(As published for Plant Healer Magazine‘s Winter 2018 edition)
There is an enchantment I’ve had with the concept of spa time, perhaps because I see it as indulgent self care- something this momma and herbal dispensary navigator needs dearly during precious moments to herself. When I combine this desire, along with my fascination with all things from the sea, I naturally gravitated to an old world treatment which combines the two, known as Thalassotherapy. If this comes as a new term to you, in breaking down the word we have “Thalassa”, meaning Sea, and “Therapaeia” to mean healing treatment. The word spa comes from the Latin acronym of “sanitus per aqua”, which translates as “health through water”.
Thalassotherapy treatments can be offered in many forms, which traditionally require elements that come from the ocean, or sea. These elements include seawater, seaweed, marine mud, sand, and whenever possible, a humid coastal climate- or a humid environment recreated in the spa using steam, and filling the environment with an abundance of plant life. Divine.
As an herbalist, and for the purposes of this paper, I want to focus primarily on the aspect of Thalassotherapy that is known as Algotherapy; the healing properties of seaweeds, and how they can be used externally in a therapeutic manner. When speaking of seaweeds, I am referring to all of their colour categories: reds, greens, and browns, unless otherwise specified.
Historically, Thalassotherapy’s first recorded cultural use was in ancient Egypt, although all coastal people that have been studied throughout time show evidence that their cultures celebrated the ocean as a vital part of daily life, and basked in the health benefits from ocean waters, and the life contained therein.
It is well known that health practitioners throughout history have recommended that those dealing with serious illness go to live by the sea. As Plato once put it; “The sea cures all ailments of man”. Spending time on the coast, where land life originally emerged, is going back to the elements of our nature’s deepest roots. It is, after all, the birthplace of humanity. Similarly, I know of no better comfort than that of the mother to an ailing child.
These elements, of our nature’s deepest roots, are the minerals and trace minerals that nourish the human body, and are found in a concentrated amount in marine plants, known as seaweeds, or more technically, macroalgae. Seaweeds are shown to have, on average, 10-20 times the amount of vitamins and minerals than land plants. The body uses these nutrients to support all of our essential biological processes. When we receive the necessary amount of minerals and trace minerals, it optimizes our ability to function as healthy, happy, whole human beings. This is the primary and most potent way in which using seaweeds in Thalassotherapy are so beneficial to the body. The skin absorbs these elements directly into the bloodstream, and delivers them where needed very quickly, without having to go through the slower processes of digestion, such as when ingesting seaweeds in dietary therapy. Often the feedback I receive from clients, upon recommending the addition of seaweeds to their baths, is how quickly they feel their bodies are able to get into a state of relaxation. Specifically, the high levels of magnesium, calcium, potassium, and zinc available in seaweeds plays a strong role in both the body and mind’s ability to relax. Minerals have a very grounding effect, calming the nervous system as a whole.
The delivery method of the therapeutic constituents in Thalassotherapy is mainly through the epidermis, as the skin absorbs the nutrients from the seaweeds. Another therapeutic factor received from the seaweeds is their skin softening hydrocolloid properties when applied and absorbed topically. There is also an exfoliant factor in some specific species of seaweeds, as well as localized circulatory stimulant effects on the area of application, all of which we will explore further along through this article.
Because of the minerals and trace minerals that are available from these ocean plants, their effect on mental health is seen to be quite significant. For example, Iodine, which is a key trace element attributed to the human brain’s development and evolution, is easily absorbed through both the skin as well as can be absorbed through the lungs when inhaled, as it evaporates in hot water. Inhaling iodine can be soothing to our lungs, and helps to eliminate any potential pathogens that are lingering in the respiratory system. Iodine has been found to be deficient in people that do not regularly consume ocean sourced foods, and as it is an important factor in the function of the thyroid, it’s optimal levels are paramount to healthy metabolic function. Iodine is also important for breast health, both in the treatment and prevention of fibrocystic breast tissue, and very importantly lowers the risk of breast cancer.
Seaweed has been shown to act as a local stimulant when applied topically, increasing blood flow to the area. This supports the theory that seaweed wraps have been successful in diminishing cellulite, as the extra blood flow helps to move out stagnation. This localized stimulant effect is also part of the mode of action for treating arthritic conditions- this, along with it’s anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant benefits, and highly nourishing compounds. The increased circulation to the area brings needed nutrients in, drives toxic particles out, soothes the inflamed tissues, and decreases the effects of stress on the area.
Thalassotherapy can be a very simple process, as easy as adding kelp fronds to a hot bath and soaking up it’s goodness, or creating some basic seaweed wraps and masks, directly applied onto the skin, and allowing it to penetrate for a reasonable amount of time. Below I have listed some of the basic ways in which you can start to work with Thalassotherapy in the sanctuary of your own spa room, create spa ritual gatherings with community, or recommend clients to work with this effective therapy to support the improvement of health concerns.
