Written by Gina McGalliard

The potential applications of float therapy are numerous

I have a spa ritual I do regularly and I know if you did it too, it would have the power to transform your health, maybe even your life. No, seriously. I’m talking about float therapy, also known as floatation therapy or floating. So how did I get here? I could give you the short answer and tell you I decided to try it on a lark after seeing a Groupon ad, but that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as the full story.

As you may remember from my last post, I recently–and by that I mean the past few years–have been struggling with a mystery sleep disorder so severe that at times it left me homebound if not nearly bedridden. In addition to medication provided by Western medicine to help manage my symptoms, I began experimenting with various modalities of self-care I could find on the aforementioned Groupon: reflexology, massage, infrared sauna, cupping, cryotherapy, and this new thing I had read about called floatation therapy. Being a voracious reader of magazines, I had read about the sensory-deprivation tank in the health section of women’s magazines, but had no idea such places existed in my hometown of San Diego.

Here’s a brief explanation and history of floating for the uninitiated: the float tank, also sometimes known as a sensory deprivation tank, is an enclosed pod or chamber filled with water warmed to the human body temperature. It also contains more than a thousand pounds of Epsom salt, causing your body to float when you soak in it, as if you were in the Dead Sea. For at least an hour, you lie in the darkness as you deeply relax and seem to lose sense of time. Some have even reported having visions or mystical experiences while in the tank. Floating has existed for decades, but has recently exploded in popularity as people have discovered it as a treatment for various ailments or as a way to enhance overall well-being.

I wasn’t afraid of tight spaces, and I love heated water, so I was excited for my first float. The sleep disorder patient in me relished the chance to passively rest while the float tank worked its magic on me, and my initial sensation was one of sinking deeper and deeper within myself. Soon I was going for regular sessions.

Profound relaxation in the tank also has the advantage of seeing one’s life with clarity, and having been emotionally battered by the experience of a debilitating illness, I was able to let go of these negative emotions. Be it feelings of anger toward individual doctors who dismissed me as a head case because they could not put me into a diagnostic box, or toward a wider physician culture that was quick to slap the psychosomatic label on female patients whose symptoms eluded a quick fix, or the resulting terror that an uncertain future of possible infirmity produced, floating let these toxic memories seep out of my psyche as my focus turned toward what I wanted for the future. In the sanctuary of the pod, I might come up with an idea for a story I wanted to develop, or come up with road map for the novel I’d been itching to write but had had a difficult time with since dealing with chronic sleep issues. The lucidity provided by deep tranquility allowed me to see that every dream I had was still in me, it just might take longer to accomplish while I still had to work around the sleep disorder. Floatation therapy is also a perfect vehicle for visualization, and many sessions have been spent seeing myself regain my radiant athletic health. Once finished, I always feel clear-headed and grounded, sometimes even softly energized, a valuable gift for anyone who struggles with daytime tiredness.

Profound relaxation in the tank also has the advantage of seeing one’s life with clarity. . .

. . your body is getting a blast of the essential and life-giving mineral known as magnesium.

And in addition to the serious creative and emotional perks, I also learned that because you’re submerged in so much epsom salt that your body is getting a blast of the essential and life-giving mineral known as magnesium.

This got my attention immediately.

My first foray into the Land of Natural Healing occurred in my mid-twenties, when an occasional proneness to an upset stomach spiraled into a full-blown stomach ailment so severe I was nauseated every minute of every day and spent more hours than I care to remember in the bathroom. My weight dropped dangerously low, leading some acquaintances to question if I had an eating disorder. Doing what any reasonable person would do, I went to a well-respected GI specialist who came at the recommendation of another physician. After rolling his eyes when I told him I was a freelance journalist and writer (not an uncommon reaction, but not one I’m happy to get from someone I’m coming to for help) and derisively mentioning that I hadn’t even bothered to leave San Diego to go to college, he said based on my symptoms and predominantly Northern European ethnicity I might have Celiac disease. I tested negative, so he then told me he thought my illness was primarily psychological. I found another doctor.

The second–and much nicer–doctor noted how much Ibuprofin I was taking on a weekly basis for my headaches. Pointing out that such high quantities can ravage the stomach and could indeed be the cause for my extreme stomach illness, he recommended I see a headache specialist. I took his advice, and the neurologist I visited quickly diagnosed me with migraines and instructed me to take magnesium supplements.

Magnesium supplements?

I counted myself as a reasonable and educated person that put my faith firmly in the hands of evidence-based medical science. My friends who were into natural healing and took gobs of supplements were simply ill-informed and had expensive urine, I thought. When it came to health, I firmly believed that if something had not been incorporated as a part of mainstream medicine, then it must have no value and be no more effective than the placebo effect. Right?

Wrong. I took the magnesium and my headaches dropped off almost immediately. And no one was more surprised than me. I had bought the pills from the drugstore purely for the purpose of being able to truthfully tell the doctor I had tried his suggestion, at which point he would of course give me the “real stuff” i.e. pharmaceutical painkillers.

