Bathing Away Seasonal Anxiety

Written by Dr. Jewel Alfoure, ND

The holidays bring many joys with them, but with those joys many stressors make their way into an already stressful season. The seasonal stress includes stress on our immune system, stress on our nervous system and stress on our gastrointestinal system.


With the change in weather, the shorter days and the hassle of trying to get ready for the holiday season, it is no wonder that many describe the holiday season as one of the most stressful times of the year. 

In terms of seasonality, it also precedes an even more stressful time of year, as the days are expected to get colder in the following months and many tend to spend significantly less time outdoors. The reduction in time spent outdoors means a higher likelihood of vitamin D inadequacy and a larger possibility of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Taking time to unwind means the difference between being in a more “sympathetic” (fight or flight) mode for the entire holiday season versus being relaxed and able to enjoy the season from a more “parasympathetic” (rest and digest) mode. 

Being able to jump into a more parasympathetic mode means that the body can relax more, maintain better immunity, digest better, experience more emotions and even make the best out of the encounters of family and friends as healthy encounters fill the body with neurotransmitters of healthy emotions. 

The Art of Therapeutic Bathing

Bathing is known to be a ritual of relaxation for centuries. Ancient civilizations recognized bathing as a time to unwind and meditate and took advantage of the natural tendency to perspire and to experience vasodilation to couple bathing with rituals of aromatherapy, skin healing massages and relaxing meditative practices. (1)

The ancient practices of therapeutic bathing gave birth to the idea of the modern day spa. While the spa experience is regarded more as a luxury that is meant to enhance beauty and support general relaxation, the idea of therapeutic bathing is one that is worthy to explore. Therapeutic bathing offers a form of therapy that is non-invasive, of high safety and general applicability. In fact, the experience does not need to be done at a spa in order for it to be effective. Therapeutic bathing can be of significant health benefits when brought home and made more accessible. (2)


The notion that smelling something can significantly impose a change to physiology is not as strange as it may sound. Inhaled aromas find their way directly into our blood-stream. In fact they gain the benefit of being an unregulated sensory stimulus. Unlike other sensory stimuli that have to be filtered by the thalamus (brain switchboard) prior to being read as a signal, aromas can enter freely and bring with them emotional cues and sensory cues that may and may not be accessible with any other sense. (3, 4)

Aromatherapy is a form of therapy that relies on the power of smell to stimulate changes in physiology that range from neurotransmitter level, blood flow, hormone enhancement to even blood sugar/ pressure regulation. It is seen as a powerful tool as it skips the need for the ingestion of an agent that may cause adverse reactions. Additionally, aromatherapy forces the individual to take the time to experience the aroma and pause. The pause may significantly impact mood and mental health. (3)

As a completely non-invasive, external tool, aromatherapy is of value for the elderly, people on many medications and for children. It is also great for those who are experiencing short-term problems like seasonal stress. 


Perhaps lavender is one of the most common essential oils with the highest quality studies backing up its efficacy. Lavender oil is demonstrated to be relaxing, mood-enhancing and sleep-promoting. It is also safe to use externally for children, elderly and pregnant women. Unlike many other essential oils, lavender oil is so safe that there are internal preparations of medical grade capsules of lavender oil for stress management. As a topical agent, it is demonstrated to help with muscle spasms, pain and even sinus problems. (5)

The oil of the plant is of a characteristic floral scent. Notes of herbaceous aroma mixed with sweet, woody and even balsamic notes hit the senses upon opening up a bottle of lavender essential oil. 

Lavender is the oil of choice for alleviating stress. It is known to be a nervine, which means that it has sedative properties that calm the nerves and reduce pain related to tension such as the pain of tension headaches. (6)

The aroma also acts as an inhibitor of both sympathetics and parasympathetic nervous system functions. This means that it is a broad-spectrum anti-stress agent. 

Traditionally, aromatherapists suggested lavender for sudden, unpredictable changes such as family crisis or stress related to change. Some aromatherapists point to the benefits of lavender essential oil as an agent to alleviate emotional stress. 

Lavender is also employed as a gentle sleeping aid especially for those who suffer anxiety and children who suffer nightmares that keep them up at night. (7)

Other interesting applications of lavender oil include its use for lung-related health conditions. Lavender is known to inhibit the growth of mycobacterium  species and thus was used as a lung healer by western herbalism. The plant also helps to alleviate the intensity of lung discomforts as it acts as a sedating antispasmodic upon inhalation. (8)

Other functions include a reduction in heart palpitations and a decrease in blood pressure. 