Seaweed Baths: This is the simplest way in which you can incorporate Thalassotherapy into your routine. It is a formidable experience of rest and relaxation, a truly enjoyable way to experience the health benefits of seaweeds! You can add any full seaweed fronds to your bath- I do recommend including kelps (brown seaweeds such as Kombu or Wakame), for highest iodine availability. You do not need to worry about absorbing too much iodine and getting over stimulated- The skin’s wisdom and protective mechanisms will only absorb the amount of iodine needed (think about the red iodine tincture you can paint a spot on your arm with; if the spot disappears quickly, it shows you have a great need for iodine, if it lingers, you are likely not deficient. This is a great example of the skin absorbing only how much iodine the body requires.) Some spas have had a clawfoot bathtub out on the beach, a fire underneath the tub to warm the water, and cedar planks lining the bottom so as not to burn the skin when lying down in the bath. This has an added layer of being out in a natural surrounding, with the sounds and songs of the sea adding to the medicine of this ritual of relaxation. The heat from the water opens the skin’s pores and encourages absorption of seaweed’s health benefits. Once the bath is complete, the tub can drain back out onto the shore and the seaweed can directly return to the earth. If you are in an indoor bath using seaweed, ensure that you remove as much of the seaweed as possible prior to draining, as it will clog up the drain if left to go down into the pipes.
Waterbirth: During waterbirth, seaweed is an exceptional addition to the birthing waters as it mineralizes the waters and can help to relax the mother during labour. The quality and fluidity of the seaweed can be a special focal point, as when it is immersed in water, it’s fluidity, flexibility, and graceful flow helps demonstrate as a guide to the mother, showing her the same qualities that can bring ease to the process.
Footsoak: Creating a footbath is a sure way to do away with sore and tired feet. Adding seaweed to the soak speeds up the time in which it takes to feel relief, and is something you can do to help re-mineralize your body with the simplest of supplies. A large bowl, bin, or any old bucket will do!
Seaweed Body Wraps and Masks: This is a fun one to play around with, as you can create a whole variety of different wraps and facial masks with either seaweed being the only ingredient added to your blender with water, or getting more creative with your recipes and mixing it with some of your other favourite topical ingredients. Kelp powder mixed with honey and ground oats is one of my favourites, but really any natural ingredients that have beneficial properties for the skin can be used. Once you have your chosen blend, grind into a powder, mix with water into a paste that you can apply all over your body and face, allow to let penetrate on your skin for at least 10-15 minutes, up to as long as is comfortable, and rinse off once you are complete. This can be an effective treatment for both acute and chronic dermatitis issues.
Exfoliants: There are a couple of unique red seaweeds known as Turkish Towel (Chondracantus sp.) and Turkish Washcloth (Matocarpus sp.) that have this unique property. They are covered in little papillae that act as scrubbing exfoliants on the skin, sloughing off dead skin cells. All seaweeds also have emollient, skin softening properties to them, and so using these seaweeds as washcloths very much brings in an ebb and flow, cleanse and build effect in benefitting the health of the skin.
Emollient Gels: One of the most popular ways in which seaweeds are used around the world is for their gelling properties, which is found in both brown and red categories of seaweeds. They contain a starchy carbohydrate substance, known as phycocolloids, that give them their smooth, slippery texture, and cooling nature. Within the brown seaweeds, the phycocolloids are called alginates, and in the reds they are the agars and carrageenans. Because of this gelling ability, they are added to most things on store shelves that are “thick”, for example: toothpaste, ice cream, paint, and lotions. It is fun and easy to make gel out of seaweed by slowly warming it up in water, bring to a boil, strain, and set in the fridge. You can use this gel for your hair and face and will notice it’s highly emollient, softening properties that moisturize dry, brittle hair and skin.
This gel also reinforces the hydrolipidic (protective) barrier of the skin. Pure luxury from the sea!
Skin creams and lotions: For those of us that feel happiest and at home in the outdoors, adding seaweed to lotions can bring an extra level of protection from extreme winter and summer weather patterns. Specifically, this protection comes from the phenols found in the browns, especially species that grow in the intertidal zones. A great example is Bladderwrack (Fucus sp.). As this species is exposed to strong weather patterns during low tide, it contains protective chemistry that also protects our skin when applied topically. It has been shown to protect against both sun and wind damage to the skin.
Seaweeds also regulate sebum levels, making it an effective addition to minimizing acne.
Although traditional Thalassotherapy centers are generally located within 500 meters of the sea, this practice does not need exclude the people that live inland. If anything, it is even more important for those that do not live close to the coast to get proper amounts of iodine in their systems. Seaweed trade has been found to go back as far as we have anthropological studies for- something the Kelp Highway theory has proven to show as early as 14,000 years ago.
Seaweed took up a big portion in many traditional people’s trading baskets, as it dries easily, shrinking down to one tenth of its fresh state, and it’s density of amino acids and trace minerals make it an ideal substance to carry for optimal nutritional needs. Currently it is reliable to access clean sources of seaweed from committed, ethical suppliers of botanical medicine and is indeed one of my strong commitments to providing in our dispensary.
As you play with some of these seaweed bathing and health practices, bringing in the aspect of spirit creates a foundation of wholism to one’s entire being. The rituals that spring forth from the deeper subconscious, while working with these ocean wonders, can have a spiritually hygienic effect. Caring for, and cleansing our bodies and minds, can become a sacred ritual that nourishes us deeply within, carrying forward into our entire way of being.
The mythical nature that comes from the sea is a gift that we can harness to spark magic in our lives, drawing in the ocean’s forces through working with seaweed.
She imbues us with her qualities that are captured so well by her marine plants. Flexible, fluid, calm, cool natured; gifts we so dearly need in a society that has become so fast and inflamed.
The Celtic story of the Selkie is a heart touching teaching of staying true to your roots, and moving freely through life in the truest form of your nature.
Getting into communion with seaweed, by applying it to one’s body, is a way of putting on your sealskin, as the selkie so craves and desires getting back to her truest nature, in union with the sea.