By Ethan Bird, MPH
Media headlines blazed the spread and death toll of a novel and deadly flu. Government and public health leaders fought back by canceling election campaign events, church meetings and schools, and promoted face masks to protect from the contagion1. Fear of the pandemic gripped the nation and world, since no vaccine or other proven remedy existed. The aftermath of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 was an estimated 675,000 American deaths with 50 million globally.
One hundred years later, COVID-19 has besieged the United States and other countries which have responded by mandating social distancing, frequent handwashing and use of personal protective equipment to limit spread of the virus. These steps are crucial because the virus is easily transmitted, and no vaccine or common treatment exists. Amid the fear, is there anything we can do to improve our chances of remaining well, even if exposed?
Within the saga of the Spanish Flu there lies a hint. Despite the available best-in-class medical treatment in the US Army camps, 16% of flu patients contracted pneumonia and 6.7% died2. During this time, ten Adventist sanitariums were also collecting data on the results of their flu treatments. Reports showed that among outpatients, 8% contracted pneumonia and 4% died; among inpatients, 2.5% had pneumonia and 1.3% died2, a fraction of the complications and death reported in the United States Army camps. Although the Spanish Flu (H1N1) is not identical to the coronavirus, can we learn something about treatment offered by the sanitariums which could be helpful now?
It turns out the regimen was simple, non-invasive, inexpensive and available today- a whole foods, plant-based eating plan, plenty of rest and hydrotherapy2. Each of these strategies boosts wellbeing and human immunity against the virus, but the focus here is on the perhaps lesser-known benefits of hydrotherapy. To appreciate how hydrotherapy may support our human immune systems, let’s begin by considering how viruses cause disease.
Progression of COVID-19 begins with exposure to the virus, so physical distancing and hand washing are crucial3. But exposure is not a guarantee of infection or illness. About 80% of those who are infected do not experience any symptoms or the symptoms are mild. Approximately 20% experience severe symptoms or develop complications which require admission to a hospital. What determines whether we experience severe illness or complications? The defenses of our human immune system are key.
In early stages of infection, the white blood cells of the innate immune system such as macrophages, monocytes and natural killer cells, typically find and destroy the viral invaders 4,5. The coronavirus, however, mounts a stealthy ambush by suppressing innate immunity to give itself an advantage. Without a strong, early immune response, the virus multiplies to a point that another line of defense, the adaptive immune system is alerted and begins to produce antibodies called cytokines, which attack the virus and infected cells. This delayed but overwhelming immune reaction can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome4,6,7 a life-threatening medical condition.
How can hydrotherapy enable our immune system to fight back? Hydrotherapy boosts our innate immunity through application of heat, which induces a fever. Although you should call a doctor if you have a fever over 103° F8, fevers help us by mobilizing macrophages, monocytes and natural killer cells, the front line of defense against viruses9. In addition, applying cold following heat seems to increase this effect if therapy is given early in the progression of symptoms, which could potentially prevent the virus from multiplying out of control5.
What examples of effective hydrotherapy treatments could support our immune response against the coronavirus? Several examples are illustrated in the videos below. The flow of hot water which begins a contrast shower benefits immunity by increasing the body temperature, then, in response to the blast of cool or cold water, blood vessels constrict and heat is retained in the body, increasing white cell activity. The revulsive fomentation treatment applies moist heat around the lungs, which, in addition to the effect of boosting immunity, may also help decongest the lungs and improve breathing.
How can I give or receive a hydrotherapy treatment? Please visit the following links which describe how to give or take a contrast shower or fomentations. Not everyone should receive a hydrotherapy treatment. Please note that contraindications are listed in the videos.
Although many types of hydrotherapy treatment exist, you may also consider using a sauna and a cold shower to boost immunity10,11.
The benefits of hydrothermal therapy are such that you don’t have to wait until symptoms are serious enough for hospitalization. They can be done at home with everyday supplies at the first sign of illness. Let’s not let the positive lessons of the past go unrecognized.
We wish you the best immunity and wellbeing!
Additional video resources on the immunology of coronavirus and potential of hydrotherapy:
Ethan Bird, MPH, is a health educator and wellness advocate. He has led strategy and operations for wellness in an employee health plan setting with influence on hospital provider system wellness operations and programming. Bird is a member of the board of directors at Beautiful Minds Wellness.