The Science of the Sea
There is something irresistible about the coastline, where soft sand and jagged rock meet the water. It is never the same. At times wild with the crash and tumble of white horses, at others, still and luminous in the glow of dusk.
There is even a term for people who are drawn to the sea and love to visit it, thalassophile. Many people experience deep feelings of relaxation and wellbeing on the coast. Some of this is surely down to the slow pace of life in places like Woolacombe, and being unplugged on holiday or on a day off.
But are there intrinsic benefits to being by the sea?
Many scientists think there are, and their research is dredging up a host of health and wellness benefits of spending time in coastal areas. It seems ‘vitamin sea’ is more than just a hashtag. The sea is good for us, body and soul.
1) Waves of Sound
Ocean waves are a form of white noise. White noise is so called because it contains every soundwave, like white light. The waves share the same amplitude, which means your brain cannot distinguish individual sounds within the hubbub. Like multiplying the voices in your local coffee spot a hundred times. Even the juiciest gossip would slip under the radar. Your brain knows when it's beaten. It allows white noise to simply wash over you, meaning it's a fantastic soundtrack for sleep and concentration.
But why is listening to rolling waves, a far off storm, or the pitter patter of rain so relaxing? Scientists believe that water sounds, unlike voices or electronic beeps, are read by the brain as sounds of safety. Hearing them, your brain is reassured that there are no threats in the vicinity (hence no need for you to make a sudden fight or flight response), so it allows your body to fully relax.
Next time you are sunbathing on the beach to the gentle lapping of the shore, notice how far away stress seems in that moment.
2) Sea Air
The Georgians believed sea air had medicinal properties. They prescribed trips to the coast as a remedy for people with weak constitutions. Whilst they didn’t understand why, they were definitely onto something.
Coastal air isn’t just cleaner, with fewer pollutants than inland areas, it is also charged with negative ions. These ions are created by motion: air funnelled through mountain passes and storms, water pounded in waterfalls and, of course, against the shore and seabed.
Negative ions are responsible for a cocktail of good. For one, they neutralise harmful 'free radicals' in the air. Then once they enter your bloodstream, they increase the flow of oxygen to your brain. Expect a clear head and a healthy energy rush. This is combined with an increase in your serotonin levels, the ‘happy’ hormone which makes us feel good.
Pierce Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, is among researchers who believe they may protect against airborne germs. It's a working hypothesis, but a good excuse for a beach day.
3) Salt Water
There are numerous health benefits to open water swimming - from strengthened immunity to lowered blood pressure - but the added minerals in sea water are packed with benefits. Not only does sea water have natural antiseptic properties, but the salt wicks moisture from any surface wounds you have, helping to seal them. Sure, it stings, but the salt water accelerates the healing of damaged skin. So you'll feel fresh and new the following day.
Sea water also aids our breathing. It has strong antihistamine effects and is an effective decongestant. The next time you are sniffling with hay fever, a cold or a sinus infection, try a bracing walk on the beach. Deep lungfuls of slighty salted air will clear the cobwebs right away.
4) Sunkissed Skin
It's no coincidence that we describe people as having a sunny disposition, or looking radiant with joy. Sunshine was the first gold, a life-giving currency we store in our skin.
Cells in our skin absorb the rays of light, to tell our bodies the time, keeping our circadian rhythms (like our sleep cycle) on track. The light also tells our endocrine system to release endorphins, natural chemicals which make us feel good. Sunlight is also a key source of vitamin D, which helps us to absorb calcium. When we don’t get enough of it, we open the door to symptoms like fatigue, depression, mood swings, lowered immunity, muscle pain, sleep irregularities, weaker bones and a higher risk of fractures. There’s even a report suggesting that the higher our levels of vitamin D, the lower our blood glucose level- so being deficient could be linked to Type 2 diabetes.
This isn’t about sunbeds or ditching SPF, but rather spending as much time as we can outside each day. The good news is that we can feel the benefits from a bimonthly beach day- the body stores vitamin D for 60 days after gentle daily exposure.
5) Sandy Toes
'Hot sand on toes/cold sand in sleeping bags'…Ben Howard knows.
What is the first things you do when you step onto the beach in the summer? Slip off your shoes and sink your toes into soft sand. It's a simple pleasure, an Amélie moment. But the sand alone is doing more for your health than you might think. For one, sand acts as a natural exfoliant, buffing your skin to remove dead cells and ease regeneration. That’s why you’ll find it in our facials in Alchemist Spa.
It’s also a great surface to exercise on, because it shifts as you move. These minute movements create extra resistance which amplifies your muscle engagement. But keep it good for the sole - go barefoot to work more muscles and engage more of the 2,000 nerve endings in your feet than you ever could in shoes.
This has several knock-on effects. Engaging your muscles strengthens them over time, and this will alleviate undue pressure on your joints and improve your balance and posture. Plus it feels nice- like reflexology.
“The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.” — ROBERT WYLAND