self reflection

Can a Mustard Bath Mend a Broken Heart?

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I don’t usually like people as much as I like mustard, but then I met T. The clichés all proved to be true, and I won’t bore you with them here except to say that T was like honey: Gentle, sweet and hard to remove.

When they unexpectedly stopped talking to me one Thursday afternoon, I searched and searched for ways to heal. Lots of bottles of wine were consumed. The staff at Via Carota practically handed me two Negronis every night I walked in. I knew I couldn’t carry on like this and expect to be truly present for any of my responsibilities, so when someone recommended taking a mustard bath every Sunday night to detox from a stressful week, I was immediately intrigued. Could a mustard bath be the answer to my heartbreak?

I have been obsessed with mustard for as long as I can remember. Every Sunday after church when I was growing up in Ohio, my family would gather at my grandma’s house. The adults would yell across the table about politics and religion while the young cousins would play dress-up and slug cold Cokes. To eat there were always platters of sweet sticky cinnamon rolls, a glossy pink honey-baked ham, little potato buns, and a chubby bottle of Plochman’s yellow mustard. I’d sneak a few buns at a time, cracking them open with my thumbs, plop on a fat slice of ham, and save the star of the sandwich for last: A heaping squirt of mustard. When I took a bite it would ooze onto my fingers and I’d lick it off as I hid under the table, relishing the solace the tart paste left me.

My parents had Finnish friends who would ship a big box of treats every Christmas. I’d dig through the Styrofoam packing peanuts, past the lingonberry jam, the smoked salmon, and the Finlandia vodka, and head right for the mustards. There were three types, housed in stiff tubes with Finnish writing I couldn’t read. I knew them from the color of their caps: green was sweet, red was hot, black was spicy. I’d lather box after box of Finn crisps with serpent-shaped mounds of it, keeping me company from the blustery winds and dropping temperatures outside.

In elementary school, my classmates would watch in horror as I’d ask for the mustard packets that came with their Lunchables and squeeze them into my mouth. Even now I am known to eat spoonfuls of whole-grain mustard, the seeds popping on my tongue like caviar. When I told T about my love for mustard, they told me about an old mustard shop in Ghent, Belgium, near where they grew up, that had been producing mustard since the 1700s. We promised we’d go there together some day.

As it turns out, a mustard bath doesn’t consist of filling your tub with gallons of French’s and dipping yourself in like a human corn dog. Dr. Singha’s is contained in an azure tub, and promises to be “an aid in relieving many ailments.” Although it’s not specified, I’m sure heartbreak is one. For each bath, I get the water as hot as I can (“Keep it hot!”, the instructions said), and put in one two-ounce scoop of the powder. It’s yellow, as you might expect, and the rosemary, thyme, and eucalyptus make it smell like a deep spicy wintergreen Lifesaver. As the steam rises from the water, I reluctantly plunge my hand in to dissolve the mix, and then slowly enter, feet first, into the scalding water.

My skin turns instantly red. I sweat the type of sweat that starts somewhere deep in your scalp; beads of condensation surround your nipples and your shoulders are dotted in droplets. Somehow, though, it feels good. I set my timer for 20 minutes. Enya, books, business plans have all made fine companions, but my best healing has come when I’m alone, relishing the independence, listening only to the water plunging from the faucet.

As I soak in the bath, my mind often wanders back to Tierenteyn-Verlent, the mustard apothecary in Ghent, Belgium. Although I was promised a trip to the store with T, we didn’t make it that far. But I did go there alone, imagining T’s mother stopping by to pick up a jar of mustard to send to me, and I thought about T’s long and lanky body sauntering through the small store with her. It’s a glorious shop filled with ceramic jars. The owner’s niece let me sample a bit of their honey mustard. It was sweet and warm and the honey balanced the mustard. They worked together harmoniously, complimenting each other’s complexities. But I found I preferred the pure mustard. It’s so strong, it doesn’t need the sweetness — forgive the pointed metaphor, but it is perfectly good on its own.

Athletes use mustard baths to relax their tired and achy muscles. If you can get past the heat, then yes, I can attest that legs that are tight from running and improper stretching do feel better after the baths. But so does my brain and so does my heart. The container doesn’t tell you what happens next. You continue to sweat and almost immediately drift off into a deep, dreamy sleep, often sweating through the night. The heat from the mustard seems to seep deep into you and really tries to heal you from the inside. It makes you not worry as much.

I am not an expert on why this works, nor the science behind it. Alexandre Dumas wrote a very lengthy and elegant essay which explores the history and botany and etymology of mustard. I have read that mustard has been used for many centuries as a topical ointment for burns, that mustard seeds are rich in a nutrient called selenium which protects cells from damage. Mustard seeds are huge in the Ayurvedic world because of their toxin-clearing properties.

Whatever the case, after the baths I wake up wanting to take each moment as it comes. Often after the baths I dream about the heartbreak, but wake up feeling at peace about it, not angry. Mustard has helped me relax and, most importantly, it has helped me heal.

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Can a Mustard Bath Mend a Broken Heart?