Living with multiple sclerosis (MS), Birgit Bauer explains the benefits of bathing rituals – for both the body and mind.
A nice, long bath is a popular self-care measure recommended everywhere, from health sites to Instagram. If you Google "How to Feel Better" or "Self-Care", you can bet "Have a Bath" appears on numerous internet lists.
When we're in the throes of distress, it's easy to read these lists and roll our eyes. A bath? Like that will make me feel better?
Only... it does. When I'm feeling particularly stressed, I often have a bath to wash away the day. In fact, I've made it into a sort of ritual. The routine, the warm water, and the simplicity of it all really work for me.
Bathing rituals existed in many cultures throughout history
Of course, having a warm bath to wash away anxiety and tension isn't a modern invention. Many ancient cultures understood the value of a good, hot soak. Countries like Japan, for example, still practice centuries' old bathing rituals today! It is a relaxing time to calm down, centre the mind, and revel in doing nothing after a busy day.
So, with soul-nourishment in mind, that's what I do after a difficult day. I light a candle and pour in some gorgeous-smelling bath foam, usually scented with lavender. I take my time floating in the warmth, thinking about absolutely nothing.
Or, I sometimes use the time to reflect on what's bothering me the most and let those problems dissolve into the water. Those worries and concerns go right down the drain when I pull the plug. I climb out of the tub feeling refreshed and contented.
The interesting rise and fall of bathing rituals and public baths in Europe
In Ancient Greece and Rome, bathing was a multi-step process and formed part of a cleaning ritual. While rich people had baths in their houses, many preferred to go to the public baths. These public bathing houses boasted hot and cold water and various heated rooms.
Even though you had to pay to enter a public bathhouse, it was cheap enough that almost anyone could go. And, on special days, wealthy patrons would pay for everyone in the city to enjoy it for free.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, public bathing continued to be popular... until the early Christian Church saw it as immoral and overindulgent. The Church viewed spiritual purity as much more critical than physical purity.
The Anglo-Saxons also weren't fans of full-body immersion, and they thought Vikings bathed way too much (at once a week!).
That said, historical evidence suggests they did have some grooming routines and tools. The idea of baths being medicinal was widely held and understood.
And yet, by the 9th century, most of the Roman baths in the British Isles had fallen to ruin.
Welcome to the “smelly” ages
Over the centuries, many famous rulers had opinions on bathing. Actually, most of the stories about monarchs avoiding baths don't truly reflect society's views on hygiene at the time. It was more down to personal preference.
Queen Elizabeth I of England famously said, "I have a bath once a month, whether I need it or not." But frankly, I think she's eclipsed by Queen Isabella of Spain. She boasted that she'd only bathed twice in her entire life!
However, Elizabeth I's father, Henry VIII, was thought of as a "hygiene freak" by Tudor standards. Though his legs were covered in smelly, painful ulcers, he took great pride in bathing every day. He even had a luxury bathroom built in Hampton Court with hot and cold running water. In 1529! Later, he insisted on having an even more luxurious, sophisticated bathroom in Whitehall. Who'd have expected that?
So, how often the rich bathed was more down to their personal tastes than widespread beliefs.
For the poor, it was a different story. While Europeans were very dirty at this time, Arabic medicine was much more advanced. Cleanliness was prized in the Muslim world.
This seemed to rub off on the crusaders of the 12th century. And thankfully, they brought this focus on hygiene back with them.
Bathhouses were the best party venues
So, before the Tudors took over the English monarchy, bathhouse attendance hit a boom. Everyone, from the rich to peasants, flocked to communal baths. And it wasn't only hygiene on people's minds. They used their bathing time to chat with friends, drink too much, and... um... even negotiate affections.
This hotbed of sexual activity was partly to blame for the decline in bathhouses and bathing rituals. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation increased public regulation on morality. The Church stated that public baths were houses of sin and prostitution, not healing and health. Once again, bathing was associated with immorality, vanity and depravity.
People believed bathing weakened the immune system
Doctors also noticed how syphilis and plague spread faster in these places. This was more likely due to overcrowding rather than bathing. However, this angle suited the Church, so the belief became that bathing weakened the immune system and spread disease.
Bathhouses shut down in their hundreds and weren't to make a reappearance until much later. Washing hands and cleaning teeth still went on, but people began to use dry rags to rub themselves clean instead of water. Meanwhile, perfumes became popular to cover up bad smells.
The bathhouses that survived the abolition were catered only to the very rich. While the average-earners or poor loved time at the public baths, that option was no longer available. It had turned from a cheap luxury to a privilege requiring a small fortune.
The come-back of the public bathhouse
While the Renaissance was a smelly time, the 1700s sparked a bathhouse come-back. The city of Bath opened up its ancient Roman bathing complex, fed by the spring waters of the southwest.
People flocked to enjoy the novelty, making Bath one of the most fashionable holiday destinations in Europe. Writer Jane Austen was particularly bowled over by Bath. Her books, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are partially set in this golden-hued city.
So once again, bathing became a fashionable and enjoyable pastime. And, this time, people associated it with good health. Many would visit a spa or resort to recuperate from an illness. And soon, the aristocratic classes even took up swimming – separated by gender (of course).
Bathing rituals of my own
Fast forward to the 20th century in Germany and my childhood, where Saturdays were bath days. Like many German families, we would clean the car first. Then we'd traipse off to the bathroom to bathe.
It took a long time for the water to heat up, and hot water was expensive, so there was one tub for the whole family. The "Saturday is bath day" tradition may have stemmed from German families going to Church the next day. You didn't want to put on your "Sunday Best" on dirty, sweaty bodies!
True to its fascinating cycle, bathing is once again more than merely functional. Yes, we appreciate water for good personal hygiene, but it's more than that. With the current focus on self-care, we love the well-being boost that comes with a long soak.
How bathing eases my MS symptoms
As a person who lives with MS, a warm bath can help reduce the physical pains of my condition. It relaxes my muscles and gets the blood moving, benefitting my circulation and blood pressure.
Also, water holds many added benefits. The weightlessness you have in water helps me move better. There are also great water-based exercises and physiotherapies that help with mobility. And, after a good, warm bath that's relaxed all my aching muscles, I find myself having much better sleep.
But a warning: don't make your bath too hot! Hot water can damage the skin's surface, possibly triggering inflammation.
For those of us with MS, a sudden increase in temperature (like sliding into a hot bath) can cause Uhthoff's phenomenon or Uhthoff's syndrome. This can trigger a temporary worsening of visual, balance and cognitive symptoms, as well as increase pain and fatigue. Thankfully, symptoms generally improve once your body returns to its average temperature.
With these safety measures in mind, a warm bath can be just the ticket when you’re feeling stressed, tired, or in pain. It’s estimated that the ideal bath temperature is around 38C (100F), but always test the temperature before you slide in. Once you’ve got it perfect for you, enjoy the opportunity to relax!
NPS-IE-NP-00486 September 2022