Epsom Salts For Your Health — Folklore or Fact?
by Brian Fulton Registered Massage Therapist
The medicinal use Epsom salts dates back centuries, but then again, so does bloodletting and trepanation (drilling a hole in the patient’s skull). Centuries of use by lay folk or even doctors doesn’t necessarily guarantee efficacy. Unless science can back up claims made by the purveyors of a product or service, benefits may only be due to the placebo effect, and side effects may be overlooked. In the case of Epsom salts, the benefits have long been extolled by our grandparents and in home remedy books. For years, I have heard colleagues recommend Epsom salts to their clients, but it was only recently that I actually found solid science to back up the some of claims of Epsom salts users.
Back in the early 1600’s, a spring on Epsom Common (England) was found to have a high magnesium sulphate content. Soon, droves of Londoners were making the journey to “take the water”, due to its much-trumpeted medicinal qualities. Soon, dried Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) was prepared by boiling these same mineral waters down, allowing for greater distribution of their product. This was not the first use of salts. Two thousand years ago Greeks used other salts topically on skin lesions, in drinks for digestive troubles, and inhaled them for lung infections. Magnesium sulphate is a salt, and like all salts, it yields two ions when dissolved in water. In the case of Epsom salt, you get a magnesium ion (+) and a sulphate ion (-). Recent studies show that both magnesium and sulphates are readily absorbed through the skin, thus backing up some of the claims of Epsom salt users.
Once absorbed, what do these two molecules do in the body? Well, the benefits of magnesium have long been recognized. It is the 4th most abundant mineral in the body. It helps to regulate the activity of more than 325 enzymes, helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and keeps bones strong. Magnesium also helps regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Recently there has been increased interest in the role of magnesium in preventing and managing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Magnesium deficiency can play a role in several pathologies including heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis and joint pain, digestive maladies and stress-related illnesses. The National Academy of Sciences estimates the average American male gets just 80% of the magnesium required for good health, while females get only 70% of their recommended levels. Magnesium can be absorbed through the digestive tract, and is typically found in whole grains, legumes, and dark-green, leafy vegetables. Soaking in an Epsom Salt bath is another way of absorbing magnesium into the body.
Sulphates serve a wide variety of functions in the body. They play a vital role in the formation of brain tissue, and are found in joint proteins and the mucin proteins that line the walls of the digestive tract. This compound also stimulates the pancreas to generate digestive enzymes and is believed to help detoxify the body’s residue of medicines and environmental contaminants. Many people use sulphate compounds for the treatment of muscle pain and arthritis related joint discomfort by consuming glucosamine sulphate, chondroitin sulphate and MSM (which, by the way, my mother swears by). Sulphur compounds affect the body in a more complex way than magnesium. Some people have sulphur or sulphate allergies. And while sulphates may improve gut function in many people, consumption of large amounts of sulphur or sulphates is associated with increased risk of relapse in colitis sufferers. What I’m saying here is, check with your doctor before deciding to go hog wild in the area of sulphates. That being said, Epsom salt is an FDA-approved laxative, so has a very high level of safety, even when taken internally. Finally, unlike table salt, Epsom salts have a softening effect on the skin. As a result soaking in an Epsom salts bath will not dry out your skin. In fact you can use the salt in a paste (mixed with water) to exfoliate your skin.
Epsom salts can be purchased at any pharmacy, and are very reasonably priced. So how do you go about using them?
For compresses: Use hot water with a generous amount of salt in a compress for sore muscles, bug bites and splinter removal.
For soaking: Add 2-3 cups of Epsom salt to warm water in a standard-sized bathtub. (This is very popular for easing muscle pain and facilitates the removal of acids through the skin.)
Footbath: Add a cup of Epsom Salt to a tub of warm water as a popular balm for aching feet.
Skin Exfoliation: Massage handfuls of Epsom Salt over your wet skin, starting with your feet and continuing up towards the face, then rinse.