Have you taken the plunge?
As a kid, I can remember spending time during the winter at a ski lodge on the east coast with my cousins. None of us skied while we were there… We just sort of hung out in the pools, smelling of chlorine, little bodies shivering and laughing as we would try to see how quickly we could get from the hot pools in the freezing icy air, to the indoor “cold” pool, to then –> the hot tub. AKA: Essentially, freezing and then defrosting, getting hot, then freezing and doing it all over again.
While it may look a bit differently in the wellness industry, the concept of using hot and cold therapies, or contrast therapy, to reap health benefits is well documented and becoming quite popular in the mainstream world of bio-hacking.
There are many different ways to practice hot and cold therapy, but the gist of “contrast therapy” is that you alternate between using hot and cold therapies to maximize health benefits.
Cold therapy can include: cold showers, cryotherapy, or cold-plunges (in an ice bath), whereas with hot therapy, we generally think of using a hot tub, infrared sauna, or partaking in a heated workout class.
Naturally, being absolutely freezing can be incredibly uncomfortable, so why bother?
For starters, despite the initial shock to the system, cold plunging has been shown to increase your baseline dopamine, or the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain linked to pleasure. It is essentially the brain’s reward system, that allows us to feel accomplished, motivated and satisfied.
A dopamine release can be triggered by sex, shopping and even the smell of pizza coming out of the oven. The feeling is addictive, making it just one of the reasons we can struggle to turn down that juicy slice of pizza, or reduce our spending, even when we know we should cut back.
Partaking in a cold plunge (ice bath), or doing cryotherapy, has a similar positive response in the brain, which is why I recommend cold therapy, especially to my clients that are suffering from depression, and/or low energy.
Cold therapy can also help to boost the immune system by stimulating white blood cells to fight off unwanted pathogens and improve lymphatic function, which can help reduce and eliminate fluid retention, strengthen immune response and aid in the body’s natural detoxification process. If you are not already convinced of the benefits of getting uncomfortable in the cold, consistently using cold therapy can dramatically reduce inflammation and help to reduce pain, making it ideal for individuals that workout regularly, or suffer from chronic discomfort.
Hormones out of sorts? Constantly stressed?
Cold therapy can help the body regulate cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone), which may be beneficial for those looking to lose stubborn weight, in addition to helping to better manage anxiety and insomnia.
Although both have their health benefits, cold plunges are considered a more holistic approach to cold-therapy than cryotherapy chambers and seem to have a more “cult-like” following. Advocates for cold plunging say that the physical action of immersing their entire body in the cold water helps to heighten their discipline, focus and concentration, more so than the alternatives.
Hot therapy, such as using an infrared sauna, increases the body’s core temperature, mimicking a “fever like” response that would naturally be created by the body to purify itself of harmful toxins and pathogens. We often think of “fevers” as something “bad” to be cooled down (and when we are dealing with extreme temperatures, especially in the elderly and children, this is necessary) but generally speaking, fevers are the body’s healthy immune response to fighting off bacteria and viruses. Similarly, sweating it out in hot therapy can be naturally detoxifying and cleansing, boosting the immune system.
Combination Therapy. Hot & Cold.
Why use both? Cold therapy causes the blood vessels to constrict. When the blood vessels constrict, blood circulation is slowed and we can reduce swelling, pain and the pinkness associated with inflammation. On the other hand, heat therapy increases the flow of blood and nutrients throughout the body, which can help with stiffness and detoxification. One of the reasons hot and cold therapy are used in combination is because the rapid change from hot to cold, or vice versa, is said to create a sort of “pumping” action in the circulatory system, essentially restricting and then increasing circulation throughout the body.
When we combine hot and cold therapy, theories suggest we maximize the potential for recovery, detoxification and overall well-being. It is always important to listen to your own body and consult with a healthcare practitioner regarding your specific health needs. Hot, and or cold therapy is not for everyone. For maximum benefits, stay hydrated and stay consistent.