By Dr. Mercola
Everyone needs a bit of TLC now and then. Sometimes certain body parts could use a little extra, such as your posterior region.
That's where a sitz bath may come in handy. Another term for sitz bath is hip bath, which helps describe the part of the anatomy having difficulty (referred to in many anatomy textbooks as the perianal area).
Rather than a full-fledged bath in a standard bathtub, a warm, relaxing sitz bath takes care of cleansing and soothing delicate areas with minimal pressure. Part of the beauty of this bottom-bathing option is that you don't even have to take all your clothes off!
It goes without saying that this is a delicate topic, because it's a delicate area, and people sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about it. But if you've never had toosh troubles, it's good to know how to deal with them beforehand.
Sitz baths have been used for many problems related to the nether regions, probably for millennia. And for a few hundred years, Epsom salt has been added to contribute to the healing nature of your sitz bath because of the valuable minerals it imparts.
Epsom Salt: A Brief History
Not a salt for food, Epsom salt is named after a mineral compound discovered in the early 17th century in a salt spring in the small town of Epsom, just south of London.
Recognizing Epsom's water had restorative powers, visitors began coming to drink it for its laxative capabilities. Bathing in it achieved even more therapeutic benefits, from relieved muscle cramps to diminished headache pain to reduced inflammation.
For a while, Epsom was a spa town. The salt was acquired by boiling down the spring water, which a chemist named Nehemiah Grew discovered was rich in magnesium sulfate (hence the scientific name hydrated magnesium sulfate), first called "bitter purging salts" and, later, Epsom salt. (The sulfur has benefits as well.)
Enterprising enough to obtain a royal patent for exclusive rights to the mineral and its curative properties, Grew's Epsom salt soon became a widely available and inexpensive over-the-counter commodity, which removed the necessity of having to travel to the well. Today, a water pump is the only vestige of the area's earlier fame.
Epsom Salt Sitz Bath Efficacy
Few realized the importance of magnesium in the 1700s. According to Care 2,1 it's the second-most abundant element in your cells and the fourth-most important positively charged ion in your body, and optimal magnesium levels are critical.
Research indicates Americans may have five times more calcium than magnesium in their bodies, while the ratio should be 2 to 1. Further, the site notes magnesium:
"Helps the body regulate over 325 enzymes and plays an important role in organizing many bodily functions, like muscle control, electrical impulses, energy production and the elimination of harmful toxins.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, American's magnesium deficiency helps to account for high rates of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis and joint pain, digestive maladies, stress-related illnesses, chronic fatigue and a number of other ailments.
Our magnesium levels have dropped by half in the last century due to changes in agriculture and diet. Industrial farming has depleted magnesium from soil and the typical American diet contains much less magnesium than that of our forefathers.
And in fact, the modern American diet with its fat, sugar, salt and protein actually works to speed up the depletion of magnesium from our bodies."
While magnesium and sulfur aren't easily absorbed through your digestive tract, they are absorbed via your skin. That's why soaking in hydrated magnesium sulfate — Epsom salt — is so beneficial for maintaining optimal levels of these important minerals.
Epsom Salt's 'Intrinsic Pharmacological Mechanisms'
Magnesium sulfate has been recognized for its ability to relieve constipation as well as to improve:
The Epsom Salt Council is one of the most prolific sources of information about the incredible advantages provided by taking Epsom salt baths.
Many of the above benefits are discussed on the site's Health Uses and Benefits2 page, such as helping your immune system fight off germs to the sulfur in Epsom salt killing fungus and bacteria.
Additional Epsom salt benefits listed by Web MD3 include easing foot pain, including ingrown toenails, sunburn pain, psoriasis, fibromyalgia and arthritis pain (due to inflammation) and even insomnia.
A large review of randomized controlled trials, retrospective reviews and observational studies regarding magnesium sulfate therapy in preeclampsia or eclampsia resulted in the conclusion: "The evidence to date confirms the efficacy of magnesium sulfate therapy for women with eclampsia and severe preeclampsia.4 Enzyme Stuff5 reported:
"Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. Salts are just molecules that form because the parts have opposite electrical charges that bind together. Magnesium has a positive charge.
Sulfate has a negative charge, and performs all sorts of unique biological functions. The two elements … break apart and separate in liquid."
The article reiterated that magnesium and sulfate are absorbed into your body through your skin, even when it dries.
"Many people on a typical 'modern' processed diet are very deficient in magnesium as well, which Epsom salts also supplies in a highly available form. Main effects of insufficient magnesium are hyperness, irritability, anxiety and muscle twitching or spasms."
Epsom Salt Qualification
The U.K.-based Magnesium Online Library6 asserts that "Bathing in Epsom salts is a safe and easy way to increase sulfate and magnesium levels in the body."
