Is it the Fountain of Youth, or just a hot tub full of hogwash?
Humans have been soaking in mineral-rich hot springs for almost as long as there have been sore muscles. And while there’s little doubt that bathing in warm water feels good, the tricky question is whether it actually does any good.
Fact-checking the health benefits of hot springs is no easy task. Mostly, because there’s not a whole lot of empirical data out there — just an ocean of anecdotal “evidence.”
Michael Olpin is a professor of health promotion at Weber State University. He says he’s not being “anti-mineral-bath here,” and that he actually loves the feeling of soaking in really warm water. Still, Olpin says he just hasn’t seen any reputable studies to corroborate the anecdotes by which so many people swear.
“Like herbs, or reiki, or other alternative therapies, we can’t say it cures cancer,” he said. “But we also can’t say it doesn’t — because there just haven’t been the studies.”
About the most ringing endorsement you’ll hear from the medical community in this country is that the effectiveness remains unclear.
That’s not to say there isn’t something to the anecdotes, Olpin says.
“Spa therapy — going to mineral baths and hot baths — has been around forever,” he said. “We can’t just discount it and say there’s nothing to it, because people have been doing it all across the planet for a variety of reasons.”
Adam Nelson is general manager of Crystal Hot Springs, in the tiny Northern Utah town of Honeyville. Nelson says balneotherapy — the treatment of disease by bathing — doesn’t get much attention here in the United States. But elsewhere?
“Balneotherapy is big in Europe,” Nelson said. “Their insurance will often cover visits to hot springs.”
Geologist Jim Davis with the Utah Geological Survey in Salt Lake City has made the study of hot springs something of a hobby. He says the warm mineral-laden waters are frequently used for medicinal purposes in other places of the world.
“I have heard that in Europe and Asia it’s not uncommon for doctors to write prescriptions for hot springs,” Davis said.
But here? Not so much.
Nelson says his business isn’t allowed to make any sort of medical claims.
“Cheerios couldn’t do an ad saying their cereal lowers your blood pressure, and hot springs are technically not supposed to boast of health benefits from them,” he said.
Not that it stops folks from claiming miraculous cures.
“So many people who come out here on a regular basis for their health, they swear by it,” Nelson said.
Some of the most common ailments he hears about people coming for is their arthritis, as well as skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Davis has also heard of the curative properties of hot springs for respiratory disorders, high blood pressure, auto-immune diseases, depression and insomnia.
And sometimes, the goal is a bit loftier.
“Some come who’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what of it is going to actually work — we’re not allowed to make claims like that.”
However, none of these cures can be proved, according to Olpin.
But just because Crystal Hot Springs can’t lay claim to healing sickness doesn’t mean the waters might not do a body good.
“It’s a great place to de-stress,” Nelson said.
Olpin agrees there. From a stress-management standpoint, hot springs can make a difference in a person’s health.
“The thing that does happen, if you’re smart you don’t take your cellphone with you,” he said. “You can only sit in there, so it’s a very mindful activity. You just are there, in nature — you’re not in a meeting or answering the phone. In that way it’s kind of a retreat.”
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Another plus, according to Olpin, is that immersion in hot water relaxes muscles. He says he’s heard that warm water can be good for disorders like fibromyalgia — which is basically soft-tissue and muscle pain.
“The warmth can be incredibly relieving, because you’re just relaxing the muscles,” Olpin said. “And anytime you can relax the muscles, that’s a good thing.”
Nelson also believes outdoor hot springs can indirectly help the body with things like, say, vitamin production.
“In the wintertime, it’s a great place to get out into the sun and get some vitamin D,” he said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geophysical Data Center, there are 1,702 hot springs and seeps — 68 degrees Fahrenheit or higher — in the United States. Utah boasts 116 of that total, or 6.8 percent.
Davis says hot springs were once quite popular in the state.
“Probably the reason they located Salt Lake City where it was is because of the nice hot springs,” Davis said.
The last couple of decades of the 19th century were the heyday for spas built around these geothermal features. Davis said there were once resorts all over Utah.
“It was the thing to do,” he said.
Today, Crystal Hot Springs is one of only four or five resorts remaining in Utah. But Davis says interest in hot springs is also on the rise; the Utah Geological Survey has been getting more calls from people asking for information on accessible thermal springs.
In the summer, Crystal Hot Springs welcomes large tour groups traveling to Yellowstone National Park.
“Most of them fly into Salt Lake City, go to Lava Hot Springs on the way up, and hit us on the way back,” Nelson said. “Most of those are Asian tour groups.”
At Crystal, roughly 5 million gallons of water surface every day — about half of that volume comes from a hot spring (135 degrees), the other from a cold spring (70 degrees) about 50 feet away.
Nelson says Crystal Hot Springs lays claim to having the highest mineral content of any hot spring in the world.
“It’s, like, off-the-charts high,” he says.
Geologists acknowledge Crystal Hot Springs’ mineral content is higher than any other springs in Utah, but there’s a reason for that. Utah Geological Survey geologist Mark Gwynn says the springs are probably “interacting with some sort of salt concentration.”
“Yes, they have the most dissolved minerals,” Gwynn said. “But the main constituent of their water is sodium chloride — salt. By far.”
The hot spring is saltier than the ocean, according to Davis. It’s also high in potassium and calcium.
Nelson points out that the skin is the largest organ of the body, and that it would stand to reason that bathers absorb some minerals through the skin.
Olpin says, in theory, that may be true.
“When you ingest anything, it has to go through a stomach that is packed with hydrochloric acid,” he said. “If it can make it through there, then the intestines are quite alkaline. We’re pretty lucky that most things get through, truth be told. That’s why you stick somebody with a needle.”
Still, Olpin says little is known about how much — if any — is actually absorbed.
And Gwynn says claiming that “highest mineral content” moniker might be misleading.
“Because to me, it would be ‘What minerals are healthier than other minerals?’” he said. “There’s a wide range of chemistry in all of these (springs).”
Besides, Gwynn says, the chemistry of some hot springs — and he’s quick to point out he’s not referring to Crystal Hot Springs here — could be harmful. For example, some springs contain heavy metals. That’s probably not a good thing to soak in, according to Gwynn.
Bottom line? Davis says, personally, he’s a big fan of hot springs. He takes his family to Crystal Hot Springs several times annually, usually in the colder half of the year. He says he feels “like a million bucks” after soaking for a couple of hours.
“I’d count myself a believer in hot springs — and I’m naturally a skeptic,” Davis said. “If you feel good, you’re probably doing something good for your health. … I’d say there are health benefits.”
But even if there aren’t actual physical health benefits going on here, Olpin says even a placebo can work up to 50 percent of the time.
“If somebody really believes that sitting in a hot spring (cures cancer), I would not want to take that belief away from them,” Olpin said. “I have to say, it’s kind of like a lot of the things that are anecdotal. There’s a really good chance that placebo is at play here, but that’s not a bad thing. If it works, it works.”