Hot & Cold: Saunas, Cryotherapy & Your Immune System

August 24, 2020

Hot & Cold: Saunas, Cryotherapy & Your Immune System

In this article:

  • The history of saunas and cryo-chambers: sweat lodges and frozen lakes
  • Different types of saunas
  • Health benefits of sauna sessions
  • Cryo-saunas and cryo-chambers
  • Wim Hof & his method of cryotherapy

If you’ve been following the wellness practices of some of the most successful entrepreneurs and athletes in the last couple of years, you may have heard the buzz around temperature therapy: saunas, freezing cold dunk tanks, cryo chambers and infrared sauna spas. Hot & cold temperature treatments appear to have become a wildly popular wellness ritual among top performers for both optimization and long-term health. Today we’re diving into these treatments, the science behind them and removing the hype. Are they credible, and can they truly be effective body therapies? But before you read on, let me share with you a bit about my own experience as a Wim Hof wannabe and temperature therapy aficionado.

Frozen Lakes & Homemade Saunas

Growing up in the Rocky Mountains of Canada meant annual polar dips on New Year's Day and saunas combined with skinny dipping in the river, not always in that order. It sounds magical, but truth be told, there was a fair bit of frostbite, hyperventilation, and money exchanged while taking part in these activities. How much you could handle was just part of the experience. People betting against you only drove you to push the extremes even further. On one occasion while hiking, the wagers increased to $100 to jump into the adjacent glacial lake, count to 10, and then get out. Needless to say, I volunteered. I made it to 8 before passing out and 3 friends had to jump in and rescue me.

On other occasions alternating between jacuzzi and snowbank was a regular part of the après-ski ritual, but when my wet feet froze to an exposed piece of ice at -20 degrees Celsius, I started to have doubts and just stopped “behaving like an animal” as my mother liked to put it.

Skip ahead a few years, the news of Daniel Craig - Mr. James Bond himself - and Tony Robbins setting up their very own cryogenic tanks validated all my childhood experimentation. I decided I was onto something after all and I’ve started “behaving like an animal” all over again, although this time with a bit more guidance from gurus like Wim Hof, and the blessing of my Doctor. My recent conquests include consecutive morning dips into a Scottish Loch in the Highlands, a 30-day cold shower challenge, and a newly adopted Bikram’s yoga practice. The benefits? Well, for the most part I’ve simply felt more energized and in tune with my own body whenever I make these practices consistent. But you don’t need to hear it from me, read on to discover the real science behind what hot and cold therapies can offer.

The History of Saunas

The origin of hot saunas, better known as sweat lodges, stretches far beyond modern times. In fact, some historical reports mention their use in the Stone Age! On the other hand, cryogenic (cold) therapy has been associated with the ancient Greeks, while it was also used in Ancient Egypt for pain relief.

Sweat lodges were used for religious rituals in the tradition of Native Americans, which included the so-called ceremonial sweating. These lodges were filled with hot stones, on top of which water was poured. The ceremony included spiritual conversation, prayers, and singing. It was a matter of spiritual, as well as physical purification. In certain groups, sweat lodges were locations for important meetings and plans regarding hunting and battles. What’s particularly interesting to mention about these ceremonies is that they would typically end with a bath in a cold stream.

Hammam is yet another wellness ritual with a rich history, especially in the tradition of the Ottomans. The Turks also view this kind of bathing as a form of spiritual awakening and aura purification, recognizing that its benefits stretch far beyond the physical. The hammam ritual encompasses much more than just bathing; it includes massages, pampering, and a skincare routine, as well as a “recovery” lounge where you can enjoy a cup of Turkish tea, as well as a traditional Turkish dessert. The oldest Turkish bath was built in 1454, and it is one of the most popular historical sites in Turkey.

Basically, the origins of temperature therapies go deep into our cultural histories as humans, contributing to our belief systems and our health. But what exactly does science have to say? What are the benefits and side effects of saunas and cryogenic chambers? How often should you use them and how do they impact your immunity? Whether you’re just about to schedule your first appointment or you consider yourself the next Wim Hof, a little background knowledge can’t hurt!

Are Sauna Sessions Good For You?

Types of Saunas

Sauna therapy entails exposing the body to increased heat for specific periods of time. You’ve probably heard a lot about the Finnish sauna, but it is, in fact, only a style of sauna. When talking about the main types of sauna, there are basically three different varieties: Dry air (Finnish sauna), Steam, and Infrared. The first two are most similar in the respect that heat is projected from the outside chamber into the air, and onto the skin. An infrared sauna, on the other hand, penetrates the skin, directly affecting our blood temperature and fine capillaries. Therefore, when it comes to the infrared sauna, the body isn’t directly affected by heat from an outside source, but by the fact that our own blood is heating up. Sounds a little scary, doesn’t it?

