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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Dead Sea -- A Source of Life Shaah Tovah 2010

The Dead Sea – a Source of Life
By Debbie Shapiro

I visited the Dead Sea for the first time in 1971. I wasn't planning to go, but when I found myself wandering down Meah Shearim Street, eager to get a glimpse of life there from the inside, I noticed a group of women piling into the back of a tender (which in those days was an enclosed pickup truck lined with benches). The driver was informing everyone that the tender would be leaving to the Dead Sea in ten minutes and that there were still a empty few places left. Being the adventurous time – after all, I was only seventeen -  I handed the driver a few lirot and jumped inside. With my colorful outfit and matching purple stockings, I stuck out like, well, I guess the only way to describe it would be as an American, fresh off the boat, amongst a group of Yerushalmi.

Hal an hour later we arrived at what to me appeared to be the middle of nowhere. I followed the other ladies as they jumped down from the back of the truck and walked along a dirt trail skirting the lake until they reached a beach, which consisted of nothing more than a desolate water tap, hard black earth and the seemingly endless expanse of the sea – which in those days was much larger than it is today.  The women quickly changed into robes, lowered themselves into the silky water and began smearing mud over their arms and legs. I followed suit, while secretly questioning why in the world anyone would want to do such a thing. After that experience I stayed far away from the Dead Sea. I wasn't interested in thick, stinging water or slimy mud.

Fast forward several decades. The local Nashei was sponsoring a women's getaway at Yam Hamelech. The getaway part sounded great, and as for the Dead Sea, I figured I'd go once to be a good sport and then spend the rest of my time lounging in the garden or feasting on the six gourmet meals served daily. But after one morning spent floating in the Dead Sea, I was hooked. I ended spending several hours a day there. It was a pleasurable and relaxing experience, but it was only after I returned home that I noticed that my feet, normally covered with hard calluses, were now soft and pink, almost like those of a newborn. And then, to top it off, my normally arthritic knees didn't hurt that winter.

Several years later my three year old grandson developed severe psoriasis that did not improve with conventional treatment. By the time my daughter-in-law got him to the skin specialist, secondary infections had set it and the child was in agony. The doctor – a professor at Hadassah -- gave my daughter-in-law a choice of either a six week series of radiation treatments at a major hospital or two weeks sunbathing at the Dead Sea. Of course she opted for the second choice. After a challenging two weeks (have you ever tried to get a three year old to sunbathe?) the psoriasis was gone, and I was flabbergasted!

A Unique Spot

At 1,385 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest spot on earth. With its whopping 33.75% salinity, it is approximately ten times as salty as the ocean. Until recently, it was thought that nothing – including bacteria and viruses – could live in its water, hence its name. Not long ago, however, scientists discovered microscopic mono cellular algae and other organisms that originated in the Jordon River and were now living in the Dead Sea.
But although coined the "Dead Sea," the sea's rich minerals are what can only be described as life-giving. Its high concentration of minerals -- thirty-five in all, among them magnesium, calcium, bromide and potassium – promote health by nourishing the skin, easing discomfort, activating the circulatory system and relaxing the nerves. These minerals also alleviate the painful symptoms of many skin ailments, such as psoriasis and dermatitis, rheumatism, arthritis and fibromyalgia, a painful muscle disease.  
But what about the mud? Why would anyone want to cover themselves with slimy black mud and then lie motionless in the sun waiting for it dry? The answer lies in the mud's incredibly high concentration of minerals, which is higher than that of the Dead Sea itself. As the Sea evaporates, the salts and minerals are absorbed into the mud, making it into a natural beauty mask. Interesting enough, this natural product is so valued that it is packaged and sold worldwide.  According to the cosmetic manufacturer, Cleopatra's Choice, Dead Sea mud improves blood circulation and natural skin generation; its fine mud grains cleanse the skin and remove any dirt particles, impurities and toxins; it provides effective relief for skin disorders such as psoriasis, eczema, acne and wrinkles; it moisturizes the skin and helps natural skin hydration; and it gently peels away dead skin cells to reveal more youthful, healthier skin layer. And best of all, it's free -- at least if you're visiting the Dead Sea!
But in addition to the free mud packs, there are additional perks to actually spending time at the Dead Sea. Since the Dead Sea is the lowest spot on the planet (approximately 400 meters – 437 yards, close to a quarter of a mile – below sea level) harmful ultraviolet radiation (mainly UVB) is filtered out, making it possible to soak up the sun for extended periods of time – up to six hour per day -- without harm, which is why people with skin ailments from throughout the world flock to the numerous hotels and spas built there. Free of cancer-causing radiation, the sun's rays are a natural healer.

Even the air at the Dead Sea is therapeutic! Since it's the lowest place on earth, the Dead sea has the highest barometric pressure in the world, giving it up to 8 percent more oxygen molecules per cubic meter of air than ordinary air at sea level. This oxygen enriched air eases breathing, which is particularly helpful for people who  suffer from lung disease. In many cases, vacationing at the Dead Sea is a simple – and certainly pleasurable! -- way to improve asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive lung disease.

