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Using the Finnish Model for Better Health

Using the Finnish Model for Better Health
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When extreme temperatures hit, we use air conditioners, space heaters and thermal parkas to avoid the elements and stay comfortable, but one practice of deliberately exposing ourselves to heat and cold – often in immediate succession – might help lead us to healthier, happier lives. 

Saunas and subsequent dips in an ice bath or cold lake have been a way of life in Finland for generations, and the Finns may be on to something. While the idea of going straight from toasty temperatures into chilly water or snow may sound like a cruel shock to the system, saunas and cold plunges both offer healthy benefits, and the combination may even outweigh the sum of their parts. Safe for most people – except those with specific health conditions – this one-two punch of heat and cold can help us in ways that long outlast that initial jarring transition.

Benefits of Sauna

Sauna, the Finnish word for bath, is a small wood-lined room or outbuilding usually heated between 150 and 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Variations include modern infrared heat saunas or steam rooms, but traditional saunas are mostly dry. As we spend time in these hot spaces, our blood vessels dilate, improving both our blood pressure and overall circulation. The heart beats up to 30 percent faster and blood moves to our extremities in an effort to cool us down. We sweat, releasing toxins from the body, cleansing the skin, and losing water weight at up to twice the rate of sitting in a normal room. Our body temperature creeps higher, simulating a low fever that tricks our immune system into activating more white blood cells. The experience also releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers and mood lifters. Staying too long in a sauna can lead to dehydration and heat-related illness, but short stints of 10 to 15 minutes give our bodies healthy stress, in the same ways that low-to-moderate exercise can.

Saunas have been shown to offer long-term benefits, including a lower risk of fatal cardiovascular events. In conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise, it can help promote weight loss. Regular sauna use can ease joint stiffness and inflammation and reduce pain from arthritis, while the pore-opening effects of heat exposure helps clear the skin. There are early indications that saunas and steam baths also help with insulin resistanceAlzheimer’s disease and other neurocognitive issues, though more conclusive research needs to be done. Sauna users report being happier, enjoying improved sleep and getting sick less often, likely the result of stronger overall immunity.

Benefits of Cold Plunges

Exposure to cold water, whether in an ice-filled bathtub, chilled plunge tub or a frigid lake in the dead of winter, is also beneficial. In the same way that ice helps a sprained ankle or a bump on the head, uncomfortable, but safe levels of cold help our bodies in many ways. Cold plunge temperatures can range from just above freezing to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the user’s preference and tolerance. A cold shower offers a close approximation, but tap water doesn’t get quite cold enough to match ideal plunging conditions. You won’t want to spend much time in this water – 5 to 10 minutes, tops, even less for beginners – but getting in and climbing right back out can do the trick.

We don’t have the same abundant research about cold plunge benefits as there is for sauna, but we do know what happens to the body in cold water. Our adrenal glands release norepinephrine, which tightens and constricts our blood vessels. Blood moves away from our skin and back toward our vital organs, devoting the body’s energy to keep them active. We also produce more glutathione, which regulates the immune system and repairs our DNA. In addition, submerging in cold water gives us a burst of adrenaline, making us hyperalert and shifting the body straight into fight-or-flight mode. It’s a rude awakening in every sense.

Elite athletes have long used ice baths to speed recovery after intense workouts or competitions because it soothes sore muscles and reduces swelling and inflammation. Cold also activates brown adipose tissue, which helps us burn more fat to stay warmOngoing research is exploring whether cold plunges help ease depression and anxiety, while some plungers swear the practice has improved their overall stress management, mental toughness and discipline. 

The Combined Effect

While each are beneficial by themselves, combining sauna and subsequent cold water immersion appears to have added bonuses. Loosening and constricting your blood vessels improves their elasticity over time, better regulating blood pressure and improving blood flow. The extreme heat and cold fire up our immune system in different ways, increasing our resistance to colds, flu and other illnesses. Successive temperature extremes seem to ease muscle painand relieves certain types of joint pain and inflammation better than heat and cold alone. The opening and closing of our pores helps our skin. Heat and cold shocks also help with hormesis, giving our bodies short-term stresses to trigger the types of responses that help slow aging and improve overall health. The process doesn’t take a lot of time, either. One researcher found a total of 57 minutes of sauna and 11 minutes of cold plunging a week – split up over multiple days – seems to be the sweet spot.

Combining regular sauna and cold-plunge therapies is also energizing, with the thrill rush of the sudden cold and the resumed blood flow after warming up providing what some have called an instant reset. Finns – who live in the happiest nation on earth – swear the practice helps their mood and mental well-being, notable for life in a place with long, gloomy winters. 

Things to Know

 If this is a practice you want to explore, it’s a good idea to consult your physician first. While generally safe, it isn’t ideal for everyone. People with cardiovascular problems, uncontrolled high blood pressure and chronic respiratory problems may not respond well, as the transition can cause heartbeat irregularitiesshortness of breath, and even cardiac arrest in extremely rare cases. People with diabetes who can’t properly feel temperatures might find cooler infrared saunas less risky, and pregnant women should ask their doctors if it’s safe for the baby.

Anyone planning sauna time should hydrate first, as you sweat about a pint of water in the heat. Some warn against too much sauna time early in the day, making sure you’ve been awake long enough to have taken in adequate fluids. Be aware also that alcohol use and some medications can keep you from sweating and can cause dangerous overheating.

Finally, it’s important to note a difference in the ways men and women respond to temperature changes. In women, blood pools at the skin for a while longer after a workout or heat exposure, but cold plunges can accelerate the return to normal. Women also sense cold faster and shiver at slightly higher temperatures, so they may want to consider shorter plunge times in incrementally warmer water.

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