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A Brief History of Sauna, Cold Exposure, and Contrast Therapy

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Sauna, cold exposure, and contrast therapy have been used for centuries by different cultures around the world for various purposes. Now, due to technological advancements, these environments are more accessible than ever to those in the developed world.

Sauna & Heat Exposure

Sauna, a form of deliberate heat therapy, has its roots in Finland, where it has been a traditional practice for centuries. Saunas have been used for relaxation, socializing, and as a form of therapy for various conditions.

The Finnish sauna is typically a small, wood-lined room heated by a wood stove. The first saunas were built in Finland over 2,000 years ago and were used as a place to cleanse the body and relax the mind.

Saunas have also been used by other Northern European cultures, such as the Russians, where the "banya" is a similar concept to the sauna, but using steam instead of dry heat.

On the other side of the world, Native American tribes have long used 'sweat lodges' as spaces for spiritual practice and promoting health and resilience.

Today, saunas remain a cultural staple in Finland and other parts of Scandinavia and Russia, but they have also gained popularity in other countries around the world for their physical and mental health benefits.

Cold Exposure

Cold exposure involves immersing oneself in cold temperatures. Traditionally, this has taken the form of immersing one's body in cold bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, as well as lying in the snow, or simply exposing oneself with minimal clothing to significantly cold air temperatures.

Cold exposure has been a part of life in colder climates, such as the Arctic, where people have had to adapt to survive the harsh conditions. Cold immersion practices have been a part of some cultures for centuries, such as the Finnish "avanto" tradition of winter sea dips and the Japanese "misogi" of cold showers and baths.

There are stories of certain cultures, like in Siberia, where infants are bundles up in blankets and brought outside into the cold for short periods of time to help them adapt to the cold from a young age.

In some Native American tribes, such as the Lakota Sioux, cold water immersion was used as part of a rite of passage for young men.

Additionally, many cultures have practiced cold immersion for health benefits. Cold treatment was first developed as a tool for western medicine in the 19th century by a doctor named Vincenz Priessnitz. Dr. Priessnitz believed that immersion in cold water could cure various ailments, such as headaches and indigestion.

Today, cold plunges are commonly used as a way to relieve muscle soreness and promote recovery after intense exercise, as well as aiding in other factors for physical and mental health.

Contrast Therapy

Contrast therapy is the concept of alternating between the polar extremes of hot and cold.

It has been practiced in many places like Scandinavia and Russia where both heat and cold exposure are long-standing cultural traditions. In these culture, it's customary to jump into cold water or roll in the snow to improve circulation after intense heat exposure in the sauna.

More contemporarily, contrast therapy was first used as a medical therapy in the early 20th century as a way to treat patients with rheumatic diseases.

While there are several overlapping benefits between the two modalities, many of the therapeutic benefits of both can be enhanced by the synergy of using them in an alternating manner. This is an opportunity we offer in our Fire & Ice service. Customers can also use our stand-alone infrared sauna after a cryotherapy session to achieve some of the same synergistic benefits.

Some of these physiological benefits of heat, cold, and contrast therapy include:

• Speeding up muscle and injury recovery • Reducing inflammation • Supporting a healthy immune system • Improving lymphatic circulation • Increasing red blood cell count and growth hormone levels • Improving levels of endurance and recovery • Increasing cardiovascular health • Removing heavy metals • Improving sleep and reducing stress • Increasing your resting metabolic rate and more.

As many practitioners of contrast therapy know, the intense cold never feels as good as it does after intense heat, and vice versa.


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