Hot and Cold Therapy: All-Natural Whole-Body HealingFayyaz Alam
Have you been looking for an all-natural way to achieve complete, whole-body healing? The answer can be found within the use of heat and cold therapy. There are many documented health benefits to using heat therapy such as a traditional sauna or infrared sauna and cold therapy such as cold showers and ice baths. Keep reading and we’ll tell you everything you need to know to start experiencing this all-natural, whole-body healing for yourself.
- Heat therapy is a combination of localized and whole-body applications including saunas, steam showers, heating pads, and hot tubs.
- The benefits of heat therapy can include reduced stress, improved circulation, increased cognitive ability, decreased risk of disease, and a better night’s rest.
- Cold therapy is a combination of localized and whole-body applications including ice packs, cold showers, whole-body cryotherapy, and ice baths.
- The benefits of cold therapy include reduced inflammation, a boosted immune system, reduced joint pain and muscle soreness, whole-body alertness, and a decrease in anxiety and depression.
- The combination of heat and cold therapy can provide all-natural, whole-body healing that is effective, accessible, and affordable.
All About Heat Therapy
Heat therapy can also be known as hot therapy or thermotherapy. As the name implies, it uses heat as a source of therapy. This can be done through the use of saunas, hot tubs, hot compresses, and more. Heat therapy increases blood flow and circulation as well as reduces pain and inflammation. Below you’ll find further information about the health benefits and types of heat therapy along with tips for practical applications.
History of Heat Therapy
Various types of heat therapy have been used throughout ancient history until the present day. In ancient Rome, thermae were public bathhouses that used heat therapy in the form of hot baths and steam. Many Native Americans have famously used sweat lodge ceremonies, which are still practiced today. In the 5th century BCE, Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of modern medicine, first noted that “fevers resolve spasms”. Later recognizing the power of heat therapy, he added, “Give me a fever, and I can cure any illness”.
In the 1st century, Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus often used heated sand and warm baths for the treatment of edema (fluid retention). By the 16th century, people in China, Japan, Egypt, and beyond were using hot stones and hot springs as therapy for many ailments including arthritis, respiratory issues, and various infections.
The Health Benefits of Heat Therapy
The health benefits of heat therapy have been thoroughly studied and well-documented throughout the years. A promising long-term 20-year study concluded in 2015 and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers discovered that heat therapy (through sauna and steam shower use) can lower the chance of cardiovascular disease and stroke. The study found that frequent sauna use is associated with many health benefits. These benefits include a lowered risk of sudden cardiac deaths, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.
A cardiologist at the Harvard University-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Thomas H. Lee, weighed in on the study by adding, “The cardiovascular effects of sauna have been well documented in the past. It lowers blood pressure, and there is every reason to believe that its effects are good for blood vessels.”
It’s also worth noting another study that followed over 2,300 men around for over 20 years and noted their sauna usage. When they concluded the study, they found that men who went to the sauna four to seven times a week were 66% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. They also found they were 65% less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Besides the overall health benefits, heat therapy can also be used to treat acute and chronic pain associated with injuries, arthritis, stiff joints, muscle aches, and more. A study published in 2014 looked at heat therapy in the use of acute lower back pain. Researchers found that the group using heat therapy reported significantly less pain compared to the other groups.
The Best Ways to Use Heat Therapy
The best ways to use heat therapy include a sauna or steam shower, a hot tub, or a hot compress. The best method for you can depend on the desired outcome you’re looking to achieve. For example, while saunas are very beneficial for your health, if you are looking for help with respiratory issues, a wet sauna will offer you better results than a dry sauna. We’ll go over the most popular options below and what they can work best for.
There are a few different options for sauna usage. This includes wet saunas (also known as steam showers), dry saunas (a traditional sauna), and infrared saunas (a sauna that uses no steam at all). While we’ll explain the differences below, there are some overall health benefits to using any type of sauna we wanted to touch on first.
The Health Benefits of Using a Sauna:
- Improved Cardiovascular Performance
- Reduced Risk of High Blood Pressure
- Stress Relief
- Relaxes the muscles and relieves tension
- Improves Circulation
- Reduced Risk of Respiratory Disease
- Stimulates & Releases Endorphins (the body’s all-natural “feel good” chemical)
- Reduce Muscle Soreness
- Reduce Pain from Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, and Other Chronic Painful Conditions
- Improved Recovery & Muscle Growth after Exercise
- Deep Sweating Flushes Toxins from the Body
- Reduced Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease & Dementia
- A Better, Deeper Sleep
- Can Help Fight Illnesses and Kill Viruses
- Cleanses the Skin & Clears the Pores
- Burns Calories to Promote Weight Loss
Wet Saunas vs. Dry Saunas
There are many health benefits of using a sauna. However, there can be different perks from using dry heat (such as found in a traditional sauna) versus moist heat (such as found in a steam shower).
