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Sea swimming may add years to your life

August 6, 2013

2013 Bell Bouy Challenge

Ask an octogenarian about the secret of their robust rude health and chances are they’ll put it down to their daily tot of whisky — or even the occasional cigarette. Not exactly what the health police want to hear, and possibly pretty unlikely, too.

But if your octogenarian claims it’s all down to regular dips in the sea, then there could be something in it.

For a number of studies have shown that sea swimming may have benefits for health, from boosting the immune system to easing skin complaints and aches and pains, as well as relieving allergies. Some research even suggests it may boost our sex lives.

People say they feel great after a sea or river swim, which may be because the chilly water activates cold sensors all over our bodies — cells positioned just  0.18  millimetres under our skin — which in turn increase heart rate and give us that “alive” feeling,’ explains Michael Tipton, professor of human and applied physiology at Portsmouth University.

‘The cold sensors also trigger a sudden burst of adrenaline that diverts our attention away from our aches and pains, creating the feel-good factor. It’s effectively a natural painkiller.’

As well as distracting from the pain, repeated exposure to cold water over time may improve the way our bodies cope with other physiological stresses.

A study Professor Tipton and his colleagues conducted in 2010 found that when we experience stress — such as getting into cold water — our heart and breathing rates increase.

But the rate of this increase can be halved with regular short periods of immersion (between three and five minutes) in cold water, according to a report in the Journal of Physiology.

Meanwhile, an earlier Czech study found that people who immersed themselves in cold water three times a week experienced a significant increase in their white blood cell count — immune cells important for fighting off infection.

The researchers put this down to cold water acting like a mild stressor, activating the immune system and giving it a workout.

Another, similar study found that cold water immersion may improve our sex lives by increasing the levels of testosterone and oestrogen in men and women respectively. But it is swimming in salty sea water that may be particularly beneficial. A study published in the  International Journal of Dermatology found that magnesium-rich sea water  promotes the retention of moisture in  the skin.

Other research published in the medical journal Skin Research and Technology found that sea water is good for some skin conditions such as psoriasis — it’s thought the salt and potassium chloride found naturally in sea water ‘seals’ the damaged skin and speeds up the healing process.

Meanwhile, the British Association of Dermatologists has found that eczema in children improves when parents introduce sea swimming into their excercise regimen. A study conducted by the organisation into children with eczema caused by allergies found that sea water baths reduced their symptoms.

Sea water may also lessen the symptoms of hay fever such as a runny and itchy nose — the        water acts like a ‘saline douche’, washing the nasal passages clear of the irritating pollens.

People who live by and swim in the sea tend to have healthier respiratory systems, says Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services with the charity Allergy UK.

‘Sea water is a cleanser, and it mimics  the body’s own fluids in the lining of  the airways, and so doesn’t irritate them,’ she says.

Not only does this mean it can help wash away irritants, its antiseptic properties mean that wounds are more likely to heal, she adds. There is also the fact that a good sea breeze brings cleaner, pollen-free air in from the sea.

And then there is the circulation-boosting effect. When we immerse ourselves in cold water the blood moves very quickly from our extremities to our major organs, and then back again as we warm up.

So while a dip in the sunny warmth of the Med will be good for you, possibly even better is a regular splash in the  chilly, British briny. It could add years to your life.

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