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Is Cold Water an Old Friend?

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

by Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE

Years ago, cold water applications constituted some of the chief therapeutic

interventions in Naturopathic treatment plans. Vincent Priessnitz and Father Kneipp mastered

cold water as a therapeutic tool. Cold water had many characteristics and benefits that were

well understood. Naturopaths of that era invariably chose cold water above hot water or even

herbal remedies or other modalities.

Understanding the value of cold water treatments in health care is valuable for all of us. What is

cold water? The answer involves many variables: temperature, source, composition, flow,

ambience, application and usage methodologies, and more. With regard to temperature and

sourcing, for example, cold temperatures used by the early Naturopaths were very specific and

with clearly articulated procedures and planned outcomes. The literature shows that they knew

how to use cold water in its most efficacious manner and wrote volumes about it.

As a case in point, John Harvey Kellogg wrote over 1100 pages on the topic of hydrotherapy

using cold water. He left behind encyclopedic knowledge. According to Kellogg, cold has three

various levels: very cold, cold and cool. We might want to insinuate “tepid” into this list since for

many of us, any water temperature below hot seems to us cold. His classification shows a

differential of 48º F or 27º C between the very coldest water and the warmest cool water used in

his sanitariums. At Kellogg’s Sanitarium the coldest water was at freezing point, 32º F/ 0º C;

80º F/27º C was what was considered the upper extreme of “cold water”. The range of tepid

water was between 75 and 92 F / 24 to 33 C. Contemporary patients (and Naturopaths

too) would find these ranges chilly. I recall receiving a cold plunge at Dr. Kathy Roger’s clinic in

Washington one time that caused me to jump out of my skin. I have taken many cold plunges in

my time: some as cold at 45 F / 7 C with perfect ease yet, the cold plunge at Dr. Roger’s clinic

was excruciating, even at 85 F/29  C. We cannot assume that what is cold for me is cold for

you. And, more often than not, the ambience, preparation and process of cold water treatments

affect our experience quite dramatically.

Curran Pope, established similar water temperature classifications except that he did not use

water at freezing temperatures like Kellogg, but rather used slightly warmer temperatures for

very cold water, 34º to 55º / 1º to 13º C. (Pope, 1909, 22) However, should we find ourselves

in water of 32º or 34º F / 0º or 1º C, we might not appreciate this one or two degree difference.

Water at these temperatures will be numbingly cold to most. George Knapp Abbott, another

hydrotherapist of this period, had established similar temperatures of his colleagues with slightly

warmer temperatures for the category of cool water. Friedrich Eduard Bilz, a disciple of

Sebastian Kneipp used water temperatures ranging from 43º to 88º F. /6º to 31º C. The

different classes of water were divided between fresh spring water, from 43º to 54º F / 6º to 12º

C, and cool water at 54º to 65º / 12º to 18º C. Bilz used tepid water temperatures ranging from

77º to 88º / 25º to 31º C. (Bilz, 1898, 1946) Bilz counseled that that “the hand is by no means a

good test as to the temperature of water, and the uninitiated may make serious mistakes. It is

far safer to be guided by a thermometer.” (Bilz, 1898, 1946)

Much research was conducted in the 19 th and early 20 th centuries, attuned to evaluating

the properties of cold water on the body’s metabolism. There were studies comparing

temperatures, duration, and delivery of the cold application, such as baths with compresses or

douches, ablutions, jet douches, etc. Kellogg reminds us to pay attention to the variables of the

water application. Kellogg states,

“Whether or not the final effect of a cold application is sedative or excitant, depends much on the mode of application and the temperature employed, but most of all on the length of the application and the state of the patient.” (Kellogg, 1902, 100)

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