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Water Cure and “taking the waters” in North America.

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

by Sussanna Czeranko, ND

Water as a healing medium is not new in North America.

We enjoy a rich and colorful history where at one time the “water cure” was a readily available health choice. This approach was attractive to people 150 years ago because of their negative experience of prevailing medical practices, which included such “therapeutic heroism” as blood letting (very often fatal, as in the case of George Washington, for example) and the ingestion of dangerous drugs such as “calomel” (poisonous mercurous chloride). It was no wonder when the more benign, but highly effective water treatments coming out of Europe became commonplace in the United States, that their acceptance rapidly grew. However, this spike in interest did not last. By the early decades of the twentieth century, invasive drug therapies once again predominated in primary care.

Water cure, then, has been on our shores for some time. In fact, natural hot springs were central to

Native American health practices. The settlers from the Old World soon discovered these springs and

much enterprise was invested (Texas, New York, Virginia, Arkansas). “Taking the waters” became a

health inspired recreational and somewhat indulgent, leisure practice, especially among the affluent.

This scenario has returned with the advent of many spa centers located in airports, hotels and resorts

catering to cosmetic and aesthetic markets. “Water-cure”, however, was not only about pampering

and self-indulgence. Rather, there was a parallel path offered by “water cure” specialists (and early

naturopaths) which attracted people desperate for a natural solution to their health problems.

The roots of this movement, in any case, go back to the first water cure facility opened in New York in

1843. By the end of the century there were over two hundred water cure sanitariums in America. 1

People determined to recover their health would endure the water cure, notwithstanding its often

seemingly harsh regimens. A typical daily routine, for example, began at 4:00 a.m. with a “cold wet

sheet pack” 2 which eventually generated profuse perspiration. At this stage of the wet sheet pack, the

patient would be instructed to take a full body plunge in the coldest of waters. A long walk and several

glasses of cold water would precede breakfast consisting of vegetarian fare.

This water-based approach to healing originated in Europe long before we attached the name “spa

therapy” or “Balneotherapy” to it. In Europe, the latter term stuck, whereas in North America the term

“hydrotherapy” came into use. However, in America it transformed to something quite different. More

specifically, spas in Europe made use of thermal mineral waters from hot springs, peat and moor muds

and the unique natural healing terrains of caves and the seaside. In North America, a “spa” has become

associated with esthetics and the vain pursuit of self-indulgent pampering. As well, on this side of the

Atlantic, the term, “medical spa” is often associated with invasive procedures involved with elective

cosmetic surgery and Botox treatments. By way of comparison, in Europe balneotherapy is supported

by public health systems and is considered a medical discipline practiced by medical doctors

incorporating many different kinds of therapies that use spring mineral and thermal waters, peat, and

therapeutic muds in medical facilities.

It is not surprising, then, that naturopathic physicians in America are very attuned to using “water cure”.

Naturopathic medicine evolved from water cure and continues to be the foundation of the medicine.

Water, one of the four elements [water, earth, fire and air] is undeniably essential to life. The use of

1 Whorton, James C., Ph.D., “Nature Cures, The History of Alternative Medicine in America”, Oxford

University Press, 2002, pg 82.

2 A cold wet sheet pack consisted of enveloping the body with a wet sheet with dry blankets on the

exterior to regulate temperature and prevent evaporation.

Water in healing could not be more natural and fits precisely and philosophically within the naturopathic

principle of “the healing power of nature”, also known as “vis medicatrix naturae”. The “vis” implies

that the human body has the power to heal itself if people live harmoniously with nature.

There is a rejuvenation of these principles in primary care in America today. A perfect storm is raging

caused by unrestrained environmental toxicity, the shocking commodifying of health (as distinct from a

right), over the top costs for health care, and a disease management focus. What is needed is a

preventative approach grounded in health promotion and the empowering of people to take control of

their own lifelong wellness. Naturopathic medicine is a medical system which addresses these profound

challenges head on.

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