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How to use bathing to combat your quarantine stress and insomnia


TextAlex Peters

Doctor and bathing historian Dr Barbara Kubicka shares the tips she’s learned from studying thousands of years of baths

It’s not been an easy past few months. Lockdown has brought uncertainty, chronic stress, and concern for the health of our family and friends. The major disruption to our usual routines has triggered an increase in headaches and migraines, while being more sedentary than ever has interfered with the quality and patterns of our sleep. Meanwhile strict social distancing means we are likely not getting the usual amounts of physical touch which brings with it a whole host of consequences on our mental and physical well being. 

Now more than ever it’s important to take the time to look after ourselves, and one solution that might help you alleviate some of that quarantine anxiety and insomnia could be as simple as taking a bath. 

Dr Barbara Kubicka is a medical doctor who specialises in aesthetic medicine and the author of The Bath Project - The Art and Science of Bathing, a comprehensive study of the history, cultural significance and therapeutic process of bathing from a physical and mental perspective. Dr Kubicka’s journey into the culture of bathing started from an interest in skincare and her questions around why our bodies are often overlooked in favour of our faces. 

“The skin on our face that most people give the most time and attention to is only 5 per cent of the whole skin's surface, where the other 95 per cent of the skin is neglected,” she says. “Through research I soon learnt that a bath can be a great medium for looking after the skin by adding certain ingredients to water. Further exploration led me to understand that the bath itself has amazing properties and health benefits.”

Dr Kubicka’s research led her on a time-travelling journey from ancient China where herbal baths were used for different health issues like skin conditions, colds, and rheumatism to Russia where the Banya has for centuries been used to strengthen the immune system. The Finnish have used saunas for years to support childbirth while in the Hindu culture, she says, bathing has more spiritual healing meaning and has been used in forms of rituals for all possible physical and emotional issues. “Every culture brought something different to the contemporary bathing ritual. You can use elements of all of them,” she says. “From bathing in hot mineral springs like the Japanese Onsen, to the use of skin scrubs and steam rooms like in hammam with the addition of herbs and the use of hot and cold water to stimulate the immune system.”

Here she explains how bathing can help alleviate mental and physical stress and shares her best tips and tricks for getting the most out of your bath.

HOW BATHING CAN HELP FROM A PHYSICAL PERSPECTIVE

“Bathing in warm water, especially with the addition of magnesium, relaxes muscles, opens capillaries and reduces blood pressure. This will influence the state of body homeostasis and allow the reduction of tension,” says Dr Kubicka. “Feedback from the body reaches our mind and our nervous system automatically calms down. It switches from sympathetic to a parasympathetic nervous system.” What this means, she explains, is that the secretion of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol is going down, allowing rest and digestion. “The heart rate decreases, the digestive enzymes are activated helping increase digestion and absorption and finally our pupils are constricted to reduce the amount of light going in.”

HOW BATHING CAN HELP FROM A MENTAL PERSPECTIVE

As she has explained above, the body’s automatic response to the physical experience of bathing involves the switching from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system and it is this which helps reduce stress reaction and anxiety. “Sympathetic system in our brain uses neurotransmitter acetylcholine and that is what is responsible for a relaxed feeling. It is the same neurotransmitter that is triggered by alcohol which explains why a small amount of it can give a sense of ease and letting go. So instead of a drink have a soak.”

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO TAKE YOUR BATH?

If you are looking for a stimulating bath that would wake you up and energise you for the day, Dr Kubicka says that the morning is a good time but it has to be a cooler bath, especially on a hot day.

A warm relaxing bath should be taken in the evening. “In Japanese Culture onsen is to be experienced after coming from work to literally wash the day away and to be able to enjoy the evening meal and time with family,” she says.

If that is not possible another option could be a later bath preferably an hour before going to sleep. “Warm water will relax your body and elevate body temperature – coming out of the water the drop in body temperature will trigger a brain response as natural hibernation. When we fall asleep our body temperature naturally reduces, if that happens without being asleep it triggers automatic response of sleepiness. In this case it’s easier to fall asleep after having a bath and sleep will be deeper.”

HOW TO MAXIMISE YOUR BATHING EXPERIENCE

The most important thing Dr Kubicka says is to make sure to set aside at least 30 minutes for yourself. Take your time to run the bath using ingredients like salts, aromatherapy oils and herbal infusions. Her book also includes many recipes you can follow. 

The bath itself should last about 20 minutes and the optimum water temperature should be between 38-41 degrees. Use a low light and if you can scented candles to stimulate your senses further, listen to relaxing music, shut the door and switch your phone and mind off if you can. “Focus all your attention on the information that comes through your senses – smell, touch and vision. After the bath take 5-10 min to relax or get ready for a good night’s sleep.”

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