When it comes to infrared saunas, what may sound particularly puzzling is the fact that our blood is actually changing temperatures, which may raise some eyebrows. However, penetration only reaches the outer layers of the skin, not the actual blood vessels. It is through the epidermis that these blood vessels rise in temperature, and without any tissue damage, your body temperature increases. What’s particularly appealing about this method is that it is only body temperature that is increased, while the air around you doesn’t become unbearably hot. So, infrared saunas are not like standing out in Texas heat in the summertime and may be a more comfortable option for some. Infrared saunas are recommended for people who find hotter sauna air impossible to bear for longer than a few minutes. In short you can get some of the same health benefits without having to put up with so much heat.

What are the Benefits of Sauna Sessions?

One of the primary uses of sauna treatments (other than pure relaxation and hedonism - which we wholeheartedly support!) is aimed at physical recovery and rehabilitation. According to a study dedicated to the effects of the Finnish sauna, the prolonged exposure to hot air affects the body's core temperature, bringing it up to 39°C, while the skin surface temperature may go up to 42°C. Why are saunas an integral part of the athlete’s recovery process? Sauna bathing has been shown to offer pain relief, as well as promote optimal rehabilitation in injured individuals and reduce muscle soreness. Furthermore, it is recognized as an incredibly beneficial therapy in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, joint diseases, and hypertension.

When it comes to immunity, sauna treatments can indeed help to reduce susceptibility to colds and infections, while also affecting hormones and the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, as well as the respiratory system. Thermal stimuli from saunas have been associated with important changes in morphotic blood components and the overall functioning of the immune system. Sauna sessions may also improve the white blood cell profile, as a remarkable increase in neutrophils, lymphocytes, basophils was noted in athletes following sauna bathing. In fact, some scientists argue that the effect of sauna bathing on white blood cells is quite similar to that of physical exercise.

In addition to its anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive activity, there is also evidence that promotes the bacteria-combating effects of sauna bathing. Namely, overheating the human body has been found to aid in dissolving bacteria and dead tissues by promoting the biosynthesis of immunoglobulins. As a whole, sauna sessions have been associated with helping to promote the body’s first line of defense against harmful microorganisms, a study conducted by W. Pilch and colleagues states.

When it comes to potential side effects of the sauna, it’s no surprise that boozing and saunas simultaneously is a no-no. Alcohol should be avoided at all costs when planning a sauna session to avoid dangerous levels of dehydration and nausea. At a more severe level, a review of sauna health benefits suggests that alcohol consumption in combination with sauna bathing may lead to cardiac complications, increased risk of hypertension, and traumatic events such as burns. In short, stay sober in the sauna.

Cryotherapy Treatment: Uses & Benefits

Cryo-Sauna or Cryo-Chamber?

Cryotherapy is a broad term encompassing all forms of medical treatments based on exposure to cold, so it’s no wonder that the term itself is derived from the Greek word cryo, which means cold. Modern beginnings of cryotherapy can be found in the methods of Toshima Yamauchi, a Japanese medical professional, who applied freezing instruments directly to the inflamed areas to reduce pain and improve circulation. Nowadays, cryotherapy is mostly performed in a cryo-sauna or cryo-chamber, encompassing the entire body. The low temperature in these settings is achieved with the use of liquid nitrogen.

So, what is the difference between cryo-saunas and cryo-chambers? A cryo-sauna is considered to be partial-body cryotherapy, as it is an open tank exposing only certain body parts to the cold (head and neck are excluded). One of the advantages of this type of cryotherapy, which is also one of the main reasons behind its popularity, is a lower cost and transportability. In conditions of cryo-sauna, the liquid nitrogen is sprayed directly onto the body, and the temperature is set anywhere between -110°C and -195°C. On the other hand, a cryo-chamber, which is a full body cryotherapy immersion, submerges the entire body in cold temperatures, similar to jumping into a glacial lake. These chambers emit cold vapors at temperatures ranging from -110°C to -160°C, in intervals no longer than 4 minutes.

The Wim Hof Method & Benefits of Cryotherapy

As soon as the subject of cryotherapy is brought up, one name comes to mind: Wim Hof. Wim Hof, better known as The Iceman, became famous for his endurance in conditions of low temperatures, and even developed his unique Wim Hof method. This method entails specific breathing techniques, meditation, and obviously, exposure to cold, which results in numerous beneficial effects.

