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A Deep Dive into the Science and Benefits of Cold Plunge after Sauna


In our ceaseless search for well-being, we often look to nature for inspiration. One practice, as timeless as nature itself, is cold water immersion, also known as the cold plunge, and is a practice I particularly enjoy incorporating into my own wellness routine. This simple ritual born from the ancient wisdom of our ancestors, is backed by scientific research, showing it to be more than just a bracing dip in the water.


"In wildness is the preservation of the world." – Henry David Thoreau


winter swimming in an icy lake with a heart shape cut out in the ice

You may be inodiated with influencers on TikTok and Instagram submerging themselves in icy cold water - but this practice is much more than a fleeting trend. It is a revered tradition deeply rooted in various cultures across the globe, from the Finnish saunas followed by icy lake dives to the Russian 'banya' experience involving a steamy environment followed by a cold dunk.


More than just a test of willpower or a novelty wellness practice, the cold plunge delivers health benefits that may surprise you. Over recent years, scientists have started to explore the physiological responses induced by cold water immersion, revealing insights into how our bodies reacts and adapts to such thermal stress.


Today we will explore the science and benefits of this traditional ritual. We'll unveil why the combined practice of sauna and cold plunge is beneficial, shedding light on which should come first - the sauna or the cold plunge? How long I should indulge in a cold plunge after a sauna? And what cold plunge temperature should I be dipping into?


The Sauna and Cold Plunge Routine: What Comes First?


Heat and cold therapies have been part of human health and wellness traditions for thousands of years. Ancient cultures, from the steamy bathhouses of Rome to the hot springs of Japan, recognized the power of heat. They respected the potential benefits of cold, as seen in the icy river swims of the Vikings or the snow rolls of Native American sweat lodge rituals.


The revival of these ancient practices has merged with our quest for optimal health and we arrive at an intriguing question: Should we take the cold plunge before or after a hot sauna?


Enter the Soberg Principle. Upholding a common practice with roots deep in tradition, the Soberg Principle advocates for starting with a hot sauna session followed by a cold plunge. This sequential approach isn't merely a ritualistic choice; it's a scientifically considered routine designed to maximize the physiological effects and health benefits of thermal contrast therapy.


steamy sauna

Why should the sauna come first?


The answer lies in our body's response to heat. When you sit in a sauna, your body temperature rises. This triggers a series of physiological reactions, including the dilation of blood vessels and the stimulation of sweat glands. As you sweat, your body naturally promotes detoxification, eliminating toxins through the skin. At the same time, the dilated blood vessels enhance blood circulation, helping to transport oxygen and nutrients more efficiently throughout the body.


Transitioning from this heated environment into a cold plunge forces the body into a sudden, intense adaptation process. The cold plunge temperature, typically between 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (10-15 degrees Celsius), prompts the blood vessels to contract rapidly. This rapid shift from dilation to constriction, a process known as thermal contrast hydrotherapy, has powerful effects on our nervous and circulatory systems.


The body's acute response to the cold involves the 'fight or flight' survival instinct. The adrenaline rush stimulates the heart, increasing circulation, and sharpens the senses. Meanwhile, the cold acts as a tonic on the circulatory system, reducing inflammation and encouraging the removal of metabolic waste.


As a result, the sauna-cold plunge routine becomes a potent combination, harnessing the contrasting powers of heat and cold to stimulate, challenge, and ultimately, enhance our well-being


"In the heat of the sauna, one's body is pushed to its limits; in the cold of the plunge pool, one's spirit is awakened. It is in the harmony of these two extremes that we find wellness." - Mikkel Aaland, author of 'Sweat: The Illustrated History and Description of the Finnish Sauna, Russian Bania, Islamic Hammam, Japanese Mushi-Buro, Mexican Temescal, and American Indian & Eskimo Sweat Lodge.'.


The Science Behind the Benefits of Cold Plunge


So, what exactly happens when your body is enveloped by such icy water? An extraordinary cascade of events unfolds beneath the surface, brought about by our instinctual reaction to the cold. We touched on a little of the science above with the Soberg Principle, but lets dive a little deeper.


As we know, cold water immersion activates the body's 'fight or flight' response. This primordial response, governed by the sympathetic nervous system, prepares the body to react to perceived threats – in this case, the cold. It triggers an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a boost in metabolic rate. This adrenaline-fueled response is not merely about survival, though. The elevated heart rate and blood pressure increase the circulation of oxygen and nutrients to muscles and the brain, aiding in recovery and enhancing performance.