However, medically based studies from the U.S. supporting this claim are few and far between, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals can be sketchy. Below an article titled "Solid Epsom Salt Research?"7 someone commented:
"I believe that the Epsom Salt theory is more practiced in naturopathic healing. Because that is not 'FDA Approved,' you will not find a lot of medical back-up. If drug companies don't make money, there will not be a lot of studies."
Articles such as one submitted by ABC News, "The Truth About Epsom Salt,"8 do a pretty good job of "debunking" any hint of benefit from Epsom salt baths, in spite of a mountain of anecdotal evidence over several decades, if not centuries, and assertions by people who do not stand to profit from their statements.
Who Needs a Sitz Bath?
A sitz bath may be the solution for several delicate cases, such as pain and itching after surgery, post-pregnancy tenderness, hemorrhoids,9 painful bowel movements, vaginal infections and anal fissures, which are fine tears in the delicate skin tissue around the area Medical News Today calls "the exit ring."
Hemorrhoids (aka "piles") describe veins inside the anus that become inflamed and swollen, causing pain and discomfort, a common difficulty:
"Such a problem could be bigger hemorrhoids or ones that push outside the anus. Sitz baths may be useful for a number of other reasons, including after surgery anywhere in the seat area. A sitz bath could help with the healing process and comfort after an anorectal or vaginal operation, for example."10
Beyond that, without proper hygiene, irritation in the undercarriage region is probably a given. When inevitable itching or irritation takes place, scratching usually follows. As Medical News Today advises:
"Getting itchy from a lack of hygiene can lead to scratching. Scratching makes any itching even worse and can damage the skin. Gentle bathing is better than scratching for normal hygiene. It is also better for easing and reducing things that have already started to itch."11
A sitz bath is a soothing way to cleanse the area without rubbing or scrubbing, which can exacerbate the problem. It also improves blood flow to that part of your anatomy, which aids healing. Sitz baths can be taken as many as three times a day, for 10 to 15 minutes each time, depending on your needs.
Sitz Baths for Vaginal Discomfort and Infections
Women have complex parts that are subject to unique problems, so gentle, thorough and consistent cleansing practices are essential. However, yeast infections, bladder infections and other problems require special care and consideration, as Medical News Today notes:
"Bathing could help with the discharge problems that can occur with the Bartholin's glands. These glands produce fluid to lubricate sex. They are usually pea-sized glands that are not noticeable and cannot be felt.
There is a noncancerous growth that can happen to Bartholin's glands and cause problems for women. They can become enlarged and painful, and can get infected. Along with the medical diagnosis and care needed for any cysts and infections, sitz bathing can be helpful."12
While some studies claim there's no evidence against adding foaming bubble solutions, shower gel or shampoo to the water when taking a sitz bath, others advise that doing so may cause or further irritate urinary tract infections (UTIs), especially in children. It also may irritate existing problems and could disturb the pH balance of your vagina, causing irritation or even worsening an infection.
That said, one study noted, "We believe that the enjoyment of bubble baths outweighs the limited evidence of their proposed harm."13 Although not necessary, if you choose to add soap make sure it's natural and free of harsh chemicals.
Sitz Bath Instructions and Options
One simple way to get your shower and your sitz bath, too, is to place a shallow container in your shower to sit in and enjoy both at the same time. Or, you can fill the pan, soak in it, then finish with a shower.
The first thing you need is a clean tub (either the entire tub or your sitz bath pan), sans harmful chemicals. One very effective cleaning method is to thoroughly spritz your tub with white vinegar, wait a few minutes, then sprinkle on some baking soda, which has just enough fine grit to remove soap residue. Scrub away, then rinse thoroughly.
Take a sitz bath in the tub by running 4 or 5 inches of warm water into it, making sure it's not bottom-scaldingly hot, but is hot enough to dissolve about 2 cups of Epsom salt. Step in and soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Add an essential oil such as bergamot oil, if you'd like. Relax! Rinse both yourself and the tub afterward.
You can find sitz bath kits in most pharmacies for as little as $10 to $20, with designs that depend on your needs. They consist of a round, shallow basin that fits over the porcelain rim of a standard toilet and often include a sturdy plastic bag with a tube attached to one end so you can put the basin in place and fill it from the tub.
A similar method is a bidet, which is like a mini shower for the back passage and used solely for cleansing, either by itself or as a backup plan for toilet paper. Common in Europe, a bidet is sometimes a separate unit next to the toilet, or part of it, and is often found in hotels.
It's important to understand that a bidet is not a toilet. It's used after using the toilet for cleaning the genitals and bottom, not for disposing waste.