Most of us begin to relax by simply envisioning a restful soak in hot, steamy bath water swirling with lavender-infused Epsom salts. It is almost as inviting as the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls … Paleo-style, of course. As practitioners, we are often encouraging individuals to create habits that will de-stress and relax, knowing the physiological consequences of stress and tension. Magnesium salt baths have become a common recommendation for relaxation, sleep, pain, and neuromuscular issues.
So, what exactly makes this 100-year-old practice so beneficial? Is it the hot water? The magnesium salts? The essential oil? Perhaps, it is a combination of all.
A Historical Elixir
One hundred years ago, in 1917, Colonel R.D. Rudolf, a professor of therapeutics, published an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that summarized the history and use of Epsom salts. Discovered 300 years earlier, in 1618, a small well in Epsom, England seemed to produce water that cattle would not drink. Thinking the water must be medicinal, the locals began applying it topically for an assortment of sores and infections. By 1688, physicians were ordering therapeutic visits to Epsom, and the town became known as a spa town.
By the early 1900s, the medicinal effects of Epsom salts were well-established. In Rudolf’s publication, he quotes Dr. N.H. Choskey concerning Epsom salts: “The anaesthetic effects resulting from its subcutaneous application, however, induced Dr. Henry Tucker of Philadelphia General Hospital, to apply it for the relief of pain in local inflammatory condition, with rather surprising results. For apart from the relief of pain and discomfort, it was found that it controlled and eventually led to the cure of the inflammatory process.”
Nearly 100 years later, modern medicine and research is publishing peer-reviewed studies on the anti-inflammatory effects of Epsom salt baths.
Effects on Inflammatory Mediators
Perhaps the greatest healing quality of Epsom salt baths is their ability to modulate inflammatory pathways. In vitro studies have shown that magnesium ions down-regulate the expression of inflammatory mediators, tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) and nuclear factor κβ (NFκβ). Various inflammatory conditions such as asthma, arthritis, atherosclerosis and neuroinflammation are rooted in dysfunction of these inflammatory pathways, making Epsom salts a helpful therapy in their management.
Effects on Skin Health, Hydration & Appearance
Magnesium salts can bind water, while also encouraging the proliferation and differentiation of dermal cells. In a 6 week study investigating the efficacy of magnesium salt baths on atopic dry skin, test subjects submerged atopic skin in a magnesium salt bath or tap water for 15 minutes each day. At the end of the study, skin hydration, skin roughness, and skin redness as a measure of inflammation were all significantly improved in the test group that submerged atopic skin in a magnesium salt bath, illustrating improved skin barrier function and stratum corneum hydration, and reduced inflammation.
Another study investigating the effects of topical magnesium on diaper dermatitis, an inflammatory skin condition of infants, found that a 2 percent magnesium cream was more effective than a control botanical (also applied to the magnesium test group) in shortening the duration of recovery. As with the former study, magnesium improved skin hydration and skin barrier function, while also decreasing inflammatory mediators that would contribute to all forms of skin dermatitis, including the common diaper rash.
Effects on Neuroinflammation
Dermal inflammation may seem a very reasonable application for magnesium salt baths, but what about chronic, systemic inflammation that affects mood, muscle tone, neurology and sleep habits? Interestingly, evidence exists for the use of magnesium salts in this realm, too. Very recently, a study was published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy that sought to understand the role of magnesium salts in neuroinflammation and oxidative stress. Test mice were given an injection of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) to elicit neuroinflammation and depressive-like behavior following treatment with either magnesium isoglycyrrhizinate (a magnesium salt) or the control pharmaceutical, fluoxetine, otherwise known as Prozac. Not only did this study reveal significantly improved immobility time and locomotion, but also decreased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress in serum and the hippocampus. Magnesium salts effectively reduced neuroinflammation, which could impact mood, neurological symptoms and sleep.
Mode of Absorption
The anti-inflammatory roles of the mineral, magnesium, have been well-established as well as the current state of deficiency in most individuals. This has spearheaded an awareness of the need for magnesium replenishment with various modes of absorption being available. Oral magnesium is a convenient option for many, and dermal absorption has been cited as an excellent method of replenishing cellular magnesium. Magnesium ions easily penetrate the epidermis, facilitated by hair follicles, and quickly enter circulation, followed by cellular absorption and interaction with inflammatory mediators. The lungs also become a vehicle for magnesium absorption, as is shown in a study in which a 4 week stay at the Dead Sea showed significant improvement in the lung function of asthmatics, due to the anti-inflammatory properties of the magnesium salts. This makes an Epsom salt bath an effective way to quickly impact inflammatory pathways and achieve clinical results.
Clearly, we can owe the clinical benefits of Epsom salt baths to the presence of magnesium sulfate, provided in a readily absorbed medium. Of course, the hot water and the addition of essential oils can enhance the therapeutic effect, but let’s not underestimate the value of this ancient practice in a culture that is suffering from the debilitating effects of chronic, systemic inflammation.
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