5 Health Benefits Of Combining Ice Baths & Saunas

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Apr 30, 2024
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

Whether you are looking for natural treatments to manage your health, a pro athlete wanting to improve your recovery game or just curious to try something out of your comfort zone - contrast therapy might be for you.

For the adventurous, buckle up and be prepared because contrast therapy isn't exactly for the faint of heart. Picture this: you're plunging neck-deep into icy-cold baths before being embraced by the intense heat of a sauna. This begs the question – is it worth it? But before you jump ship, let's dive into the science behind this contrast therapy experience.

How Does It Work?

You might have been told by a medical professional to ice an injury to reduce swelling or apply heat to ease the pain - traditional injury remedies. But what happens when we jump from cold to hot and vice versa? Are there any proven scientific health benefits?

If you’ve ever travelled to countries like Finland or Iceland you would have been introduced to a combination of icy lakes and spicy saunas. Culturally deep-rooted, the Nordic region is famous for contrast therapy as a recovery methodology believed to have several health benefits.

Scientific studies have begun to investigate Finnish sauna culture and how contrast therapy can possibly aid recovery, boost energy, reduce stress and more. Here we take a look at some of the potential health benefits of contrast therapy.

1. Natural Energy Booster & Stress Reducer

If you’re looking for natural remedies to reduce stress and increase energy levels, contrast therapy provides more health benefits than nasty side effects. Research shows that taking the cold plunge activates your sympathetic nervous system resulting in the release of stress reducing hormones. An incredible feeling, leaving you re-energised and more focused. In comparison studies have shown that the intense heat of saunas relaxes your body as endorphins are released, promoting the reduction of stress. 

2. Kickstart Circulation

Scientific research is still lacking but recent studies have shown how cold water speeds up your heart rate, known as vasoconstriction where the capillaries close, while hot water slows it down, known as vasodilation where the capillaries open. This indicates jumping between extreme temperatures has an impact on our cardiovascular system, acting as a pump-like motion kick starting your circulatory system. 

3. Speed Up Recovery

Popular among amateur and professional athletes for recovery, contrast therapy is said to assist in reducing lactic acid, swelling and soreness. 

Under strenuous exercise lactic acid builds up in the muscles making you sore and fatigued. Research has shown how ice baths constrict blood vessels and can help with the flushing of waste products like lactic acid. Similarly, the cold temperatures are thought to reduce muscle swelling and tissue breakdown, aiding faster recovery.

Combining an icy dip with a session in the sauna helps to relax the muscles as blood flow increases, reducing muscle tension. Studies have reported some benefits using contrast therapy for recovery, however are lacking significant results. It is recommended to try a few sessions and see how your body responds to treatment.

4. Improve Immune System

Regular saunas have been shown to increase the production of endocrine glands, which in turn stimulates the immune system, possibly reducing susceptibility to colds and illness. Make sure to consider your health before trying saunas. Not all therapies are equal for everyone and you will need to consider the risks as we discuss further down.

5. Glowing Skin

Looking for a natural, healthy complexion? Contrast therapy could help but it is not advised to place your head directly under in an ice bath. Ice baths can help soothe itchy or irritated skin by constricting pores, while saunas help to promote sweating to cleanse the skin. 

Are Ice Baths And Saunas Safe?

Knowing the risks is extremely important before jumping into any new type of recovery, exercise or activity. If you suffer from a pre-existing condition or are unsure of the risks to your health it is important to speak with your doctor. To help you get started we have put together some tips to help you prepare. 

1. Stay hydrated

We cannot emphasise enough the importance of hydrating while you are in the sauna as you need to replace the fluid you are losing. Make sure to drink before, during and after each session. Alcohol and caffeine are best avoided as they will cause dehydration.

2. Monitor The Time

First-time users in the sauna and ice bath should aim to go slow and limit the time you are in each. As a guide try 5-10 minutes in the sauna, but never more than 20 minutes. In the ice bath try 2-5 minutes and build up your tolerance. If you are feeling unwell, exit immediately and do not push yourself. Remember, you should enjoy the experience, not torture yourself.

3. Avoid If Unwell 

If you’re feeling sick or recovering from illness it is advised to avoid contrast therapy until you are back to full health. Women who are pregnant should also speak with their doctor who can advise before use.

Where Can You Do Contrast Therapy?

Before you race out to try contrast therapy there are a few things you will need to consider like location, budget, your health and lifestyle. Here we outline a few ideas to get you started.

Recovery Centres

Trending across most major cities are recovery centres - dedicated to saunas, ice baths and other new technologies. These can be a great option if this fits within your budget as they provide dedicated space to book each recovery therapy so you do not have to share. Enjoy the alone time, relax and unwind.

Local Pool Or Gym

A cheaper option is your local pool or gym that can include within your membership access to the sauna and ice baths. Check out your local area to see what is available.

At Home

If you have a healthy budget and the space, at-home ice baths and saunas could be the perfect alternative to save long-term costs and travel. Make sure to do your research for quality, longevity, correct set-up and maintenance. 

Make Each Session Count: Sleep Well

Sleep is incredibly important to lock in the benefits post recovery sessions, so make every recovery session count by getting enough rest.

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