A woman receiving a mud masque.

Mud: Dig It!
By Melinda Minton

As you may know, the word spa is the acronym for salus per aqua, Latin meaning "good health through water." But did you know that all of that good water also produces great mud? • Mud is one of the healthiest components of spa therapies, when it comes from the correct source and is used appropriately. In fact, mud is the cornerstone of many spa therapies. What’s more, there are a variety of types of mud, each notable for its own specific qualities. Let’s dig into mud, from a historical perspective to its 21st -century presence. • Spas have been around for hundreds of years. One of the oldest, Karlovy Vary in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, was founded in 1338. Karlovy Vary’s grounds boast 132 springs that have flowed nearly 15 million years and vary in temperature from 95-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Beethoven and Napoleon are just two among scores of sheiks, maharajas and European rulers who have enjoyed the therapeutic waters and mud in this area.

"Our mud is high in mineral salts, CO2, argonite, calcite and trace iron deposits," said Mila Syznovich, spokesperson for Karlovy Vary. "This area is a river valley formed by granite tectonic blocks, which created a rift valley. Subsequent basalt lava flows and argonite mineralizations are also present. The thermal water infects the earth surrounding it, lending the mud curative properties."

Interestingly, mud has a different curative effect from each spring, varying from digestive healing agents to vascular and metabolic aids.

A variety of mud with different curative effects.Andrew Weil, M.D., a proponent of complementary health care, acknowledges that mud seems to have something going for it. Research on the therapeutic properties of mud has been much more intense in Europe and Russia than in the United States, so Weil is cautious about endorsing mud carte blanche.

Weil said that based on the application of thermal mud promotes long-lasting beneficial effects for people with dry and seborrheic (flaking) skin. In 1999 another Italian study reported that the combination of mudpacks and antidepressants helped fibromyalgia patients both physiologically and psychologically.

"In Israel, medical researchers at Ben-Gurion University found that rheumatoid arthritis patients who were treated with daily mud packs, daily hot sulfur baths, and a combination of the two, improved significantly compared to those who didn’t receive any of these treatments."

Weil also raises some cautionary issues, such as sanitation, indicating that single-use baths that are completely sanitized and then replenished might be safer than group-shared thermal facilities.

"I once took a mud bath at a spa in Calistoga, California, and noticed that quite a number of people got in and out of the mud before it was changed. You could pick up a skin disease this way," said Weil. "Some of the bugs responsible, such as pseudomonas, survive in high temperatures."

Muds used in spa therapies are found throughout the world. Each mud has a different content based on the geologic area from which it originated. Several governments, including those in Italy and Israel, have actually conducted in-depth studies as to the effectiveness of the mud found in their countries.

Dead Sea Mud
Just 16 miles east of Jerusalem lies the Dead Sea, with its healing water, salts and mud. More than 1,300 feet below sea level and with water 10 times saltier than that of the ocean, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth and the most saline of all natural lakes. The setting of the Dead Sea is unique not only in the waterbed itself, but also the atmosphere above it. The atmospheric pressure is so high around the Dead Sea that the sun’s harmful UV rays are filtered out. There is more oxygen in the Dead Sea area than at sea level. The waters are so salty that they contain absolutely no life. The Dead Sea is so dense that individuals buoy to its surface. In fact, every liter of water from the Dead Sea contains 320 grams of salts and minerals.

According to Imar Levy, an American dermatologist practicing in Chicago, there are several beneficial elements to Dead Sea mud: magnesium, which is known for its healing properties and soothing influence on the skin; bromide, which is soothing, relaxing and has a tranquilizing effect on the nervous system; iodine, which is important for the correct functioning of the thyroid gland and a key factor in the body’s metabolic exchanges; sulfur, which is a natural disinfectant and a great remedy for acneic conditions; and potassium A, for moisturizing and emulsion.

Levy tested a Dead Sea mud mask on 30 women of different age groups and varying skin tones. He found that the facial mud mask both cleanses and moisturizes the skin.

"The clay’s drawing qualities reach deep into the pores, thoroughly cleansing and removing grime, which impedes the nourishing process," Levy said. "Through reverse osmosis, minerals from the mud nourish the skin and restore its vitality. The mineral action also works to tighten the pores."

When coupled with massage, a Dead Sea body treatment can help speed lymphatic drainage, thereby ridding the body of toxins, according to a study initiated by the Israeli government and conducted by Levy.

At the Dead Sea Medical Center, patients from all over the world come for treatments and relaxation. A combination of mineralized water; black mud, highly oxygenated air and filtered sun make for a curative combination of therapeutic choices. Among the skin disorders seen at the clinic, the most common are psoriasis, vitiligo, ichthyosis, acne, eczema and arthritis.

Without committing to thousands of miles of travel and the expense of staying at a five-star resort, Dead Sea mud is widely available throughout North America for home and professional use, from a variety of companies.

Fango is an unglamorous grayish-brown slime. It is made up of a solid, clay-like component, thermal water and an algae-based flurry. Fango is organic and undergoes a maturation process before being considered therapeutic. Fango can be used on clients, and it must be in direct contact with thermal water, sunlight and air during the maturation process, according to Reinhard Bergel, Ph.D., and a physical therapist who practices in Calistoga, California. This permits the fango’s enrichment by mineral salts and the growth of a particular form of algae at its surface. This strain of alginate thrives in environments that offer very high temperatures with a rich mineral content. Two actions are produced in a cycle of fango therapy. Therapeutically, a local anti-inflammatory, analgesic effect occurs in a localized area. Secondly, increased resistances to pathogenic agents occur in the area being treated.

"When the fango has sufficiently matured, its efficacy is strengthened by its ability to give off heat, which leads to perspiration from the client," said Bergel. "Circulation is increased, as is stimulation and elimination of toxic substances in the body."

Based on a 1999 study by Bergel on the biology and physics of peloid fango - a by-product of mineral water, he concluded that the substances contained in fango actually affect the coetaneous nerve endings. In turn, they facilitate a release of hormonal substances by the endocrine glands, said