A traditional sauna produces a dry heat. In this type of sauna, volcanic rocks are placed on a heater which will raise the temperature to between 150 – 200° Fahrenheit. Then, water can be poured over the rocks to produce steam. The dry heat in saunas allows them to be safely raised to higher temperatures than wet saunas (or steam showers). You also have the option of producing steam only if you choose and the humidity hovers around 10% unless a ladle of water is poured over the rocks. This will raise the humidity to between 30-40%.
A wet sauna, or steam shower, is usually made from ceramic tile, glass, or other non-porous materials rather than the traditional wood. The non-porous material allows all of the heat and steam to be sealed in which maintains the “wet heat” they are known for. The heat source is also different for wet saunas. While in a dry sauna the heat source is located within the structure, in wet saunas, steam generators are placed outside of the structure. These types of saunas are usually controlled by a thermostat and the temperatures generally reach between 110 – 120° Fahrenheit. While this is considerably less than a dry sauna, the humidity moves from about 10% up to a complete 100%. The higher humidity creates the sensation of a much hotter environment, which allows the temperatures to remain lower.
Benefits of Dry Heat
The dry heat of a sauna soothes the nerve endings and warms and relaxes muscles. It relieves the tension from your body and reduces joint inflammation and pain. This is can be especially beneficial for those who suffer from arthritis, painful migraines, and headaches. The heat from a sauna also helps the body release endorphins which help with pain, reduce stress, induce relaxation, and aid in a better night’s sleep. Once you leave the sauna and your body starts to cool down it also releases melatonin, which helps you feel more relaxed and enjoy a deeper sleep.
Benefits of Moist Heat
While the moist heat of a wet sauna, or steam shower, offers many of the same benefits, it also brings even more. The steam in the room, often 100% humidity, helps to open up airways and bronchial tubes. This helps improve your breathing and alleviates congestion. The moist heat from a steam shower thins and opens the mucous membranes in the body which helps to relieve pressure. This is very beneficial and sought after most by those that suffer from asthma, bronchitis, chronic sinus infections, and allergies. It’s also worth mentioning that since higher humidity levels cause increased sweating, steam showers can be better for weight loss and increased metabolism.
As we discussed before, traditional saunas generate their heat from a heater and stones. A heater produces temperatures up to 200° Fahrenheit while the included water cask and spoon allow you to add water to the heated stones to get to your desired humidity level. As the temperature of the air increases around you from the heated stones, the temperature of your body increases as well as it begins to absorb the heat. This increase in temperature causes your body to start cooling itself down which is done by sweating.
Infrared Saunas create the same atmosphere but at a much lower temperature and with absolutely no steam or humidity. Infrared saunas use infrared heaters instead of traditional heaters and stones. This works to emit a specific wavelength of infrared light. Your skin then absorbs this wavelength which causes your body’s temperature to rise. This brings the same effects as a traditional sauna but with temperatures only needing to be 120 – 150° Fahrenheit.
The heat from the infrared travels much deeper into the body and is able to produce more effective sweating at a much lower temperature. There is no need to worry about infrared waves either as they are naturally occurring in our environment and we regularly receive these same waves from the sun.
Infrared Saunas work best for those looking for detoxification, weight loss, cellulite reduction, and those who want no steam or humidity during their relaxation. Recent studies have also shown that patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis can benefit from infrared saunas as well. Patients reported a significant decrease in pain, stiffness, and fatigue.
A hot tub is a small pool of water that is heated and used for relaxation and hydrotherapy. They often include built-in jets for an added massage-like effect on muscles and joints. The temperature of most hot tubs ranges between 100 – 102° Fahrenheit, which a maximum of 104° Fahrenheit.
Soaking in hot water works to increase your circulation and produces the effects of weightlessness. The improved circulation brings more nutrient-rich blood to the muscles which works to help the cells and tissues regenerate. This can speed up the healing process of worn or injured muscles. The weightlessness effect relieves the pressure and weight exerted on your joints. According to The Arthritis Foundation, regular relaxation sessions in a hot tub can help keep your joints moving, strong, and flexible. It can also help protect them from further damage as well as reduce swelling and inflammation.
Local Body vs. Whole-Body Application of Heat Therapy
Practical applications of heat therapy usually involve local body or whole-body treatment.
Local body application of heat therapy can work for sore or injured muscles and joints, cramps, sinus congestion, and stiffness. This can include the use of a warm compress, hot water bottle, or heating pad. These type of heat treatments work best for targeted therapy such a localized muscle or joint pain. There is no limit to the amount of time you can use these applications for. Most minor muscle and joint pain can be treated with 15 minutes of heat therapy. More severe pain may take longer to treat but take breaks after about 30 minutes.