The cold water then induces a process known as vasoconstriction – the narrowing of blood vessels. When you step out of the cold water, these constricted vessels then dilate in a process known as vasodilation, boosting circulation and flushing out toxins and metabolic waste from the muscles. This repeated constriction and dilation can improve cardiovascular health over time.


The benefits of cold water immersion are not mere conjecture; they are grounded in scientific research. A notable 2020 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes who engaged in cold water immersion reported a significant reduction in muscle soreness compared to those who did not. The benefits extend beyond the professional sporting realm, too. Even for fitness enthusiasts and individuals who exercise regularly, cold water immersion can be a useful tool in managing and reducing the symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that can follow a rigorous workout, as suggested by a review published in the Cochrane Library.


a woman outdoors in ice water drinking whiskey

Further Cold Plunge Benefits: Emerging Research


While the benefits of cold water immersion in recovery and performance are increasingly recognized, it's the potential impact on our immune system and mental health that is sparking exciting new avenues of research.


Immune System Responses

When exposed to cold water the human body experiences a form of mild stress. This stress prompts an adaptive response, sometimes referred to as "hormesis", meaning, the body will begin to produce more white blood cells, including lymphocytes and monocytes, playing a critical role in fighting off infections and diseases, while potentially strengthening our immune response.


A 2018 study published in the Journal of Physiology supports this. Researchers found individuals who practiced routine cold water immersion exhibited an increased immune response compared to a control group. Although the precise mechanisms are not yet fully understood, the findings provide a glimpse into the potential of cold water immersion as an immune-boosting strategy.


Mental Health Benefits

The Mental health benefits of cold water immersion are similarly promising. Cold water immersion has been linked to an increase in mood-enhancing hormones. The shock of cold water triggers a flood of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. This endorphin rush can create a feeling of euphoria and exhilaration, reducing stress and promoting a sense of well-being. It also takes a lot of mindfulness and intense present-state awareness to endure icy cold water. This well-established technique further helps reduce stress, anxiety while enhancing mental clarity.


On top of an endorphin boost, research suggests that cold water immersion may help mitigate symptoms of depression. A 2008 study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses found that cold showers could serve as a potential treatment for depression due to the mood-boosting effects of increased endorphin production and improved circulation.


Brown Fat Activation

Among the numerous advantages of cold water immersion, the stimulation of brown adipose tissue, or brown fat, stands out as particularly fascinating. Distinct from the more common white fat which primarily stores energy, brown fat plays an active role in burning calories to produce heat. This unique function has cast brown fat in a favorable light among health enthusiasts and researchers alike. When exposed to cold temperatures through practices like cold water immersion, our body's brown fat springs into action, working as an internal furnace to maintain our core temperature. This thermogenic activity not only aids in burning calories but also has potential implications for improved metabolic health and energy regulation. Recent studies suggest that increasing brown fat activity could be a promising avenue for addressing metabolic disorders and optimizing energy balance, making the chilly embrace of cold water not just invigorating but also a strategic ally in metabolic health.



man in ice water up to his neck

How Long Should You Cold Plunge After Sauna?


The duration of your cold plunge after sauna largely depends on personal preference and tolerance. However, a general guideline suggests immersion in cold water for about 2 to 5 minutes. As with any wellness practice, the best approach is to listen to your body. Start with shorter durations and then gradually increase as you become more accustomed to the experience. Over time, as you further your cold water immersion journey, you'll find a duration that strikes the perfect balance of invigoration and rejuvenation.



Let's Embrace the Chill!

While the digital age showcases this ritual in brief, icy moments on social media, its roots travel much deeper, interwoven with centuries of human experience. It's not merely about braving the cold but about understanding, respecting, and harmonizing with our body's natural responses. As we have discovered, the cold plunge, especially when paired with the warmth of a sauna, is more than a fleeting thrill—it's a holistic ritual that enhances both mental and physical well-being. Whether you're new to this practice or a seasoned enthusiast like myself, may your immersion be as invigorating as it is enlightening. Dive deep, embrace the chill, and let nature's timeless wisdom guide your wellness journey.



REFERENCES

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