How the Ocean Heals the Body and Mind
The ocean can be a powerful healer—but are its effects more physical or psychological?
Anyone who loves the ocean knows: There's something special, almost mystical, about being by the sea. Personally, I always associate oceans with rebirth. After a journey through salty, choppy waters—or a night by the waves—I'm never the same as I was before.
The benefits of water have been known since ancient times, and are staples in Native American traditions, ancient Chinese traditions, ancient Greek traditions, and many others. "The belief in sacred springs and holy waters goes far back into the earliest religious myths of humankind, and is ubiquitous across every continent," writes D. W. Naff. Water has long symbolized rebirth and is vitally important in countless cultural histories; the roots of this tradition would be impossible to summarize here, but they stretch back literally to the beginning of time.
For centuries, Western doctors have been sending ill folks to take some time out by the sea. Doctors would recommend patients spend certain amounts of time under the water, and the ocean was believed to be a miracle cure for jaundice, scurvy, leprosy, glandular consumption, and more.
Of course, it wasn't always this way—in ancient times, the ocean was a locus of biblical-proportion fear, a mythically destructive place where giant octopi and angry Titans scowled below the waves.
Eventually, as globalization increased along with disease and medicine began to gain more attention, cold sea water became something of a miracle cure. 16th century physicians endorsed cold water cures, and by the 18th century wealthy English ladies were being dunked naked into the freezing ocean, traumatized and occasionally shocked into cures. Seaside healing resorts teemed with people looking for a respite from life, and the masses began flocking to the ocean on their weekends off, looking for a bit of the ocean's touch.
Flash forward to today. From a scientific perspective, can the ocean actually help heal us?
How the Ocean Heals the Body
In many ways, yes. The ocean may not be as effective as old-time doctors once thought, in terms of its ability to heal infectious disease, but it can certainly help our skin. Ocean water contains extremely high levels of sodium, chloride, sulphate, magnesium, and calcium, and can help with skin conditions such as psoriasis.
In general, being by the ocean can be a great option for people who suffer from psoriasis, as sun exposure can also help. Ocean water's effects on eczema are varied, with some people finding the salty water a balm while others find it unhelpful. Still, in general, oceans can help with many forms of skin-related ailments, as ocean water can also work as an antiseptic (though don't go swimming in the ocean with open wounds—that could attract sharks or, more likely, odd ocean bacterias).
Antiseptic effects can be owed to the ocean's high salt content, which also can help with sinus infections, hay fever, and other forms of inflammation. So essentially, the ocean can help heal and clear our skin—but a bit of salt water solution made on your stove (or some solid sleep) might be able to do the same.
How the Ocean Heals the Mind
The ocean can also offer many more intangible psychological benefits that can have physical reverberations, too (it's all connected). Being outside in nature can be meditative and re-balancing, as can being in the water (for some people), and the weightlessness of swimming and the breath control needed to shift above and below the waves can help relax the body and mind.
"We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what's broken," writes the Huffington Post in an article about marine biologist Wallace Nichols' book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.
Nichols explains that even watching the ocean can have a meditative effect on our minds; just looking out over the horizon is a striking contrast to the business of taking in a city or a highway or a cell phone, with all its moving parts. This feeling of looking out over the ocean, he writes, switches us from a "me orientation to a we orientation," and "when you experience that feeling of awe, you get that 'one with the universe feeling.'"
Like the feeling of wonder that astronauts get when looking at the earth from space, or the feeling of total peace you experience when you stumble into a wooded section of Prospect Park, just observing the earth as it was made can actually make us feel connected to something much greater than ourselves, bringing us peace and relieving the stress that harms our bodies and minds and causes so many ailments.
Being by the water might trigger a feeling of relaxation, almost a sense of coming home. "The mere sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart and induce relaxation," says Nichols.
Or as clinical psychologist Richard Shuster, PhysD writes, "Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves' frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state."
The sound of the waves and smell of the ocean also helps put us into meditative states. The negative ions (oxygen ions with extra electrons) can, apparently, help calm the brain, initiating an antidepressant-like effect.
We're just hard-wired to be by water. As Herman Melville's narrator wrote in the famous sea parable Moby Dick, "Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can."
It's not just the ocean that can do this—any body of water will do the trick. Our love of water might have something to do with the fact that our bodies are 70% water, or we first experienced life in a dark orb of water, or we first experienced life on Earth in the water. Either way, there is a reason that, for many of us, going to the sea feels like coming home.
While not all of us are lucky enough to live by the ocean, if you're able to get out to the sea at some point this summer (while honoring safe distancing practices, of course), here's hoping you're able to drink in some of that sweet, meditative, healing ocean air. Lord knows we all need a bit of that.