Updated: Nov 16
Cori Burns, CEO Estacar Companies
These days, it seems like everywhere you look, health experts, celebrities, athletes, and influencers are buzzing about treatments that utilize extreme temperatures—infrared saunas, steam rooms, cold plunges, or cryotherapy.
Recently I was facing severe fatigue and migraines without any apparent cause. Not only were these issues affecting my career, but they were also making me question my identity as a mom, an athlete, and a businesswoman. I had MRIs, blood work, tried IV therapy and a cocktail of medications. I'm known for never giving up, always finding a way to bounce back, and exploring all available options. Then, out of the blue, a local business owner and health professional approached me. She was transitioning her business model and offered to sell me her contrast therapy equipment, which could be incorporated into our wellness services. It turned out that 4-5 different people had recommended me to her, although she had no idea I was desperately seeking relief. I had been praying for a solution that would help me regain my resilience, energy, and problem-solving abilities. After conducting some research, I concluded that this could be a worthwhile investment for our athletics division. With a little skepticism, I decided to try the therapy. Normally, I don't indulge in "therapies," massages, or spa services. I prefer to work, stay active, and achieve. However, this experience proved to be life-changing for both my body, which had recently been letting me down, and my mind. Contrast therapy served as a complete reset, both physically and mentally. Curious to understand why, I delved deepe
r into the subject.
Research shows that subjecting the body to drastic changes in temperatures may have physical benefits, such as pain relief, reduced inflammation, and improved circulation. But what about alternating between extreme temperatures? This method of switching from hot to cold (or cold to hot) temperatures, often going back and forth several times, is called contrast therapy, or contrast bathing, and has its own set of purported health benefits. EXPERTS IN THIS ARTICLE
Frank Lipman, MD, functional medicine doctor and chief medical officer at The Well
Contrast bathing has long been utilized by athletes as a means to alleviate pain and soreness, aiding in the recovery process after intense physical activity. As a former collegiate athlete, I used this to recover and get back on the court for years (when I was young). Now, experts are championing contrast therapy as a wellness practice that holds benefits for all, particularly in the realms of combating inflammation and slowing down the aging process.
Yet, amidst all the enthusiasm surrounding this practice, one may question its true worth. What does it truly feel like to expose one's body to such extreme temperatures in quick succession? In my quest for answers, I took the plunge (quite literally) and sought the insights of experts in this field.
Exploring the manifold health benefits of contrast bathing, we discover distinct advantages for both hot therapy and cold therapy treatments. Initially, heat exposure heightens heart rate and prompts the dilation of blood vessels. This, in turn, causes you to sweat and induces effects similar to moderate exercise, according to Frank Lipman, MD, a leader in functional medicine and author of The New Rules of Aging Well: A Simple Program for Immune Resilience, Strength and Vitality. Dr. Lipman recommends using an infrared sauna specifically. “Infrared saunas heat with infrared light and warm the body from the inside, not just on the surface,” he explains. “You’ll still sweat like a prize fighter but with less heat-related discomfort than you’d experience in a traditional sauna.” He recommends getting your doctor’s okay first, but says “time spent in an infrared sauna can be a safer and more comfortable way to gently work up a good sweat.”
Infrared saunas run approximately 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of heat exposure may help combat aches and pains, boost immunity by briefly raising the body’s core temperature, and stimulate blood flow.
A 2016 study conducted on Finnish men, individuals who frequented saunas four to seven times a week had a 66 percent lower risk of dementia compared to those who only used saunas once a week. Moreover, additional research revealed that regular sauna bathing was also correlated with a reduced likelihood of heart disease-related mortality. Incorporating cold therapy into the mix, contrast bathing can enhance blood circulation, potentially reducing muscle soreness, fatigue, and pain. Healthline explains that when exposed to cold water, capillaries contract, while warm water causes them to dilate.
Enthusiasts of contrast bathing believe that these shifts in blood flow, with vessels opening and closing, contribute to the benefits of injury relief by promoting faster cellular recovery. In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis found that contrast bathing facilitated fatigue recovery in athletes after intense events. Physical therapists often recommend that contrast bathing is more effective for recovery than passive rest after exercise, “though you may have to be exercising at elite levels for this effect.” Moderately active people might find just as much of a recovery benefit with other modalities like stretching and compression. At the very least, however, contrast bathing could offer a mental boost. A 2013 paper in PLOS ONE states that “water immersion may offer a generic psychological benefit whereby athletes simply feel more ‘awake’ with a reduced sensation of pain and fatigue after exercise.” Can contrast bathing actually slow down the aging process? Much of the research on contrast bathing focuses on recovery, especially for athletes, but Dr. Lipman says contrast bathing can also boost the health of your cells, which slows down the aging process. Cold exposure in particular has been shown to increase the production and health of the mitochondria in mice. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, and as Dr. Lipman explains it in his book The New Rules of Aging Well, they are “the essential force of life and longevity.” “Mitochondria transform food and oxygen into ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, a type of molecule that powers biochemical reactions,” he explains. “ATP molecules are especially abundant in the cells of your heart, brain, and muscles.” This is why mitochondrial function is so important for overall health and longevity. Contrast bathing may also boost autophagy, which is how the body repairs damaged cells. Dr. Lipman explains that when cells become damaged, the autophagic process kicks in, “recycling” the still-good parts of the cell to create new, healthy cells. “Autophagy can be likened to a cellular fountain of youth, delivering an impressive array of preventative benefits protecting us from dysfunction and disease,” he says. Autophagy has many preventative health benefits, such as controlling inflammation, boosting immunity, and yes, regulating mitochondrial function.