There are 3 important elements to keep in mind when it comes to the Wim Hof method: cold therapy, breathing, and commitment. That last one can be tough! Monitored exposure to cold, which is the basis of the method, is associated with numerous health benefits, including fat loss, weight loss, reduced inflammation, better sleep quality, balanced hormones, and the production of endorphins. As far as specialized breathing techniques are concerned, these breathing patterns appear to reduce stress levels, provide more energy, and promote the immune response, which is one of the main health benefits of this therapy. Finally, staying committed to this technique and practicing proper breathing is the key to success in cryotherapy.

According to research conducted by M. Kox et al., engaging in a cryotherapy session results in lower levels of proinflammatory mediators on one hand, and promoted anti-inflammatory cytokines on the other, which is particularly important when it comes to immune response. Furthermore, cryotherapy is used to alleviate symptoms of inflammation, as well as pain related to conditions such as arthritis and osteoarthritis. A natural alternative to cryotherapy in a sauna or chamber is winter swimming, which is frequently practiced in northern countries. The benefit of swimming in ice-cold water is the ability to promote better immunity against respiratory diseases and infections, and overall boosted antioxidant protection. And in case you're not able to visit a northern country just to experience the benefits of cryotherapy, an ice bath will do!

Summary

Even though exposing yourself to extremely high or extremely low temperatures may seem counterintuitive, so many positive experiences speak in favor of these unorthodox treatments. Both sauna sessions and cryotherapy-like techniques have been around for a while, and the evidence backing up their numerous health benefits keeps growing. After all, the immunity-boosting effect is something all of us require more than anything else, and these techniques seem to bring a lot of improvement in that field. In case you’re trying to naturally enhance your immune response with supplementation, check out our selection of all-natural supplements.

Article Summary

  • Sweat lodges and hammams are ancient saunas that have been used for hundreds of years for their health benefits
  • There are three main types of saunas including dry air, steam, and infrared
  • The benefits of sauna sessions are numerous, most prominently their immune support effects
  • Cryo-saunas offer partial cryotherapy, while cryo-chambers include the entire body
  • The Wim Hof method is one of the primary trends in cryotherapy promoting recovery & performance

Article References

  1. Cold Sauna: Hot vs. Cold Saunas. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2020, from www.cold-sauna.com website: https://www.cold-sauna.com/hot-coldsauna-nordic-finnish-sauna.html
  2. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains | SWEAT LODGE. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2020, from plainshumanities.unl.edu website: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.rel.047#:~:text=The%20sweat%20lodge%20is%20a
  3. » The History of Turkish Baths. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2020, from hammamspa.ca website: https://hammamspa.ca/hammam-life/the-history-of-turkish-baths/#:~:text=The%20first%20hammams%20were%20found
  4. Boost Your Health With Heat. (2020, April 2). Retrieved August 21, 2020, from TRULY HEAL website: https://trulyheal.com/boost-your-health-with-heat/
  5. Pilch, W., Pokora, I., Szyguła, Z., Pałka, T., Pilch, P., Cisoń, T., Malik, L., & Wiecha, S. (2013). Effect of a single finnish sauna session on white blood cell profile and cortisol levels in athletes and non-athletes. Journal of human kinetics, 39, 127–135. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2013-0075
  6. Kukkonen-Harjula, K., & Kauppinen, K. (2006). Health effects and risks of sauna bathing. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 65(3), 195–205. doi:10.3402/ijch.v65i3.18102
  7. Laukkanen, J. A., Laukkanen, T., & Kunutsor, S. K. (2018). Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 93(8), 1111–1121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.04.008
  8. 13 Benefits of Whole Body Cryotherapy + Side Effects. (2019, November 20). Retrieved August 21, 2020, from SelfHacked website: https://selfhacked.com/blog/whole-body-cryotherapy/
  9. Team, N. (2019, April 4). Infrared Sauna vs Cryotherapy. Retrieved August 21, 2020, from Neosauna website: https://neosauna.com/infrared-sauna-vs-cryotherapy/
  10. Bouzigon, R., Grappe, F., Ravier, G., & Dugue, B. (2016). Whole- and partial-body cryostimulation/cryotherapy: Current technologies and practical applications. Journal of Thermal Biology, 61, 67–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtherbio.2016.08.009
  11. Kox, M., van Eijk, L. T., Zwaag, J., van den Wildenberg, J., Sweep, F. C. G. J., van der Hoeven, J. G., & Pickkers, P. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(20), 7379–7384. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1322174111
  12. Dugué, B., Smolander, J., Westerlund, T., Oksa, J., Nieminen, R., Moilanen, E., & Mikkelsson, M. (2005). Acute and long‐term effects of winter swimming and whole‐body cryotherapy on plasma antioxidative capacity in healthy women. Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigation, 65(5), 395–402. doi:10.1080/00365510510025728




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