We live in a culture where we are rarely physically uncomfortable. We have air-conditioning, heat, and the shelter of our homes to ensure that we seldom have to break a sweat or shiver in response to temperature extremes. But what if doing just that could improve our immune systems and decrease our chances of infection?
Supporting the Immune System Beyond the Basics
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, families in our practice have been looking for additional ways to support the immune system beyond the basics like proper nutrition and high-quality sleep. It turns out that one of the best ways to stimulate the immune system is through relatively short exposures to intense heat and cold. Ever wondered why health spas with infrared saunas or cryotherapy chambers seem to be popping up all over? There’s a method (and good data) in the madness.
The Data Behind Hot/Cold Therapy
In Finland, saunas are known as the poor man’s pharmacy1. It’s the cultural norm for Finnish people to visit a sauna a few times a week and follow their sauna use with a dip in icy water outdoors. This could very well be one of the reasons Finland has relatively low rates of illness and deaths attributed to COVID-192. Decades of research indicate that hot/cold therapy reduces one’s susceptibility to colds and infections3. Even just one single session in a sauna followed by a quick cool down can significantly increase the number of immune cells in the blood3. Interestingly, these changes are far greater in individuals who exercise regularly3.
Exposure to heat by way of a sauna, hot water immersion, or any other means can raise the body’s core temperature in a manner that mimics a fever. It’s through this mechanism that the immune system is activated, and white blood cell count increased4. It’s theorized that the passivity of the sitting in a sauna or hot bath is important so that the body’s energy is shunted toward the creation of new immune cells rather than providing oxygen and energy to muscle tissue as it would in exercise. The effect of cold exposure on the immune system is very similar to heat due to several hypothesized mechanisms5. An additional benefit of both hot and cold therapy is the creation of heat shock proteins, which reduce inflammation and ensure proper protein function in the body6.
Getting the Benefits of Hot/Cold Therapy at Home
There are several ways for you and your children to get the benefits of hot/cold therapy. For a simpler method, try a cold shower. Start with a goal of just 30 seconds and work up to a few minutes. Alternatively, alternate between 30 seconds of hot and 30 seconds of cold, ending with cold. Hot baths can be a great option for longer heat exposures if you don’t have access to a sauna. Typical recommendations for heat exposure range from 8-20 minutes. Cold pools and lakes, ice baths, cryotherapy chambers, and cold showers are all great options for cold therapy. For cold therapy, do not stay immersed for more than 10 minutes.
During the COVID-19 stay at home orders, I’ve been at the lake where I have access to my portable infrared sauna and a cold lake. I have a daily sauna session followed by a cold plunge in the lake. My sauna is a single-person, softshell sauna from Relax Saunas that I purchased at a conference last year. It’s a great way to bolster my immune system year-round and help my body detox more easily. If you’re interested in purchasing one, you can get $75 off with the code IH75. Heat and cold exposure can be a fantastic and easy way to improve your immune system, but as always, talk to your doctor before beginning any new protocol.
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