I remember first hearing the idea of taking a nightly bath when Gwyneth Paltrow admitted that the practice is a non-negotiable in her self-care routine. Wowed by the dedication, I admired the idea, but rarely ever did it. Fast-forward to now and I’ve become better about carving out time to take care of myself. I do a facial massage with a Kansa wand at least once a week, I'll make myself a flower tea to unwind from a difficult day, and I've recently adopted a rule to fall asleep with a book rather than my phone.
With the temperatures getting colder, I decided what better time to step up my self-care and give baths a go. I committed to doing a full week of nightly baths (indulgent, for sure) and reached out to the experts to explore the purported benefits of hot baths, from soothing sore muscles to reducing stress. Keep scrolling to learn why hot baths may be beneficial to add to your nighttime routine.
Meet the Expert
- Haley Perlus, PhD, is a certified fitness coach and a peak performance consultant. She earned her PhD at the University of Northern Colorado with an emphasis on social psychology of sport and physical activity.
- Dr. Sunitha Posina, MD, a board-certified internist from New York City. She started her medical training at the PSI Medical College in India, which gave her the opportunity to learn about the potential synergistic benefits of joining eastern therapies with western medicine.
Creates a Time-Slowing Ritual
Drawing a bath and luxuriating in it seems, on paper, like a huge time suck. But in reality, there are so many less worthwhile ways I kill time after the workday—the dreaded social media scroll or browsing sites for things I don’t need. Filling the tub with water while turning on a relaxing playlist, lighting a candle, and prepping some bath oils, immediately gets your brain out of work mode and saves your eyes from unnecessary screen time. Before even enjoying the bath itself, the act of preparing it was somewhat meditative. Furthermore, once the water was running, I simply had to keep my eye on it while I had time to do something productive like tidy up my bathroom drawers or apply a face mask.
Soothes Sore Muscles and Joints
Even after the very first bath, I could feel the relaxing benefits take effect. My body has been extra sore lately—a combination of joining a gym and braving the cold—and my muscles felt soothed in a way they hadn’t with just foam rolling or massage. My knees have also developed a tendency to become achy after I sit, even for short periods, and I felt the creaks and stiffness lessen as the week went on.
According to Dr. Haley Perlus, a peak performance coach with a PhD in sport and exercise psychology, the warm water from a hot bath releases tension from muscles and loosens spasms. “Specifically, a warm bath encourages circulation of blood, which provides the muscles with more nutrients and oxygen,” she explains. “This releases muscle tightness, relieves pain, and improves elasticity of connective tissues.”
Quiets the Mind
My mind, too, felt at ease, as if all of my racing thoughts were finally given permission to slow down. I could just focus on my senses. I found that baths are actually able to pull you away from mental distractions. While I admit I did use some bath times to brainstorm ideas, I didn't feel stressed or worried during it. I could plan at ease, unbothered by the pressure of time or the black hole of my computer or phone. “A hot bath can create a great environment for escape and mediation from everyday stressors,” says Perlus.
Reduces Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression
Studies have found that immersion bathing (meaning baths) improves both physical and emotional aspects of quality of life, with significant improvement in general and mental health and lower scores for stress, tension-anxiety, anger-hostility, and depression-dejection. “Being immersed in water can calm the nervous system, improve your mood, and reduce anxiety and stress levels in the body,” Perlus explains.
Relieves Cold Symptoms and Improves Breathing
Between allergies and bouts of the common cold, I feel like I’m always at least somewhat congested this time of the year. The hot bath, aided by essential oils, was a wonderful way to open up my nasal passageways. Perlus agrees that a bath may help you breathe easier. “Submerging in water past your chest can help with your oxygen intake,” she says. “Baths also get the blood vessels in your nose and face moving, which can loosen mucus blockage and relieve flu and cold symptoms.”
Might Boost Your Immune System
Studies have indicated that an elevated body temperature helps certain types of immune cells to work better. And while I felt like my on-the-verge-of-getting-a-cold symptoms clearing up about midway through the week of my experiment, Dr. Sunitha Posina, MD, a board-certified Internist from New York City, says more research is needed to see if baths can have long-term benefits for our immune systems. “Preliminary studies have shown that a hot deep sea water may have some ability to increase the CD8 lymphocytes and thus impact the immune cell distribution positively,” explains Posina. “However, we need more substantial studies to clarify further before we can solidly say that it impacts the immune system directly.”
Initially, I was wary that these nightly hot baths would end up drying out my skin, especially in winter months. But because I added epsom salt or oils—sometimes a combo—and always applied lotion immediately after exiting the tub, my skin wasn’t any worse off than it is after nightly showers. It actually seemed to become more moisturized with fewer dry patches, which may be a result of the oils. One study found that when compared to non-oil-containing skin cleansers, bath oil was more effective in improving the skin barrier function for those with mild dry skin.
I'm also prone to getting skin irritations along my legs, and the baths helped soothe this and calm redness. If you have sensitive skin, it's best to turn the temperature down (lukewarm is advised) and follow the "Soak and Seal" method as suggested by the National Eczema Association, towel-drying lightly and leaving the skin slightly damp and then liberally applying moisturizer within three minutes.
Helps You Fall Asleep
By night three, I found myself relaxing to the point of dozing. In just a handful of sessions, my body seemed to be very into the idea of bath time equating bedtime. I’ve always loved having a set routine, and while some nights it felt like a hassle (one night I did have to skip and noted how a shower simply didn’t deliver the same relaxing results), it did become something to look forward to. By night four, I began brushing my teeth and doing my skincare routine while the bathtub was filling up, so at the end of the bath, I could just lather up in lotion, put on pajamas, and get into bed.
Perlus suggests taking a warm bath an hour or two before bed to help lower your core temperature, which alerts your body that it’s bedtime. “Getting into a consistent routine of taking a hot bath before bed will signal to your mind and body that it's wind down time for sleep,” she explains. “Just as we give our children bedtime routines, we can do the same for ourselves.”
Improves Your Sleep Quality
Beyond just getting my body and mind to unwind for a shut-eye session, nightly baths greatly improved my sleep quality, starting the very first night. Climbing into bed after a hot bath, my body felt completely relaxed and sleepiness crept in much sooner. The minor aches and pains (that usually cause me to take several minutes to get comfortable and eventually fall asleep) were completely soothed. Studies have shown that a nightly hot bath (and even a hot foot bath if you're unable to take a full bath) facilitates earlier sleep onset. “Baths aid in sleeping more deeply by facilitating the body’s natural flow into sleep by lowering body temperature,” says Perlus.
I sometimes suffer from restless legs (and have been using a weighted blanket because of it) and the hot baths helped ease the tension even more. Instead of waking up with a sore neck or tight joints, I felt like my younger, more agile self, stepping out of bed in the morning (note to self to stretch more.
Burns Calories and Lowers Blood Sugar
According to Posina, a hot bath can even burn a few calories and may help lower your blood sugar. One study found that taking a hot bath reduced peak blood sugar levels and caused energy expenditure to spike significantly. However, you’ll need to commit to more than a quick soak—participants in the study bathed for a full hour in water heated to 104 degrees.
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