But in my reading, I recently discovered that there is also such a thing as bathing in hay. Heubad, it is called, and it is a tradition that has been kept in practice for centuries high in the heart of the mountainous Alps.
My interest piqued, I endeavored to learn more about this certainly curious Alpine custom. Unfortunately, getting ahold of substantial information about heubad, about hay bathing, was like looking for a needle in a haystack (pun intended). Regardless, here’s what I found out.
Hay and high mountains
Heubad is an amalgamation of the German words heu, meaning ‘hay’, and bad, meaning ‘bath’, and it literally just means bathing or immersing one’s self in hay. (For those who are unfamiliar with hay, it’s grass and other foliage that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as animal fodder.)
Hay bathing is practiced in the Eastern Alps, specifically in the state of Tyrol (comprised of North and East Tyrol) in Austria, and in the autonomous provinces of South Tyrol (Alto Adige) and Trentino in Italy, which together form the Euroregion of Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino.
And it is there, in that high region where verdant valleys lie nestled within the rugged landscape; where cattle, sheep, and horses are pastured in lofty mountain meadows; where forest-clad slopes rise into summits crowned with everlasting snow; and where the Dolomites, a component range of the mighty Alps, rear their serrated peaks haughtily, that the tradition of heubad was born.
History of heubad
No one really knows how the practice of hay bathing began; its origin is itself bathed in myth.
Local folklore ascribes the discovery of heubad to an accident. As the story goes, some 300 years ago, local farmers working in the Alpine pastures – in Seiser Alm of South Tyrol, it is said – in their exhaustion from the labors of the day, laid down upon the mountain grass and there slept the night. When they awoke in the morning, they felt remarkably refreshed and well-rested, and all their bodily aches and pains had miraculously vanished!
The apparent healing effect of the Alpine grass was swiftly noticed, so that it soon became customary for farmers working in the lofty mountain pastures to sleep in the grass or in hay.
By the early 1900s, local businesses built around the concept of heubad began to appear, with farmers working alongside physicians the first to administer what was then being touted as a natural treatment and therapy to anything from muscle cramps and joint pains to obesity.
Today, hay bathing has grown into a distinct feature of Tyrolean (and Trentino) culture and heritage, one that locals have been keen on promoting for business. With an ever growing number of local hotels and spas offering dedicated heubad treatments, what was once deemed a fruit of fortuity is now being packaged and sold as a full-fledged wellness activity, a novel – and profitable – addition to the Alpine region’s traditional tourist offerings of hiking, mountaineering, skiing, and other outdoor adventures.
From holes to hot baths
Though the concept of heubad remains the same to this day, its method of application or administration has undergone significant changes throughout the years.
The hay itself is still sourced from grass freshly cut and baled from the mountain meadows in the shadow of the Dolomites, a process that is done only in the summer, when the grass is at its vegetative maturity, and only in the mornings, to prevent ‘sunlight drying of the dew’.
Tradition (and regulation) dictates that the grass should be harvested only from unfertilized mountain meadows with 40 (or 50) different types of herbs or hay flowers ‘present in any 50 m² area’. Such herbs include lavender, lady’s mantle, rampion, mountain achillea, artemisia, prunella, gentian, veronica, Easter flower, arnica, valerian, primrose, buttercups, soapwort, and thyme – many of which are used in ‘medicine and homeopathy’.
But where before patients were simply placed into holes dug on the ground by farmers and then covered with dry hay, heubad today takes on a more appealing form.
Patients partaking in hay bathing treatments in dedicated heubad spas or ‘hay bath stations’ would be immersed or soaked in thermal baths containing fermented hay, or else wrapped in layers of pre-boiled grass, at temperatures ranging around 40 – 42°C (104 – 108°F). Patients would have to strip bare, and depending on the spa, they may or may not be wrapped in clean cloth while they burrow in the hay. This procedure would last for 20 to 30 minutes, and would then be followed by another thirty minutes or so of relaxation while lying down on a couch, or wrapped yet again, but this time in blankets, while inside a quiet room. The entire process is supposed to make you sweat profusely, open up your pores, detoxify your body, soothe aches and pains, and to stimulate your metabolism.
