Hot and cold: The health benefits of ice baths and saunas

Relaxation is an integral part of health and well-being. Humans have long sought out various methods and practices to rejuvenate both body and mind. Among these, two contrasting yet equally impactful therapies have stood the test of time: ice baths and saunas.

In the quest to live longer and healthier lives, have you tried saunas and ice baths? Better yet, have you tried them sequentially?

What is a sauna?

Saunas are therapeutic, heated (between 150°F and 195°F or 65°C to 90°C), confined, wood-lined rooms with benches, and a range of seating, design, size, and capacity options [1]. The heat generated within the sauna stimulates detoxifying perspiration, comfort from aches and pains, and deep relaxation.

According to one study, four to seven sauna sessions a week lowered mortality rates – even one session per week can reduce all factor mortality [2]. The heat from the sauna immediately relaxes you, enhances circulation, and relieves pain in your muscles.

Saunas are therapeutic, heated (between 150°F and 195°F or 65°C to 90°C), confined, wood-lined rooms with benches, seating, design, and size or capacity options

There are several various types of saunas. Finnish saunas generally utilize dry heat, while Turkish-style saunas have more moisture. Unwinding in a hot, woodsy-scented sauna may be included in your gym workout or a pleasant experience booked for vacation.

Whether you pamper yourself a few times a week or once a year, saunas can provide leisure and health benefits.

It’s important to note that beginners should initially use a sauna for five to ten minutes. Ultimately, you can increase your time but limit it to 20 minutes to avoid dehydration.

Likewise, a steam room is another variation of the sauna. Both enhance circulation, reduce pain, and help with relaxation. A steam room, however, actually helps the sinuses and relieves congestion. They also feel very different, as saunas deliver dry heat while a steam room provides wet heat.

The Finnish sauna

Saunas are a component of practice – intertwined with Finland as the snow that descends there. Saunas were created as hygienic ways to cleanse before running hot water existed. The word sauna comes from a Finnish term that translates into English as ‘bath.’

The original Finnish saunas were dug into ridges in the ground and afterward were made above ground from wooden logs [3]. Rocks were warmed in a stone stove using a wood fire. 

Though these first sauna rooms didn’t have chimneys, bathers would have to wait until the rooms cleared of smoke. Finally, saunas became what we know today – traditionally heated by metal stoves and can reach temperatures as hot as 200°F (93°C).

Cold bath after sauna

Winters in Finland can stay up to seven months in the northernmost regions, thus the need for extremely hot saunas. But what about that cold plunge? It delivers an equally extreme way to cool off. 

According to the Finland tourism board, “When you come out of the sauna, jump into a lake, or roll in the snow. If you do roll in the snow, make sure it is fresh and powdery: old, icy snow can have an effect on your skin like sandpaper.” [4]

As your skin temperature increases, sauna-goers undergo a ‘fight or flight’ response, resulting in a raised sense of alertness, decreased pain perception, and an elevated mood. When you follow a sauna with a dip in cold water or snow, your adrenaline also rises.

Additionally, as well as the adrenaline rise, the hot sauna, and cold plunge routine can improve pain and inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis. This disease is said to be worsened by sauna visits that aren’t followed by some cold.

While the sauna after a cold plunge is stimulating and safe for most, it’s not for everyone. Individuals with heart conditions should probably try milder spa experiences.

This is because facial and scalp receptors react to the rapid temperature drop, stimulating the ‘diving reflex,’ a cardio-respiratory reaction. It can induce shortness of breath, decreased cardiac output, and an immediate decrease in pulse.

Health benefits of cold bath after sauna

Sweating caused by saunas may benefit people with peripheral arterial disease, chronic obstructive peripheral arterial disease (COPD), and congestive heart failure [5]. Saunas may also be beneficial for muscle healing after sports and help reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. People undergoing depression and anxiety may also find sauna bathing helpful.

You also burn calories while in a sauna. As your core body temperature climbs, you burn calories about 1.5 to 2 times faster than if you were sitting elsewhere. 

The combined practice of the two jumpstarts your ability to burn fat and lose weight because cold water exposure activates your brown adipose tissue to help burn fat for energy, so you stay warm. On the other hand, infrared radiation raises your heart and metabolic rate, like a mild to moderate cardio workout, letting you burn extra calories. 

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Cold therapy has been around perpetually in professional athletics, even though the mainstream population has only caught on in the last few years. A cold plunge approach implicates immersing the body in icy water for around two to ten minutes. 

Advantages include lymphatic, immune, digestive, and circulatory system boosts. It can take the form of ice baths, cold showers, polar bear dips and cold-shocking after relaxing in a hot tub or sauna [6].

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-use-a-sauna
[2] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/213072
[3] https://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/spa-health/hot-sauna-cold-body-shock.htm
[4] https://finland.fi/life-society/bare-facts-of-the-sauna/
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5941775/#B79
[6] https://saunahelper.com/sauna-before-or-after-yoga-and-stretching/

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.