By Alex Leviton
With a plastic clip covering my nose and my eyes tightly shut, my therapist slowly pulled me through a pool. Six minutes of sea water osmosis were enough to make me feel like every molecule of stress had left my body and been traded in for relaxation and well-being. It only took a few minutes for me to get over the discomfort of having a male therapist throw my body around a seawater pool. Although at times we were physically close enough to have consummated some sort of relationship, I was too busy wondering if this is what it felt like to reach Nirvana, be a dolphin, or pass on to the next life.
Born more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, thalassotherapy comes from the Greek words for thalasso (sea water) and therapeia (to heal). Thalassa was the Greek personification of the Mediterranean Sea that surrounded them and gave them so much of their sustenance. Thalassa was the creator of all sea life; some even said she was the mother of Aphrodite.
Although thalassotherapy centers are coming back into vogue, with spas across the world offering specialties like affusion massages and jansu, thalassotherapy has a long history.
The first references to the curative uses of sea water came from ancient Romans in the fifth century B.C.E. In the following centuries, they built many curative facilities (the earliest versions of what we now know as spas) near coastlines and both warm and cold springs. The Egyptians and the Greeks were also building temples near the coast, and taking the waters was reputedly a favorite activity of Nefertiti.
In 350 B.C.E, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was the first one to detail the benefits of using sea water to cure various ailments. He encouraged his fellow healers to immerse patients with aching muscles and arthritis in sea water.
After ancient times, thalassotherapy wasn’t talked about much until the late 16th century. In 1791, Dr. Richard Russell was the first to document the medical benefits of sea water as a therapeutic instrument. Soon after, the first official thalassotherapy center was created in his native Great Britain. Touted as a ‘marine hospital,’ people came from all over the island, hoping to cure arthritis or fatigue and experiencing varying degrees of success. A modern movement was born.
During the next several hundred years, doctors and scientists began studying what it was that made sea water beneficial for so many ailments. More than sixty trace elements, minerals, and vitamins that our bodies need are contained in sea water. During this time many individuals had low or depleted levels of copper, iodine, zinc, and iron. What was most surprising to the researchers, however, was that seaweed contained up to 100,000 times as much of these vitamins and minerals than the sea water itself.
Once people started hearing about the curative properties of sea water, they began flocking to the coasts, especially to Great Britain and France. Hot springs were also becoming popular in places like Vichy, France, and Bath, England, where royalty, starlets, and commoners alike gathered to
‘take the waters.’ In 1867, Dr. La Bonnardiere in France coined the term ‘thalassotherapy,’ meaning a sea cure. About thirty years later, the first official thalassotherapy center was founded in Roscoff, France. And in 1904, Rene Quinton, also in France, published the medical work L’eau de Mer, Milien Organique‘ (Sea Water, Organic Medium). In his essay, Quinton demonstrated the chemical similarity between sea water and blood plasma as well as the makeup of mineral salts, proteins, and various other trace elements. He theorized that human cells would continue to live in sea water while they would break down in all other mediums.
Dr. Elena Quiroz Angel, the spa director at the thalassotherapy spa at the Paraiso de la Bonita resort outside of Cancun, Mexico (one of the first thalassotherapy spas in the Americas), explains, sea water has many of the same properties as blood plasma. Heating the sea water allows it to nourish the body.
Using hot water dilates a person’s pores and blood vessels, allowing the skin to be more receptive to the minerals and vitamins from the sea water. That’s why many spas will wrap you in a hot and smelly seaweed burrito. The wrap actually allows the properties of the seaweed to quickly enter and heal any of the ailments you might be feeling.
Dr. Angel believes that thalassotherapy can help a variety of problems, including aching muscles, stress, and fatigue. It is also very good for lymphatic drainage.
Thalassotherapy, however, cannot simply be achieved by spending time in the ocean. In 1997, thalassotherapy was officially recognized as having curative properties. A board in France was created, forming the International Federation of Thalassotherapy. To be thought of as a true thalassotherapy center, a spa must be given the Qualicert label. This spa must:
Have an exclusive site on the sea coast not more than 1,000 meters from the sea.
Use natural sea water heated for the purposes of treatments.
The water must not be heated above 50 degrees Celsius in order to retain its physiochemical structure.
Use natural products from the sea and never reuse any of its mud or seaweed.
Have quality health care and medical supervision at all times.
Employ professionally trained treatment therapists.
Commit to client satisfaction.
So, go and frolic once again at the sea, but this time do it for your health at a thalassotherapy center.
For more information about thalassotherapy and thalassotherapy centers, check out the official board website at: www.thalassofederation.com
Most thalassotherapy centers are in France or around the Mediterranean Sea, but to enjoy thalassotherapy in North America, head just south of Cancun to Paraiso de la Bonita, a charming boutique hotel and member of The Leading Small Hotels of the World. The property boasts ninety spacious and well-appointed suites facing the Caribbean Ocean, a 22,000-square-foot spa, and a French chef named Fabrice Guisset whose fusion Mexican/Continental meals are worth the trip alone.
It’s also possible to enjoy the thalassotherapy spa as a day guest (except when the resort is especially busy). Be sure to try the jansu massage, given in the heated sea water pool. As a trained therapist gently whisks you through the womb-warm water (the closest you’ll ever come to knowing what it feels like to be a dolphin), you can practically feel the toxins leave your body.
Paraiso de la Bonita Resort and Spa, www.paraisodelabonitaresort.com. Reservations in the US: (800) 745-8883
Other Thalassotherapy Spas:
Playa Grande Thalasso Spa, (52) 624 145 75 20 direct www.playagrande.com.mx
Divani Athens Spa & Thalasso Centre, +30 210 8911100 www.divanis.gr
Gurney’s Inn, (631) 668-2345 www.gurneys-inn.com
Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa, (800) 663-7929 www.kingfisherspa.com