The increasing popularity of flotation therapy has me wondering: are the purported health benefits worth the buck? Doctors weigh in on the trend to give you the definitive lowdown. Here’s what you need to know about floating for one hour in salt water.
What is Flotation Therapy?
Flotation therapy involves floating supine in an isolation tank with neither light nor sound. The water is maintained at skin temperature and has a high Epsom salt content, which enables easier floating and the absorption of magnesium by way of the skin. The tank is also commonly referred to as a “sensory deprivation tank”, “float tank”, “flotation tank”, or “sensory attenuation tank”.
In 1954, American neurophysiologist Professor Dr. John C. Lilly developed the first flotation tank. Dr. Lilly was keen on examining the conscious activity of the brain and wondered if it needed external stimuli to keep its conscious states active. His goal was to design a tank that allowed as little environmental stimulation as possible. In the process of perfecting the tank, Dr. Lilly realized that salt water kept floaters more buoyant and the installation of water heaters, air pumps, and water filters stabilized the experience. His ultimate design is what modern-day float tanks resemble. NASA has even incorporated Dr. Lilly’s tanks into its testing program for astronauts.
Flotation Therapy Benefits
The restriction of a sensory experience is what is said to give the floating tank its mind-body-soul perks, which stem from deep relaxation, or what is induced by the Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST). Flotation-REST supposedly enables one to enter the elusive Theta brain wave frequency, which is what is experienced during deep meditation, light sleep, or the REM dream state.
But where’s the proof? Before I spend some $50 (or more) for an hour of floating in a dark room, I need more meat to the argument that flotation therapy works wonders for my stress or overall health. What’s the difference to, say, taking a long, quiet bath at home? The more I researched about the therapy, the distinction became clearer.
Dr. Zinia Thomas, psychiatrist and owner/Chief Healing Officer of Radiance Float + Wellness in St. Louis emphasizes floating therapy’s unparalleled features. She says the salt is "hugely important [1,000 pounds of Epsom salts are infused in our float pools, making it more dense than the Dead Sea], but so is the environment in which you float, if you’re trying to reap the benefits that float therapy has to offer - meaning you can’t replicate it in your own bathtub!” She continues, “Float therapy immerses you in a near-zero gravity experience. The water is skin temperature and the environment is free of stimuli, which helps users escape from the stressors that their body and mind encounter on a daily basis. With that energy freed up, one can redirect that inwards and achieve a state of ultra-deep relaxation.”
In a 2014 study, researchers in Sweden studied the preventive healthcare effects of sensory isolation in a flotation tank and found that “stress, depression, anxiety, and worst pain were significantly decreased whereas optimism and sleep quality significantly increased for the flotation-REST group [...] There was also a significant correlation between mindfulness in daily life and degree of altered states of consciousness during the relaxation in the flotation tank.” In a follow-up study conducted by the same researchers in 2015, a link was made between flotation-REST and anxiety – flotation-REST exhibited benefits for sleep difficulties, emotional regulation, and depression.
Essentially, flotation-REST makes for an effective remedy to stress symptoms because it impacts parasympathetic nervous system activity, which is responsible for bodily functions when at rest, such as stimulating digestion and activating various metabolic processes. The effects of stress can cripple life from all corners, and flotation-REST helps to counteract them.
But emotional stress isn’t the only realm that flotation therapy renders itself useful. In a 1990 study, REST was analyzed as a modality to treat addictive behaviors. Researchers found that REST was able to treat addictive behavior by allowing addicts to find serenity and relief through non-chemical means, shifting focus to personal problems, removing trigger cues, increasing feelings of control, and enhancing learning processes.
Meanwhile, flotation therapy extends to the physiological sphere. Dr. John-Paul Rue, a board certified orthopedic sports medicine surgeon with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, attests to flotation therapy’s role in joint health. He says, “Aquatic (water) therapy is a mainstay of physical therapy, and we all know our joints feels better in water when we are floating or weight-less. Like many other rehabilitation modalities, salt-water flotation offers you an opportunity to recover, both physically and mentally. If you have the resources to incorporate it into your rehabilitation protocol, it may offer additional benefits over standard treatments.”
A 2013 study found flotation-REST to have a significant impact on blood lactate and perceived pain compared with a one-hour passive recovery session, deeming the therapy useful for both recreational and professional athletes in helping to reduce blood lactate levels after eccentric exercise. Dr. Thomas further emphasizes the point. “Floating helps with fibromyalgia, muscle pain and recovery, joint, bone and spine pain and inflammation.” While inflammation can cause joint pain, it also is considered the precursor to a host of other chronic conditions. “Inflammation is the root cause of diseases like asthma, arthritis, and Crohn’s disease, and it may contribute to Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more.”
Flotation Therapy: Is Salt Water Essential?
Then there is the Epsom salt water. While the salt water's purpose is to keep floaters, well, afloat, its magnesium content invites even more health benefits. According to Dr. Thomas, magnesium “relieves pain and muscle aches, decreases restlessness and promotes calm, increases energy, helps induce sleep, is good for the heart, is beneficial to skin, and helps with bone density.”
Even so, most Americans are magnesium deficient and thus missing out on this crucial mineral. Flotation therapy allows magnesium to be absorbed through the skin only in the amount that the body necessitates at that moment. Trans-dermal absorption also enables the mineral to be absorbed without bypassing the digestive tract. An oral magnesium supplement can cause digestive irritation and whether it’s coming from a supplement or from food, only 20% to 25% of ingested magnesium is actually absorbed.
How Often Should You Float?
You can float as often as you’d like, but when first starting out, try doing so once per week. Over time, if your schedule (and budget) permits it, you can float more often, even daily. It will take time for your body to feel the deeper mental and physical benefits as well as get used to the meditative aspect of the therapy.
Flotation Therapy: The Takeaway
Despite flotation therapy’s benefits, it has its boundaries. Dr. Rue explains, “The research is lacking to support salt-water floating as a stand-alone treatment for medical conditions. There is, however, some limited evidence that it may be beneficial for stress-related pain, and it could play a role as an alternative modality as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for a medical (physical or mental) condition.”
Flotation therapy makes for an adequate complementary treatment for certain medical conditions and stands as a positive addition to a healthy individual’s stressful lifestyle. However, it should never be the core to your recovery. Instead, it's a welcome addendum - a reprieve from the stresses of the daily hustle.