What it’s like to do contrast bathing IRL In my youthful days as an athlete, I relied on ice baths for accelerated recovery. Recently, I endured a three-week long bout of daily migraines and resorted to self-treatment using ice/heat pads and a dash of oxygen therapy. As an occasional visitor to spas and jacuzzis, I wasn't sure if I was up for the challenge of submerging myself in a cold plunge. However, with determination, and clad in a sports bra and shorts, I ventured into a 145 degrees Fahrenheit infrared sauna, basking in its relaxation for approximately 35 minutes. Reluctant to exit this blissful state, I knew I had to assess the investment and break free from the fatigue cycle that had plagued me for months.
Upon entering the cold plunge, the freezing water swiftly greeted my bare legs with an intense sting. Despite its seemingly harmless 49 degrees Fahrenheit temperature, trust me, it was truly bone-chilling. I bravely submerged myself up to my shoulders, instantly robbed of my breath by the icy sensation. Thanks to previous training in breathing exercises, I managed to avoid hyperventilating. Struggling to ascertain if I had set my timer, I began counting my breaths. Before long, I estimated that I had lasted approximately two minutes before emerging. I discovered that moving my legs slowly up and down within the tub, while still underwater, provided a brief respite from the frigid temperature. Key to my survival was controlled breathing—my rhythm resembled that of a lifetime movie actress simulating labor, but it undeniably aided in my endurance. Seeking emotional and physical composure, I returned to the sauna for a few more minutes. Surprisingly, even though I expected to handle the cold plunge better, I managed to tough it out for about 2.5 minutes upon regaining my composure and confirming the timer I had indeed set.
While many suggest concluding with cold therapy, the thought of returning to the locker room and dressing in my street clothes after freezing was unfathomable to me. So, I chose to conclude with a few more minutes in the sauna, which helped make the entire experience more tolerable.
Overall, I emerged from this ordeal feeling invigorated. In just an hour, I noticed that the lingering fatigue and heaviness in my shoulders and neck had vanished completely. Not only did I experience improvement, but I also remained migraine-free for four days following the therapy. Considering the endless cycle of exhaustion and pain I had endured, this was truly a life-changing experience. The immediate mental boost I received cannot be denied. Overwhelmed with excitement, I promptly called my doctor and husband to inform them of my decision to invest in this equipment. I just knew it could benefit others as much as it has helped me!
Now, the question arises—does contrast bathing truly hold any value? My plan is to incorporate this routine into my schedule at least three times a week before leaving my office. Undeniably, the cold plunge tests one's mental resilience. I'm determined to work my way up to enduring it for five minutes. Even reaching a full minute has engendered newfound confidence in myself.
At the age of 46, I am far from being a hardcore athlete. Hence, I am uncertain of the true benefit contrast therapy will provide for my fitness recovery. However, if it can alleviate muscle fatigue as I strive to regain my competitive edge on the court, that's an added bonus. Moreover, considering the anti-aging advantages that Dr. Lipman illustrated, I find it irresistible. External aging concerns me less; it is the daunting consequences of mental aging—the inability to make decisions and feel energized, caused by stress and fatigue—that truly frighten me. If I can retain the energy and tenacity of my 37-year-old self for a few more years, and this therapy aids me in achieving it, I am all in!
I'm excited to announce that in December Estacar will introduce a Fire & Ice Studio on the 6th floor of the First Bank Southwest Tower, conveniently situated across from the executive gym. We will be offering packages or individual sessions. This aligns naturally with our coaching services, business acceleration tools, and athletic training division, but it's also just good for people- especially business owners, managers and those trying to live and grow an active lifestyle.
Understandably, not everyone has access to cold plunges and saunas, but that shouldn't discourage you. Contrast therapy can be as simple as concluding your hot shower with a minute or two of cold water or spending a few minutes outdoors in winter after being in a warm indoor space. Still unsure? Start by concluding your hot shower with a refreshing 30 seconds of cold water. If you find this invigorating, then you might be prepared to embrace the complete contrast bathing experience (literally).