Whole-body application of heat therapy can work for a variety of issues include the ones mentioned above. While it’s great for reducing pain and stiffness in joints and muscles, it can also boost the immune system, improve whole-body circulation, help you get a better night’s sleep, and reduce stress. Whole-body application of heat therapy includes saunas, steam showers, and hot tubs. This type of heat treatment works on a systematic level to improve the health of the entire body.
All About Cold Therapy
Cold therapy is also known cryotherapy. It uses cold temperatures as a source of therapy. There are different types of cold therapy including cold thermogenesis, which generally uses air or water, and ice therapy which uses forms of ice. There are many benefits of using cold therapy and we’ll discuss those as well as more about each type below.
History of Cold Therapy
The use of cold therapy dates back as far as 2500 BCE. During this time the Egyptians discovered the use of cold therapy to treat injuries and inflammation. While cold therapy continued to be used for similar applications throughout the years, it wasn’t until the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 that a greater use was observed. Dr. James Arnott described the benefits of localized cold therapy in the treatment of numerous conditions, including headaches and nerve pain. He was also able to use salt solutions containing crushed ice at temperatures as low as -11° Fahrenheit to freeze breast, cervical, and skin cancers. With this method he was able to observe shrinking of the tumors and significant decreases in pain.
Over the last hundred years, scientists have been able to isolate colder substances such as liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen. This enabled the development of cryosurgery and cryoablation. Both of these methods use extremely cold temperatures to destroy damaged or diseased skin.
The Health Benefits of Cold Therapy
There are many well-documented reports of the health benefits of cold therapy. Some of the most commonly reported are pain relief, reduced inflammation, muscle healing, and even weight loss.
Cold therapy is already used in the treatment of some cancers and may help to prevent others. In cryotherapy, extreme cold is used to destroy cancer cells. This has been especially effective in skin cancer and cervical cancer but can be used for other types as well. Since whole-body cryotherapy reduces inflammation, some researchers believe it may reduce the risk of cancer as well.
Since cold therapy has been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, it is believed it may help in neurodegenerative diseases as well. Current studies are working to see if it can help with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other age-related forms of cognitive decline. Initial research has been promising but further studies still need to be done.
One area that has been well-researched is cold therapy in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory rheumatic diseases. Scientists have found that the pain level after application of the cold therapy decreases significantly with the reduction lasting as long as 90 minutes. They also found cold therapy to be useful prior to intensive applications of physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy.
A surprising find was published in 2008 in scientific journal AITE. Psychiatrists at the Wrocław Medical University in Poland tried whole-body cold therapy to treat depression and anxiety. They had each participant rate their levels of depression and anxiety. They were then split into groups, one receiving cold therapy treatments and the other not. At the end of the three-week study, researchers found that there was no significant change in the control group. However, the group that received cold therapy with the application of 15 visits of the cryo-chamber for 2-3 minutes, experienced a 50% decrease in both depression and anxiety.
The Best Ways to Use Cold Therapy
There are several different methods you can use when seeking to use cold therapy. The most common practices are air cold therapy (exposing your body to cold air), water cold therapy (cold showers or ice baths), and localized ice packs. Which method you should use depends on the type of results you are looking for, however, most come with the proven health benefits listed above. Continue reading to explore different cold therapy applications.
Air vs. Water in Cold Therapy
The two main forms of cold therapy involve the use of air and water to cool the body.
In whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), your body is enclosed inside of a chamber with only your head being exposed. The chamber is then dropped to temperatures as low as -300° Fahrenheit and your body is exposed to the cold air for up to 4 minutes. You can receive health benefits from even one use but long-term use is suggested for the benefits. For example, many athletes use whole-body cryotherapy daily to help soothe, relax, and repair muscles. However, to keep it simple and accessible for everyone, just take a walk outside on a cold wintery day.
When water is used in cold therapy, it is usually in the form of an ice bath or a cold shower. Immersing the body into cold water is thought to activate the body’s natural healing ability and relive the symptoms of many illnesses. It is said to help activate the lymphatic system to clear the body of waste which also boosts the immune system.
Both methods offer similar health benefits. However, the use of air in cryotherapy is thought to be more effective in some cases since the temperatures can get much lower than they can in an ice bath or frozen lake. In the same respect, other people prefer the use of water at home or in nature versus liquid nitrogen in a chamber.
Cold Showers & Ice Baths
Cold showers and ice baths have been used as remedies for various ailments over the last several centuries. When your body is immersed in cold water such as in an ice bath or a frozen lake, several things begin to happen. Your lymph vessels begin to contract which kicks the lymphatic system into gear. This starts to flush waste away from cells and your muscles and also prompts your immune system to attack and destroy any unwanted substances.