. . .the book listed a number of symptoms caused by magnesium deficiency. . .

Then in my late twenties, my sleep disorder, which had been under control with medication since my very early twenties, violently reared its head worse than it had ever existed before. Doctor after doctor dismissed me as either a malingerer or a hypochondriac until I found my wonderful current neurologist who is actually willing to help patients who don’t fit into a strict diagnostic category. After I was prescribed a different medication which enabled me to lead something of a (albeit highly compromised) life, it was also recommended by another physician that I take high-absorption magnesium supplements to counteract the anxiety I was experiencing as a side effect from the drug. And it helped.

Thinking I might be onto something, I bought and devoured the book The Magnesium Miracle by Dr. Carolyn Dean. Learning about magnesium supplementation and the root causes of illness went hand-in-hand with my current interest in the realm of wellness–I was forced to go back to basics, which of course started with what I was eating and what nutrients I was or wasn’t getting. Furthermore, I learned that certain drugs, including ones I had been on, such as Prozac, Prilosec and hormonal birth control pills, can make magnesium less available to the body. and And having had my confidence in medical doctors shattered, I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that nutrition was an area physicians spend very little time on in medical school, and thus they are unlikely to look at mineral deficiencies as potential causes for their patients’ maladies.

I read Dr. Deans’s book in shock as the book listed a number of symptoms caused by magnesium deficiency that I recognized as my own: not only sleep disturbances and migraines, but other symptoms, such as cold hands and feet–and anxiety. I had suffered from a driving phobia in my late teens and early twenties, and when doctors learned about this “history”, the word they always liked to gravely intone, they often concluded my sleep disorder must be caused by anxiety and shut the book on me. The Magnesium Miracle, on the other hand, presented a new paradigm entirely: the lack of a crucial nutrient in the body can result in multiple and seemingly unrelated symptoms. And in a medical world where doctors know all about how stress affects the physical state of the body but next to nothing on how the body’s imbalances can result in psychiatric or neurological symptoms, this does muddy the waters indeed. To make things worse, magnesium is an exceedingly difficult mineral to get through a well-balanced diet alone because of both soil depletion and the body’s tendency to burn through it quickly. And I had only recently cleaned up my diet as I took all aspect of my health into account. (Side note: I am a faithful adherent to the awesome Virgin Diet. Thank you, JJ Virgin!)

. . .mainstream medical practice seems to have yet to discover the rich frontier of the power of the body’s overall physical health to restore the brain and mind. So I’ll continue to spend lots of time relaxing in the salty sensory-deprivation tank. And if I have a spiritual awakening or two along the way, that’s just gravy.

So back to floating. It turns out not only could it be better than psychotherapy or church, but it has a fantastic ability to transform the physical health of the recipient in that it provides a vital mineral that modern medicine barely acknowledges the importance and therapeutic value of.

As a result, today I am a regular presence at the float spa, and I feel the serenity start to work its enchantment on me as soon as I walk in the door. Floating is actually one of the most powerful forms of nutrient supplementation you can do, since according to Dr. Dean absorbing magnesium through the skin can be more effective than through the digestive tract. I even had the privilege of attending a daylong meditation retreat hosted by Float North County, which included not only two 90-minute float sessions but an introduction to various types of meditation (including lovingkindness, my favorite, which has particular resonance for me as my compassion for the suffering of others has taken on a new dimension since experiencing my own) and a vegetarian Indian lunch to boot. Surrounded by like-minded individuals, it occurred to me that my sleep disorder journey had inadvertently turned me into the full prototype of the woo-woo New Age-y environmentally conscious Southern Californian. And it felt like it was always who I was meant to be.

I will not know if low magnesium was/is the cause of my serious sleep problem until my magnesium reaches optimum levels–according to testing, I’m out of deficiency range but not close to optimal range. In fact, I’m still closer to deficiency than I am to optimal levels. And that’s with a year and a half of high-absorption supplementation, including floating, so I’m guessing that at one point my stores were dangerously low. Also, a word to the wise: when having your magnesium tested, be sure to get the red blood cell (RBC magnesium) test, NOT the serum test that conventional physicians are familiar with. You can even order it yourself at www.requestatest.com. No doctor required.

The potential applications of float therapy are numerous: athletes use it both to recover after an event and visualize their game moves, chronic pain sufferers find relief without the risk and side effects of drugs, artists and scientists alike can have “aha” moments, and even those struggling to overcome addiction have all benefited from floating.

But while the vast majority of floaters are probably in pursuit of the meditative effects of float therapy in order to boost their body’s general health, I’m trying to do the opposite and heal my body in order to restore my brain, whether it’s issues with sleep, migraines or anxiety. It’s an anomalistic approach in a world obsessed with the mind’s influence upon our physical selves, and mainstream medical practice seems to have yet to discover the rich frontier of the power of the body’s overall physical health to restore the brain and mind. So I’ll continue to spend lots of time relaxing in the salty sensory-deprivation tank. And if I have a spiritual awakening or two along the way, that’s just gravy.