A Good Soaking

People have long enjoyed the soothing power of hot springs. They may not have much therapeutic value, but it doesn't matter.


He was old. And stiff. And troubled by rheumatism.

But in 1818, Thomas Jefferson took to the waters of Warm Springs, Va., and found the experience to his satisfaction. To this day, the springs where he bathed are called the Jefferson Pools.

In those days, people didn't talk about stress management or letting go or good karma. But they believed, as many believe today, that the springs are therapeutic. When you're neck deep in steamy water, they say, a fundamental truth becomes clear: Finally, something you crave may actually be good for you.

For many of us, the reasoning works. In 2003, there were 2.5 million visits to spas connected with mineral springs, whose owners in turn collected $149 million in revenues, according to the International Spa Association. The number of spas is also increasing: In 2004, there were 471 nationwide, a threefold jump over 1999.

Likewise, the customer base is expanding. No longer are patrons the pampered elite - they're the everyday masses yearning to breathe steamy air.

But does a healthy spa industry mean that a visit really improves the health? Are mineral springs medically curative or simply stress relievers?

"I've always enjoyed drinking the water and swimming in the swimming pool. I think it makes you feel better," observed a diplomatic Chris Hansroth, superintendent at Berkeley Springs State Park in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. "You used to talk about it for rheumatism and arthritis. Whether that's been proven, I don't know."

Taking the cure

In the 1930s, Saratoga Spa in upstate New York proclaimed its bottled water "a natural antacid and steady protection for your alkaline reserve." The Empire State put its official seal on each bottle.

People didn't just drink spring water. They believed in it. In fact, the historical timeline for the Homestead, a resort in Hot Springs, Va., starts at 7000 B.C., when officials say prehistoric people began to take the waters.

The Homestead lodge opened in 1766 "because people were coming here to use the mineral springs. That's the reason many other resorts were founded," observed John Hoover, the Homestead's guest-relations manager and resident history buff.

"Long before modern medicine, there were no diagnostic tests as we think of them today," he added. "People didn't know what made them feel bad. What they did know was what made them feel better."

Guests used phrases such as "taking the waters" and "taking the cure" interchangeably, he says. But in those days, a "cure" meant that a person felt better afterward, not that the underlying problem was necessarily gone.

In New York, patients seeking medical treatments for heart and various internal problems found themselves at the fashionable spas of Saratoga Springs. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fighting paralysis from his battle with polio, made Warm Springs, Ga., famous.

By the late 1940s, however, public and scientific interest was shifting to the development of drugs, says Nathaniel Altman, a springs aficionado and author of Healing Springs (Healing Arts Press, 2000). Since then, he says, most medical research about springs has been confined to Europe and Japan.

In his book, Altman cites studies that point to healing capabilities of minerals found in various springs. Water from Saratoga Springs, for example, is listed under "springs with healing waters for gastrointestinal problems." But tradition holds that varying minerals mean that each spring offers something different.

"Bathing in carbon dioxide-rich waters ... helps the body produce new blood vessels, thus increasing blood circulation and can increase overall tone in the veins," Altman observed, while magnesium in drinking water "has long been considered a factor in the prevention of heart disease."

For Altman, springs in the United States are "an overlooked treasure, an overlooked resource." Other countries view springs differently.

In Japan, known for its tradition of communal bathing, a scandal erupted last year after a government study reported that 90 percent of registered hot springs were adding heat, using tap water or recirculating water - and not telling customers.

Six inns in Nagano prefecture admitted to using coloring agents after the springs stopped producing naturally milky water, the Associated Press reported.

Hot springs bathing is serious business in Europe, too. Bath therapy - balneology - is part of the medical mainstream, Altman says. But Europeans also approach therapy with more care.

"In Europe, if you want to go to a hot spring, very often they have doctors on staff, and they will evaluate you as you go in," he says. "That's a safety factor we don't have here."

But it's not strictly medicine. Budapest's Ottoman-era Kiraly baths, built in the 16th century, are now home to rave-style parties where bathers submerge in the naturally warm waters for entertainment that combines music, film, laser-light shows and live performances.

Earth's heat

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