Hot and Cold: A Look into the Benefits of Contrast Therapy
In today’s fast-paced world, creating moments of reprieve to focus on your mental and physical health is key. Enter contrast therapy, a practice that involves alternating between hot and cold modalities, to intentionally recharge the mind and body. Read more to learn about the science behind contrast therapy and how to safely add it to your recovery routine at SweatHouz.
What is Contrast Therapy?
Contrast therapy, or contrast bathing, can be defined as immediately transitioning from a deliberate heat source, like the infrared sauna, into a cold shower or plunge (<59°F), or vice versa. In some cases, individuals may complete a contrast therapy protocol, systematically alternating between the two temperature extremes.
It’s a practice that has been investigated as an effective way to improve circulation and speed up recovery in athletes. Additionally, in Finland, where much of the long term sauna exposure data comes from, a typical duration of sauna bathing lasts from 5-20 minutes and is often broken up into smaller increments, with deliberate cold exposure in-between. Some researchers even suggest that alternating between hot and cold exposures may be additive from a cardiovascular health and adiposity reduction perspective, but the impacts are not well defined to date.
What are the benefits of
The mental and physical health benefits of contrast therapy include the sum of their parts, so let’s start by walking through the seemingly endless benefits of the infrared sauna. Short-term changes like improved sleep, reduced inflammation, and lower feelings of stress, are often evident after just one sweat.
And, long-term and consistent use of heat therapy is linked to an almost 50% lower risk of early death from all causes, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower risk of mental illness, improved brain health, and many others.
Cold water immersion, like the cold plunge at SweatHouz, comes with its own host of impressive mental and physical benefits, including decreased muscle soreness and faster post-workout recovery, an upregulation of neurotransmitters like epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine to elevate your mood, and a short-term increase in your metabolism. Plus, the mental grit it requires to overcome the cold shock is hard to capture in study form; some describe the cold plunge as mental training to better face the stresses of daily life.
Contrast therapy is studied less extensively than deliberate hot and cold exposure alone, but some evidence has directly measured its potential impacts. In the short-term, contrast therapy manipulates blood flow (heat = vasodilation, cold = vasoconstriction) and may help to manage perception of pain, as well as inflammation. Potential long-term benefits include improved cardiovascular health and decreased risk of brain disease. Additionally, athletes tend to report reduced feelings of soreness when using contrast water therapy, suggesting contrast therapy may be an effective post-workout recovery tool.
Try A Contrast Therapy Protocol at SweatHouz
Research is clear that heat and cold exposure has physiological benefits, and if you are more likely to use our headlining modalities when you pair them back-to-back, we consider contrast therapy a win! Our local SweatHouz studio teams are ready to help you align your infrared sauna sessions and cold plunge sessions appropriately. If you’re looking for a contrast therapy protocol to start with, we recommend a 20-25 minute session in a private infrared sauna suite (temperature 140*F), followed by a 2-3 minute cold plunge session. As you acclimate to both hot and cold stress, you can manipulate either the time for each exposure, the temperature, or both.
Is Contrast Therapy Safe for Everyone?
While contrast therapy is safe for most adults, we encourage you to check with your doctor if you’re looking to add contrast therapy to your wellness routine at SweatHouz. Contrast therapy has significant vascular implications, meaning it can quickly alter your blood pressure and heart rate, and is therefore not recommended for individuals with heart conditions, cardiovascular complications, circulatory issues, hypertension, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Remember that safety is relative to the person, and that you know your body best! Taking a minute or two to transition from the hot to cold, may be a way to mitigate some risk and allow your body to begin the natural warming or cooling process on its own.
Putting it All Together
Contrast therapy is one science-backed tool to consider adding to your next wellness experience at SweatHouz! As you book your first contrast therapy experience, be sure to check out our top 3 reminders below:
1. Start slow and build up your tolerance! We recommend selecting milder temperatures for the infrared sauna session, sticking closer to the 140*F default setting our infrared heaters. Once you’ve acclimated to the heat stress, and become comfortable with the contrast to a post-sweat cold-plunge, you may opt to dial up the heat a bit.
2. Pay attention to how your body is responding to the contrast, being mindful of any feelings of nausea, headache, or dizziness. If you begin to notice any symptoms, safely remove yourself from the hot or cold therapy. Don’t forget to bring a water bottle with you to ensure you’re staying hydrated, too.
3. Consider buddying up to try contrast therapy with a friend or loved one! We offer private, double infrared sauna suites made specifically for the buddy system. It can be helpful to have someone with you to help you monitor your physiological response – and remind you to breathe through it – when trying a new health behavior.