Heubad: superstition or science?
The popularity of heubad, and its persistence throughout the years, are largely due to its promise and packaging as an alternative natural treatment and therapy. Hundreds of years of lore and tradition have built and bolstered the reputation of hay bathing as a local healing method.
Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, heubad was considered a natural treatment to rheumatic complaints, hip and back pains, stiff necks, muscle contractions, muscle cramps, neuritis, sciatica, synovitis, stiff joints, and even obesity.
Modern-day local business, health practitioners, and therapists have built upon this, promoting heubad as an alternative remedy to a whole host of medical problems, ranging from sciatica, rheumatism, osteoarthritis, sleep and digestive disorders, to mental and physical exhaustion. They claim that hay bathing improves circulation, stimulates metabolism, encourages the release of beneficial hormones, strengthens the immune system, and boosts overall wellbeing.
They cite the long history and tradition of heubad as proof of its efficacy. They also cite the numerous and various medicinal herbs, and the many essential oils, mixed within the Alpine hay, as major contributing factors to its potency.
Besides, they argue, if heubad isn’t effective, why is their business booming, and why do their customers keep coming back?
Despite the local popularity and long history of heubad, however, there is little clinical research to support its endorsed benefits. But to be fair, there has been only a handful of empirical studies conducted concerning the matter. And such precious few studies seem to validate more than refute the supposed medical value of heubad, albeit in a more cautious manner.
In medical publications, hay bathing (at least in its modern form) is referred to as phytothermotheraphy (PTT) or phytobalneotherapy (PBT). It is defined as a treatment involving immersing one’s self in a thermal bath containing self-heating and fermenting Alpine hay to benefit from the heat and the rich aromatic components released in the process.
One study assessed the efficacy of administering a cycle of PTT to patients who were suffering from fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), and who were considered ‘poor responders to pharmacological treatments’. After the treatment, the patients were then evaluated via a series of evaluation parameters, namely the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire, Tender Points Count (as determined by digital pressure), Health Assessment Questionnaire, and Arthritis Impact Measurement Scales. The results showed visible and significant improvements across all evaluation parameters (as opposed to a control group that was not subjected to PTT), suggesting that PTT may be a useful and valid treatment in conjunction with the usual pharmacological and physiokinesitherapy in FMS patients.
Another study involved adding a cycle of PTT to the usual drug treatment of patients suffering from ‘primary symptomatic osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, hip, or lumbar spine’. The results revealed a significant improvement in spontaneous pain felt by the patients (as measured by a visual analogue scale) and a reduction ‘nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug consumption’ after the treatment (as opposed to a control group that was not administered PTT), indicating that PTT may be a useful aid alongside the usual pharmacologic and physiokinesic therapies administered to patients suffering from OA of the knee, hip, or lumbar spine; or else as a valid alternative for patients who do not tolerate pharmacologic treatments.
A similar study, but this time involving only patients with knee osteoarthritis, underscore the mid-long term efficacy of PTT in relieving pain and improving functionality, as well as in reducing drug consumption, patient-physician contacts, and lab examinations among the patients (as compared to patients who were subjected only to standard medical care and physiokinesis therapy).
Beyond these, however, there is scant other clinical literature concerning heubad and its medical value. More empirical research is clearly needed to establish heubad as a sound medical treatment.
But I myself have never partaken in such a curious practice, and so could only draw upon the experience of others and the report contained within the handful of extant medical publications. But on the rare chance that I do get to visit wonderful Tyrol and Trentino, then certainly I would take the time to try out heubad – to discover for myself its touted healing virtues, sure, but more so to experience a remarkable tradition that, in that high, green region embraced by the snow-crowned Alps, has endured for so many years.