Cold-water immersion also improves your circulation. When you shock your body with the sudden cold, blood rushes to surround and protect vital organs. This, in turn, causes your heart to pump more blood throughout your body; supplying every part with the oxygen and nutrients it needs. That is why after an intense workout, studies have shown that cold water immersion can significantly decrease the delayed onset of muscle pain. It can also help the body repair and heal the muscles faster and have a pain relieving or analgesic effect.
It’s not just ice baths that can help, cold showers have also been shown to have numerous benefits as well. Studies have shown a cold shower can have a substantial effect on relieving depression. Exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” response) and increase endorphins and noradrenaline in the brain. Located on your skin are thousands of tiny cold receptors. When you take a cold shower, these receptors send a very large amount of electrical impulses from the peripheral nerve endings to the brain. It is believed this may offer an anti-depressive effect.
What is Cold Thermogenesis?
Thermogenesis is the process in which mammals (animals and humans) produce heat. Cold Thermogenesis serves to stimulate this process for the purpose of improved health and mental awareness as well as increased metabolism and weight loss. While cold thermogenesis encompasses most of what we spoke of above such as ice baths and cold showers, it focuses more closely on using cold therapy for weight loss.
When the body is submerged in cold water, your core temperature begins to drop. This causes your body to begin an induced process of thermogenesis in order to maintain the ideal body temperature. During this process, the metabolic rate is increased which results in weight loss. One study published in 2011 found that when the body is submerged in cold water, the whole body metabolic rate was increased by about 16%.
Local Body vs. Whole-Body Application of Cold Therapy
Local body applications of cold therapy would include using an ice pack or frozen gel pack on sore muscles or injured joints. Placing an ice pack on a localized area works by reducing blood flow to that area. This can significantly reduce swelling and inflammation and also lower nerve activity in the area. All of these processes also work together to reduce pain. You can use localized cold therapy such as an ice pack several times a day but no more than 20 minutes at time. You should also never apply a frozen item such as ice directly to the skin as it can cause damage. Wrap loose ice in a towel, for example, before applying directly to the skin.
Whole-body applications of cold therapy such as ice baths and cold showers can offer the same benefits as offered above and even more. Ice baths and cold-water immersion have been shown to increase circulation, boost the immune system, improved mental awareness, and increased metabolism. Cold showers have also been shown to improve alertness, mood, and decrease symptoms of depression.
Toxin Removal with Heat and Cold Therapy
Both heat and cold therapy have been shown in numerous studies to remove toxins from the body.
Research has shown heavy metals and toxins such as lead, mercury, and cadmium are excreted in sweat. Early research published in 1973 suggested that sauna bathing could be used as an effective method to eliminate toxic trace metals from the body. Further follow-up studies as recently as 2012 confirmed these findings. Scientists have found the presence of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat. It is believed that inducing sweat, such as in sauna use or exercise, can help to rid your body of these harmful toxins and heavy metals.
While there hasn’t been as much research on the use of cryotherapy for detoxification, the studies that have been done shown it is effective. In 2015 a study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance tested cryotherapy on athletes. It found that cold therapy increased oxygen and nutrients in the blood. That highly oxygenated blood is circulated around your vital organs to protect them. Your heart begins to them pump blood more efficiently to your limbs and the rest of your body. The oxygenated blood then helps to flush toxic buildup in the muscles and elsewhere in the body.
Side Effects and Possible Risks
When using localized applications such as a warm compress or hot water bottle, make sure the item isn’t too hot. It’s better to be “warm” rather than “hot” so you don’t burn your skin. Direct heat treatments shouldn’t be applied for more than 30 minutes at a time.
While multiple studies have shown that sauna and hot tub use are safe, people with heart problems should still check with their doctor first to be sure. Particularly those with abnormal heart rhythms, poorly controlled blood pressure, unstable angina, and heart valve disease or advanced heart failure. When using a sauna or steam shower, to avoid dehydration it is advised to avoid alcohol before and after use.
When using localized applications such as an ice pack or frozen gel pack, make sure the item isn’t directly applied to the skin. It should be wrapped in a towel or shirt before being applied to the skin to avoid damage to the tissue or nerves. Direct localized cold applications should be applied for no more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid skin or nerve damage. Those with sensory disorders that prevent them from feeling certain sensations and those with diabetes need to be careful with using cold therapy since they may not be able to feel damage being done.
While there have been little risks shown for whole-body cold therapy, people with heart problems, poor circulation, and diabetes may want to talk to their doctor first.
Heat and Cold Therapy Provide All-Natural, Whole-Body Healing
Both heat and cold therapy and been shown to provide substantial benefits to the entire body. This form of therapy is inexpensive, effective, and can often be done at home. Some of the health benefits to heat and cold therapy include reduced inflammation, pain, muscle soreness, and joint stiffness. It has also been shown to improve sleep, mood, cognitive ability, mental awareness, metabolism, and whole-body alertness. A mixture of heat and cold therapy can provide all-natural, whole-body healing.