Last year I spent a few days at a hotel near the Dead Sea. One of the women there was suffering from a degenerative lung disease that was slowly destroying her lung tissue. A resident of Europe, her pulmonary specialist had sent her to the Dead Sea to slow down the progression of her disease, with the hope that she'll eventually find a lung for lung transplant.

In addition to being rich in oxygen, the air around the Dead Sea contains a unique array of chloride salts, including large concentrations – up to twenty times greater than anywhere else on earth – of bromine, which is famous for its calming effect.
My friends tried to convince me that the reason I felt so totally relaxed during my vacation at the Dead Sea was because of the high concentrations of bromine in the air. But I'm positive it was the combination of sun, water and good food! Whatever the reason, I returned home from those three days at the Dead Sea totally rejuvenated!
Minerals for Health
The Dead Sea is the most mineral-rich body of water on the planet. It has fifteen times more magnesium -  known for its anti-allergic influence on the skin and bronchioles (the small tubes that connect that bronchi to the lung's air sacs, which is where the oxygen exchange takes place)  than the ocean. Its concentration of bromine, which has a soothing and tranquilizing effects on the nervous system and acts as an antiseptic to heal skin problems, is some 50 times greater than that of the open seas. Iodine, essential for the correct functioning of the thyroid gland and a most important factor in the body’s metabolism, is found in concentrations ten times greater than in any other body of water on earth. The Dead Sea is rich in sodium and potassium, which facilitate the entrance of nourishing substances into the cells while at the same time helping to eliminate toxins. Potassium, a water balance regulator, increases the rate of metabolism to help cell growth and regeneration, as well as chorine, which strengthens the cell membranes while relieving pain and activating existing enzymes is present in the water.  Even zinc, which plays an important role in cell proliferation, can be found in the Dead Sea. These minerals enter the skin through a process called reverse osmosis, in which they draw toxins out of the body even as they become incorporated into the cell.

Although it's certainly more fun to attain these benefits through bathing in the Dead Sea, today, thanks to the close to thirty cosmetic companies touting Dead Sea products, its possible to purchase natural Dead Sea salts and mud as well as hundreds of different moisturizing creams, skin care products, soaps, shampoos, and perfumes based on natural minerals extracted from the Dead Sea.

Wonder of the World

But the Dead Sea is much more than a huge natural health spa. It's rugged, pristine beauty is so unique that it's been nominated – and is one of the fourteen finalist – to the 2011 international contest decide which natural phenomenon is to be included as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The other contestants include such spectacular places as the Amazon River, the Galapagos Islands, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. Winning this prestigious award would be a tremendous boost for tourism; in 2007, after Jordon's Petra was elected as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Jordon enjoyed a three hundred percent increase in tourism!

But the rules for the contest specify, “sites of extraordinary beauty and ecological significance, which have not been created or significantly altered by humans.” Although the Dead Sea is more than magnificent and definitely has tremendous ecological significance, there is no doubt that it has been "significantly altered by humans."  Almost all the water from the Jordon River, which, other than a few springs and minimal rainfall, is the Sea's only water source, is diverted for agriculture use.  In addition, companies such as the Dead Sea Works and the close to thirty cosmetic companies mentioned in this article extract huge amounts of minerals from the sea.

There is no doubt about it. The Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking. Forty years ago, the Dead Sea was 392 meters (1286 feet) below sea level. Today, it is around 412 meters (1352 feet) below sea level and decreasing by around one meter (approximately 3.3 feet) every year. If this trend persists over the next 10 years, the Dead Sea will lose one-third of its area--receding from 1,000 sq km (approximately 386 sq. mile) at the beginning of the 1960s to around 650 sq km. (approximately 251 sq. miles).

When I first came to Israel, the Dead Sea shore was just yards away from the road, today it's up to a mile inland. Close to forty years ago, the Ein Gedi spa edged the shoreline. Today, the distance is so great that a small railroad transports bathers from the spa to the water. As a matter of fact, the Dead Sea is actually two separate lakes, with a strip of land dividing them. If it weren't for an aqueduct transporting water from the northern part of the lake to the southern part, which is where the hotels are built, the southern lake would have also disappeared, leaving a whole complex of luxurious hotels and spas behind.

The changes in the Dead Sea were really brought home to me several years ago when I toured the Dead Sea Works near Sedom. Pictures taken at the beginning of the twentieth century showed the Dead Sea as covering much of the mountain ridge where I was standing and gazing down at the lake in the distance!

The death of the Dead Sea would have serious financial and ecological repercussions for both Israel and Jordon. In answer to this threat, the two countries are working together to create a pipeline that will bring in water from the Red Sea. The planned project, dubbed the Red-Dead Pipeline, will dump 450 cubic meters (approximately 15,892 cubic feet) of water into the Dead Sea annually, saving it from extinction.

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