If you’ve ever spent a summer day by the sea’s edge, with salt water splashing over your toes, the sun tingling on your skin and the salty fresh air filling your lungs with its magical effects, then you’ve probably witnessed the healing powers of the cold Atlantic waters. But is that salty fresh air actually healing?
The Victorians thought so, and now science is backing up some of those old-timey beliefs.
During the 18th century, British elites would seek out the healing power of the sea, believing that breathing in the salty air, drinking salt water and steeping for hours in the cold salt water would cure a number of medical problems that ranged from digestive problems to stupidity (yes, really, by visiting “bathing hospitals” for months at a time). But for many people, the sea was not a romantic or even pleasant place to be. It was an expensive medical treatment intended to heal the wealthy from everyday health problems.
As we moved into the 19th century, people began to realize that all those tales about sea creatures and grumpy and vengeful seas were mostly untrue, and people began to think of the ocean as not only a place to heal their minor ailments but also as a play to play and relax, which ushered in the new era of seaside resorts.
Although the Victorians are long gone, their wisdom that the ocean has healing powers may actually prove to be true. Lora Fleming, an epidemiologist at the University of Exeter in England, has been studying the healing powers of the sea. She is finding that, indeed, people really do relax and are more susceptible to healing when they experience the ocean firsthand.
Fleming and her colleagues found that people who live near the ocean report feeling healthier than their inland neighbors. And while it may be tempting to believe that this is probably because seaside living is costlier and, therefore, people with more money and access to better health care are skewing those study numbers, Fleming reports that her team is finding that economically disadvantaged people are reporting they feel healthier near the ocean, as well.
New studies are being designed to see whether the placebo effect of simply looking at images of the ocean can affect people in stressful situations such as visiting a dentist for that root canal. The results are not in yet, but Fleming and her team are seeing signs that even just focusing on the thought of being near the ocean may be enough to relax people.
So the next time you’re stressed out or feeling a bit down, try taking a day trip to the ocean to breathe in that salty air. And if you can’t get to the sea, then you may still reap some health benefits by simply meditating on a relaxing image of ocean waves lapping up on a shore line.
Related: Watch a baby seal who was stranded in Ellsworth
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.