject of a first analysis mission commissioned by the Academy of Sciences in 1670, a period when the first bottles of mineral water began to be marketed.

Sea water seduces later. In France, it was not until the first half of the 19th century that English interest in its benefits began to spread. Originally recommended in the limited context of a few diseases (rabies, consumption and insanity), salt water is gradually becoming synonymous with fitness. A dedicated term was even coined in 1865: thalassotherapy.

It is the beginning of the golden age of water healing. Scrofula, pulmonary tuberculosis, articular rheumatism, peptic ulcers, syphilis, asthma, psychosomatic ailments… The ailments that doctors are still powerless to cure make the heyday of thermal, climatic and coastal enterprises. But at the end of the 20th century, modern medicine will have a time because of this fever for water. Only once… Water and its therapeutic virtues had not said their last word.

Mineral, spring, sparkling or tap… There is not one, but several waters!

Our body consists of approximately 65% ​​water, and every day our body must supply this reserve, which is essential for its proper functioning. But compensating for the daily losses mainly associated with sweat and urine is not the only benefit of good hydration. Water, being an excellent solvent, takes during its various journeys through the soil of the earth soluble compounds essential for our health: mainly mineral salts (calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, bicarbonates…) and trace elements (cobalt, copper , iron, fluorine, iodine, manganese…). Every source and every soil is different, the composition varies considerably from water to water, whether it is tap, spring or mineral. So-called “mineral” waters are those in France which have been recognized by the Academy of Medicine for their therapeutic virtues. For example, when they are rich in calcium, they are known to have benefits against osteoporosis; rich in magnesium, against stress and fatigue; rich in sodium, against muscle cramps; rich in chlorides, against diseases of the respiratory tract, etc. As for bicarbonate waters, generally carbonated, they are known to treat disorders of the digestive system, liver and biliary tract. This is where their reputation for digestion comes from. However, be careful as scientific evidence is limited. It is also known that the carbonation in sparkling water can damage the enamel of the teeth. Must therefore be consumed in moderation. Still water is undoubtedly the best option, whether it is mineral water, spring water or even tap water.

Sauna, hammam, heated swimming pools: proven virtues

“The poor pharmacy” the Finns call the sauna. A true symbol of well-being, this dry steam bath would also have several therapeutic virtues. This is what several observational studies conducted in recent years with regular users of these small wooden cabins tend to show. By causing dilation of the blood vessels, the sauna would significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks. It would also have benefits against asthma, chronic bronchitis or pain related to arthritis. In general, more and more scientific studies show a connection between hot baths – liquid or in the form of steam – and many therapeutic benefits. Surprising as it may seem, these would be comparable to those provided by physical exercise. Practiced regularly, sauna, hammam and other spa-type devices would improve cardiorespiratory performance, vascular health, blood sugar levels and help fight chronic low-intensity inflammation. And that would also apply to a simple warm bath at home! In case of health problems, it is still advisable to consult your doctor before offering such treatment.

Hydrotherapy, waters with virtues recognized by the Academy of Medicine

Empress Joséphine tried to regain her fertility there, Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant treated their syphilis there, Chateaubrian and his rheumatism, Verlaine his leg ulcers and Proust his asthma. Remedies for all ills, spa treatments were in the 19th century and until the middle of the 20th century, widely recognized by the medical profession. So much so that in 1947 the French Social Security, inaugurating a unique model in Europe, began to cover these treatments based on natural mineral water – today it defines 12 major therapeutic areas. Ironically, it was during this same period that a lack of interest from doctors began to show. Crenotherapy (another name for hydrotherapy) is criticized for the lack of serious scientific studies proving its effectiveness. The question remains: do the mineral salts and trace elements found in natural mineral water have medicinal properties when bathing? Suspected of subjective assessments, since the 1990s hydrotherapy has seen an unprecedented effort for scientific evaluation. With this in mind, in 2004 the main players in the sector in France created the French Association for Thermal Research (AFRETh). Just over forty papers have since been funded by the organization, attesting, among other things, to the effectiveness of thermal medicine against anxiety disorders, osteoarthritis, obesity or venous insufficiency. It should be noted that the French Academy of Medicine, which is responsible for defining the scientific criteria to be observed during hydrotherapy studies, has just tightened its requirements, indicating a lack of rigor in the work done so far. If the medical effectiveness of spa treatments is still a matter of debate, studies conducted among spa guests show a noticeable impact on well-being.

Thalassotherapy, well-being thanks to the marine environment

On December 15, 1961, Louison Bobet, star of French cycling, was the victim of a serious road accident that left his body crushed. Where medicine is powerless to make him regain the full use of his limbs, a thalassotherapy regimen practiced during his rehabilitation works miracles. Much talked about, his recovery is a boon to the sector. Due to the advent of modern medicine, especially the invention of penicillin, marine cures made a comeback. But the traditional indications in rheumatology, highly praised by the author Marie Mauron in a book published in 1957, are gradually being replaced by a broader scope, less medicalized, more oriented towards fitness. This is still the niche of the sector today: thalassotherapy does not claim to cure. Its sea water baths, its affusions, its jet showers, its mud, its algae, its sand and even its sprays have the primary role of providing relief. It should also be noted that these practices are not subject to any medical examination, and – unlike thermal facilities – these coastal centers are also not subject to the approval of the health insurance. On the other hand, empirical studies regarding them also seem to demonstrate a real improvement in the patients’ condition after a course of treatment. Among other reported benefits: less fatigue and stress during discharge, reduced consumption of medication and less circulatory, muscle and joint pain…

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Article from T La Revue n°10 special “water” currently on newsstands and available on our online store