As lavender oil can be used as a part of a therapeutic bath, on topical applications its benefits include the stimulation of healing. European hospitals use lavender oil as a part of standard care of burns. 

Lavender oil is not only great for healing the skin faster, it acts as an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic. For conditions like eczema and dermatitis, lavender oil facilitates healing and reduces skin sensitivity. (9)


Cinnamon is an original of beautiful Madagascar. It comes from the bark of evergreen trees that enjoy a significant amount of hot dry sunny weather. The bark oil smells of a soft, sweet, warm and spicy aroma. In China, the plant is used as a tranquiliser tonic, a stomach soother and an agent for the support of depression. Chinese medicine regards cinnamon very highly and sees it as a universal tonic that can add to the benefits of many decoctions. (10, 11)

Inhalation is excellent for exhaustion, depression and weakness. Western herbalists note that cinnamon is a stimulant of digestion and can calm the spasms of the gastrointestinal tract. Thus having some cinnamon oil on hand may help lessen digestive and gastric distress. 

The beautiful smelling spice has a history of use as an agent of increase of blood flow and a blood sugar regulating agent. As an essential oil, the aroma of cinnamon has been studied for several applications including menstrual cramps, stress, fatigue and insomnia. Studies have demonstrated that abdominal massages with essential oil blends that contain cinnamon significantly reduce the pain of menstrual cramps.(12, 13)

Additionally, further studies into aromatherapy demonstrate that post-menoposal pre-diabetic women show improvements in sleep quality and blood-sugar management upon engaging in a two week long aromatherapy program that includes oils like cinnamon.

Sweet Orange and Grapefruit

Citrus essential oils are of a relaxing, cheerful and sensuous nature. They are known to convey warmth and happiness. Their influence on the body is that of stimulation to both the lymphatic and the digestive system. They help the body secrete bile from the gallbladder which aids in the digestion of fats. (13)

Therapeutic Bathing and Skin Health

Perhaps one of the few notions that maintained their strong presence in the concept of therapeutic bathing is the concept of improving skin health. Unlike showers, baths soak into the skin and gently swell the external dead tissues to help them exfoliate and promote the exposure of newer, higher-quality skin. Additionally, if the right oils are included in the bathing water, the absorption of the oils is enhanced by the heat and by the gentle swelling of the external layers of the skin. 

The skin is more sensitive to damage and much more receptive to absorption when freshly exfoliated, thus, it is important to carefully evaluate the contents of bath water as those ingredients have a higher likelihood of penetrating deep into the skin. Chemicals may significantly irritate the skin even days after a bath as the deep penetration makes them hard to “wash away” in case they do not agree with the skin. 

The best moisturizers to include in bath water include plant oils that are of high enough quality to ingest. Additionally, it may be of value to include oils that contain a therapeutic value to the skin such as black seed oil, cranberry oil and sea buckthorn oil. 

Used in the traditional Moroccan Hammam, Black seed oil is known to be not only a promoter of skin health, but also an agent of natural dermatology. Studies demonstrate that topical use of black seed oil enhances skin health and integrity for those suffering from autoimmune skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Additionally, topical use of the oil is known to stabilize melanocytes and promote healthy skin pigmentation. (14)

More emollient oils such as sea buckthorn oil provide the skin with a topical injection of nutritious agents along with healing constituents that promote skin healing after long sun exposure. Studies show that combining external use of sea buckthorn oil with internal use results in enhanced collagen levels and significantly reduces the depth of fine lines.(15) 

Other noteworthy oils include cranberry seed oil which helps to build a healthy lipophilic barrier and adds to the resilience of skin that is exposed to stress. Stressors like the sudden change in temperature that we experience upon entering and leaving a heated space in winter may cause significant skin damage. While protection with oils and external moisturizers is important, it is of equal importance to build a high quality resilient skin barrier. (16)

Therapeutic bathing with essentials oils, high quality plant oils and bath bombs can be a fun, relaxing experience that enhances blood flow, decreases swelling, destresses the body and stimulates healing of the skin. Using therapeutic bathing as a form of self-care may help establish a routine that adds to wellbeing and makes use of non-invasive physiological enhancement. 



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