As you sink into a hot spring, stress and tension melt away, delivering a good bit of pleasure and rejuvenation. How different is a hot spring from a hot tub experience at a spa or in your backyard? While plain hot water will relax you and alleviate aches and pains, the magic of a geothermal hot springs is in the dissolved minerals.
About 10,000’ deep under the Montana soil is hot volcanic magma. As rainwater flows down through faults, fissures, and cracks, the water is heated, sometimes as hot as 400°. Then pressure propels it back up to the surface, dissolving minerals along the way until it spews out of the ground as a thermal hot spring. Diverse and plentiful, hundreds of hot springs have been created by the volcanic basin that sits beneath Montana.
Native Americans considered hot springs sacred. They valued and soaked in Montana’s hot springs for hundreds of years believing in the health benefits. Untold others have flocked to these mineral springs, reporting benefits beyond blissful relaxation.
Today, there are 61 private springs, undeveloped hot pools, and commercially developed hot springs that bubble up, mostly in western Montana.
While definitive medical studies are pretty vague about specific health benefits, positive data from those who use hot springs has been reported for years. We know hot water pulls the toxins out of your body. Absorption through the skin, called transdermal absorption, allows the healthy minerals to combine with the heat for a plethora of benefits. Sweating opens your pores, removes salts from your system and helps to cleanse the outer skin.
A promising field of science called balneology is expanding the information on the benefits of soaking in hot springs. My favorite study suggests that soaks in hot springs provide many of the benefits of exercise. Bathers burned more calories and their ability to control blood sugar levels increased.
If you are serious about using hot springs for the benefits, consistent soaking three times a week is recommended to maximize those benefits.
Reported Health Benefits of Hot Springs
- Relaxation and Sleep: Ah… this one is a given. Relaxing and reducing stress lowers blood pressure and helps depression. Better sleep benefits cognitive thinking and rejuvenation.
- Muscles and Joints: Swollen joints, arthritis, muscle fatigue, ligament damage and more improve with soaks.
- Skin Problems: Reduces acne, eczema itching and redness and promotes a better complexion.
- Circulation: Blood pressure is lessened. Heart rhythms are normalized.
- Breathing and Congestion: Colds, chest congestion, and allergies benefit from the heat and steam as well as springs that contain stinky sulfur.
Specific Benefits of the Most Common Minerals
Each hot springs delivers a different mix of minerals, depending on the location. The combinations of minerals will impact the benefits. An analysis of the minerals present or the concentration of each mineral is sometimes posted.
- Calcium Carbonates: Stimulates breathing. Helps with vascular issues, calms the nervous system, slows the heart rate, and helps the body produce new blood vessels.
- Bicarbonates: Aid in improving circulation.
- Chloride: Helps digestion, circulation, and elimination of waste.
- Iron: Builds up the blood and provides energy and skin benefits. Increases resistance to disease and stress.
- Magnesium: Regulates body functions, production of proteins and energy, and nerve and muscle function. Promotes clear complexion and healthy skin.
- Potassium: Eliminates toxins and promotes healthy skin
- Silica: Promotes bone formation and growth of hair and nails. Silica in the drinking water reduces incidence of dementia by 11% according to a 2009 study.
- Sulfur: Relieves conditions of the liver, digestive and urinary systems, metallic poisoning, chronic skin diseases, and rheumatism. Anti-inflammatory. Respiratory problems and skin inflammations benefit.
- Sodium: Decreases swelling in joints. Benefits the lymphatic system.
Other Minerals Sometimes Present
Some of these minerals, such as arsenic or radon, can be dangerous in large concentrations. In small concentrations, they, surprisingly, can bring benefits.
- Radon: Small amounts of radon help rheumatic diseases, gout, neuralgia, dermatosis, and diabetes.
- Iron: Helps with iron-deficiency enemia, mental fatigue, and stress.
- Lithium: Stabilizes mood swings, corrects sleep disorders, and relaxes the mind and the emotions. Known to help alleviate migraine headaches and manic-depression. Said to significantly lower suicide rates.
- Arsenic: Small amounts in a soak are effective in healing athlete’s foot and other fungal infections. Avoid ingestion.
Rules of Healthy Soaking
The first and most important rule is to stay hydrated. That might seem odd since you are sitting in water, but the heat causes you to sweat and you will dehydrate. Drink water before, during, and after. A handy water bottle to continually sip from is the best prevention. Get out if you start to feel light-headed.
While relaxing with a cocktail or glass of wine might seem like a perfect complement to the de-stressing you are enjoying, do this judiciously or not at all. Overdoing is dangerous.
Regulate the time spent soaking, especially in the hottest water. Limiting your soak to 15 minutes is a good start. Many of the developed Montana hot springs have several pools at different temperatures. You can safely alternate between a cooler pool and the hottest. Taking a break out of the water altogether at least every hour is recommended.
Pregnant women, young children, and the elderly are advised to limit the time spent in a hot springs, avoiding one with very hot water. Springs under 100° can be enjoyed safely.
The minerals can tarnish your jewelry. It is best to remove everything before soaking.
What About Cold Plunges?
Some hot springs offer cold plunges near the hot pools. Cold plunge pools increase your circulation and your body’s levels of white blood cells, which help in fighting off disease. The cold water also stimulates your body to release healing hormones and endorphins.
Alternating between hot and cold water, a practice called contrast therapy is said to increase these benefits. Spend three minutes in hot water, only 10-30 seconds in the cold plunge, and repeat three times.
Who Should Avoid Cold Plunges?
- People with heart or vascular problems such as high blood pressure, poor circulation, blood clots, phlebitis, vascular insufficiency or stasis, or Raynaud’s. Consult your doctor first.
- Diabetics who are losing feeling in their extremities should be careful not to get burned or get too cold.
- Asthmatics—the shock of the cold water can cause an asthma attack
- Pregnant women
Whether you are looking for a relaxing soak or interested in seeing the health benefits, Montana’s hot springs deliver everything you need.
Where to find the Perfect Hot Spring for you
Most of Montana’s hot springs are located in the western part of the state where the earth’s crust is thinner than normal and the magma is closer to the surface.
The exceptions in eastern Montana are Angela Well in Rosebud and Sleeping Buffalo in Saco. There are also a couple of undeveloped warm springs in the east.
For maps, locations, descriptions, and other resources visit:
- Jeff Birkby’s book, Touring Hot Springs: Montana and Wyoming, is a comprehensive account of many of Montana’s Hot Springs.