The Many Wonders of Water

Beyond the physical benefits of staying hydrated, water has psychological impact that's hard to account for
September 25, 2020 Updated: September 25, 2020

Water covers some 70 percent of the globe’s surface. Isak Dinesen, the author of “Out of Africa,” once said, “ the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, the sea.”

Water, fresh or salted, can be nurturing for both the mind and body. Beyond the more familiar physical benefits of being well-hydrated—healthy skin, a stronger immune system, improved gut health, regular bowel movements, and increased energy—there are the mental benefits that include being able to think faster, concentrate better, and experience greater clarity and creativity.

The brain is composed 75 percent of water and some research suggests hydration can even improve memory.

An Immersive Treatment

Actually getting into the water or being near bodies of water can also be helpful for our body and our mind. Swimming can help to burn more calories than walking and water exercise has been used as a mental health wellness technique and to treat depression. Research has shown that being near, in, on, or under water may provide benefits such as lower stress and anxiety, increased sense of well-being and happiness, and lower heart and breathing rate. Some people may be able to have longer and more thorough workouts in the water, as the water helps to protect aching joints and provides buoyancy and coolness.

Aquatic therapy is being used as part of the treatment plan for post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and anxiety disorders. Some people say that being near water boosts creativity and can enhance the quality of communication. A recent study using census data in the United Kingdom showed that people who live near the ocean report feeling less stress and feel they experience better health than those who don’t live close to water.

The study accounted for other factors including age, sex, socioeconomic deprivation, and green space.

An Experience of Tranquility

We all know the feeling of being close to water. That’s likely why travel brochures almost always feature scenes of beaches, rivers, lakes, or pools. Why being near water makes us feel better is still a mystery, says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter. White and fellow researchers have conducted extensive studies on the link between water and our mental state. White and marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, have a theory about why water possesses calming qualities for humans and some animals.

Writing in his book “Blue Mind,” Nichols says that water can bring people to a calmer, more meditative state, taking a break from the technology-filled, hectic rhythm of modern life. Researcher White agrees: People do experience a range of emotions by the ocean, with many citing the way water, weather and sound interact to produce an all-encompassing sense of mental tranquility.

People who take the time to “float,” relaxing in pools of tranquil water, often register a change from more active brain waves to theta brainwaves. Beyond relaxation, these slower waves are credited with unleashing a flow of creative ideas. The meditative state induced by calmness associated with water can also engage the brain’s default mode network, essentially causing you to daydream in a way you wouldn’t if you were more focused on a particular task.

Allowing your brain to wander, free of stimulation, is known to produce problem-solving abilities. Solving problems while in a relaxed state can be the gateway to “calm.”

Waves of Sound

If we don’t have the opportunity to be near bodies of water, research shows that the sounds of water can also have a calming effect. Studies concluded this is due to how our brains interpret noises and how we connect the sounds with images in our brains. Our brains process noises as either threatening or non-threatening. We interpret water as non-threatening, according to this hypothesis. Our brains also connect the sounds of water with calming images stored in our memories, from personal experiences or images we’ve seen in print or from the media.

The sound of water may help us to sleep. Non-threatening noises, especially when relatively loud, can drown out those sounds that might otherwise raise red flags in the brain’s threat-activated vigilance system.

“Having a masking form of noise can also help block other sounds you don’t have control over, such as loud music or traffic. The slow, whooshing of water is the sound of non-threats, which is why it works to calm people,” Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University, told Live Science. “It’s as if it is saying, ‘don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.’ I think that water sound apps are wonderful for being able to dial those sounds in and they can help people sleep,” Buxton said.

It is important to remember to include water’s calming effects on mind and body wellness. If the beach or a body of water is not available, even the shower can be helpful. We may never know why water calms us, but it does.

As the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once commented, “The water casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Dr. Nancy Berkoff is a registered dietitian, food technologist, and culinary professional. She divides her time between health care and culinary consulting, food writing, and healthy living.