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Healing waters

Water is the center of life. The food we grow depends on water—without it, it withers and dies. The body is approximately 70 percent water, and, although we can live without food for about eight weeks, without water, we could only survive for about 10 days. Despite the obvious importance of water to our lives—as nutrition and for survival—the healing properties of water are often forgotten.

Water is a healer with a long history. According to archaeological evidence, balneology—using natural mineral waters for the treatment of disease—has been with us for more than 5,000 years.

At the temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, bathing and massage were integral parts of therapy for the sick. Legend has it that Hippocrates, who is known as the father of Western medicine, was a descendent of Asclepius. And, indeed, Hippocrates did use water and bathing as therapeutic tools.

The Romans also embraced water as a healer. The Roman physicians Galen and Celsus used bath therapy, and it’s written that cold baths cured the Roman Emperor Augustus of disease when nothing else would help.

The Romans recognized the value of natural hot springs—mineral baths—and elevated these “fountains of youth” to an art form. Roman baths included private rooms, steam rooms, and public baths. The Romans developed elaborate systems of aqueducts to carry water throughout their bath complexes. One could well say that their complexes were the first “resort spas.”

The word “spa” originates from the town of Spa, located in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Peter the Great, the seventeenth-century Russian czar, visited this city to relax and “take the waters.” Apparently, Peter, and others, found relief from their pains here, and physicians began looking seriously at spas as health centers. In 1797, the Scottish physician and surgeon James Currier published The Effects of Water, Cold and Warm, as a Remedy in Fever and Other Diseases.

The foundation of what we know of today as water therapy, or hydrotherapy, began early in the nineteenth century with Vincent Preissnitz, a Silesian farmer. He had mangled his fingers while farming, and a neighbor showed him how to use wet, cold compresses to restore the movement in them. It was Preissnitz’s bad luck and hydrotherapy’s good luck that later in his life a heavy cart rolled over him. The doctors of his day declared him “crippled for life.”

However, Preissnitz remembered his early success with water and started treating and experimenting on himself. Eventually, his crippled body was cured. Word spread, and hundreds and thousands of people came to him. His unorthodox means and use of something as simple and common as water raised the ire of the day’s leading physicians, and they took him to court. Preissnitz won the case and eventually was accepted as perhaps the first hydrotherapist.

Although Preissnitz established modern hydrotherapy, it was another, Sebastain Kneipp, who truly developed it. A weak and frail man, he began to use cold water to strengthen his body. He found and shortened some of Preissnitz’s techniques and was also the first to begin to add herbs to the water.

It was these men and others who learned about the healing properties of water that gave rise to the rebirth of spas in the Victorian era (1837-1901). Hot springs were found, frequented, and developed, often at mountain retreats with breathtaking views. These spas were often staffed by medical practitioners who prescribed and monitored treatment. As they became more popular, world-class restaurants, symphonies, entertainment, and recreational facilities were added to them. Today, of course, spas are not seen as much as health establishments as they are as fitness and beauty centers where the rich and famous are often pampered.

This is unfortunate because the focus of a true spa should be health. After all, no matter where the spa and how luxurious, it is there for only one reason: the combination of hot water and minerals.

It’s the minerals

As water bubbles up from the earth, it passes through many rocks, which give the water a rich and varied mineral content. The healing properties of hot springs no doubt come from the combination of heated water and mineral content. Together, they act as a catalyst to the healing process.

We know, of course, of the importance of minerals to our health. They are components found in body tissues and fluids that work in combination with enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. Minerals are active in nerve transmission, muscle contraction, cell permeability, tissue rigidity and structure, blood formation, fluid regulation, and energy production.

To put this in health terms, mineral baths are said to improve conditions involving arthritis, inflammation of the joints, and circulatory, nasal, and respiratory problems, as well as relax the body, soften the skin, and soothe the spirit.

From Partners Magazine, April 2000

Enjoy a mineral bath at home

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