Science is strange. Whenever researchers probe it more deeply, they always come up with something that surprises us. It happens everywhere, from physics to chemistry and, as it turns out, what makes us healthy.
Consider saunas and ice plunges. You would think exposing yourself to extremely hot and cold temperatures would be bad for the body, but the opposite seems to be the case. Those who regularly use hot tubs swim spas and ice baths seem to do better, whether it is inflammation, level of healthy brown fat on their body, or even depression levels.
Sauna Is A Finnish Tradition
The Fins have been using saunas for generations to improve their health. Hundreds of years of experience have taught them that exposing their bodies to high heat and humidity for a few minutes every day can generate a response similar to intense exercise. Most saunas are hot at around 160°F and may also have high humidity to increase the intensity of the experience further.
Historically, people knew they felt better after spending time in a sauna. But it is only recently that science has plumbed the depths of the activity to learn what specifically about it is so beneficial.
As you might expect, research threw up multiple factors. For instance, some studies found that saunas could reduce heart disease and improve circulation by dilating the blood vessels. Allowing blood to flow through the body more easily could help with things like blood pressure and nutrient delivery to peripheral tissues.
Exercisers also saw some benefits. It turns out that saunas are good at reducing muscle soreness and inflammation after exercise. Muscles can recover faster, which is why you so often see sauna rooms attached to the side of fancy gyms.
Sauna may also offer some detoxification benefits for people who eat a lot of animal foods. Some persistent chemicals can leach out on the sweat, which removes them from the body.
Finally, saunas are a Finnish tradition because it reduces stress. Being in a hot and pleasant environment can cause cortisol levels to plummet in the hours after a session, transforming the rest of the day into a pleasant experience.
Ice Plunges: A New Addition
Ice plunges weren’t historically popular in the same way as saunas. However, recent research into the science of longevity seems to indicate that people who cool their bodies down sufficiently may also experience benefits.
The hunch that being a little bit cold might be good for you emerged in the 1990s after case studies came to light about people who went into hypothermic comas and survived.
Being too cold isn’t good for you according to conventional wisdom, and when body temperature drops excessively, it can cause the brain to blackout, usually leading to death. However, some people with stopped hearts, zero brain activity, and hypothermia came back to life up to an hour later after being warmed up, without any apparent damage.
This effect got other people thinking. Could cooling the body have beneficial effects?
One area of research looked at the effects of the cold on other warm-blooded mammals, like the bowhead whale. It seems to live an incredibly long time, despite living in Arctic conditions.
The reason, some researchers believe, has to do with a certain cold-binding protein. The animal expresses this in large quantities, potentially protecting it from the ravages of ageing, allowing it to live over 200 years.
More recent research on humans also reveals that we might be able to appropriate some of these benefits by ramping up cold-binding proteins in our own bodies and increasing the amount of metabolically active brown fat on our frames.
For example, studies suggest that short cold plunges can reduce inflammation. The body appears to react favourably by increasing the production of these beneficial proteins that seem to assist with metabolic health.
We also see improved immune system function. Short cold exposure in normally-fed people can improve the activity of various immune cells, helping the body fight off invaders and survive longer into old age.
The mental benefits are also significant, according to some researchers. For example, studies show that cold shock improves alertness and concentration. People are less likely to fall asleep at their desks if they are still shivering from being in ice-cold water.
Mood might also improve due to the brain’s response to cold shock. Improvements in the release of norepinephrine can have profound effects.
Combining Saunas With Ice Plunges
Given that saunas and ice plunges appear to work through different mechanisms, combining them could be an excellent way to benefit from the perks of each of them. Many gyms are now including both, giving you a chance to sweat it out in a steam room before jumping into a freezing cold vat.
How To Do It Safely
With that said, you’ll want to do both sauna and ice plunges safely. Getting your approach wrong could introduce all sorts of safety risks, including high blood pressure and heart problems.
If you’ve never jumped into an ice bath before, take precautions. Some people can react negatively and become unable to breathe because of a nervous reaction to cold exposure. This can make it hard to get out of the ice bath and you could drown before your body has time to respond to the stimulus.
You might also find saunas and ice plunges uncomfortable. The trick here is to accept the sensations flowing through your body instead of fighting them. While a little discomfort is unpleasant, it is ultimately doing your body good.
If you go to a gym with an ice bath and sauna, talk to the instructors there and get them to provide you with advice. Find out how to use the facilities properly for maximum benefit. Don’t just go wading in and hoping for the best.
So, in summary, ice plunges and saunas can be a great addition to your health regimen. However, if you are new to them, introduce them slowly. Literally jumping in at the deep end can be life-threatening.