Looking for more information about hot and cold therapy? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know and all the hot cold therapy benefits.
Cold plunges and hot saunas, ice baths, and steam rooms are all getting more and more popular in the wellness space. We may associate a cold pack or heat pack and an ice bath with athletes’ recovery and taking a hot sauna or hot baths as a way to relax after a long day but they can actually be used together to enhance our health.
Alternating hot and cold therapy or contrast therapy might prove to have many more benefits for the body and mind than was originally thought.
While hot and cold therapy has been used by professional and amateur athletes for centuries, contrast therapy has now firmly entered the wellness space. With a large following of celebrity fans, wellness practitioners, and experts it looks as though hot cold therapy is here to stay to help support a healthy and active lifestyle.
Keep reading to find out the basics about contrast therapy, how it works exactly, and the hot cold therapy benefits that might assist you and your wellness journey.
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What is Hot Cold Therapy or Contrast Therapy?
Hot and cold therapy or contrast therapy is all about exposing the entire body to hot and cold conditions alternatively. Hot cold therapy usually involves going back and forth from hot to cold and the treatment has proven to carry a number of health benefits both for the body and mind.
Commonly involving alternating cold plunges/ cold showers with a hot sauna/ hot shower, the contrast treatments have almost opposite effects on the body. When combined together they can have tremendous benefits such as muscle pain or soreness relief, lymph drainage, and improved joint health just to name a few.
So how does it work exactly?
Contrasting temperatures have very different effects on the body. We already know a little about this by how our own bodies react to the coldest days of winter versus in the summer. Most of us also might know similar effects from applying a heating pad, hot pack, or ice pack onto an affected area of the body after an acute injury.
When the body is exposed to high temperatures blood flow increases around the body promoting oxygenation and a detoxifying effect on the body. Elevated levels of oxygen are carried around the body, into the muscles and the brain which in turn helps to lighten muscle soreness and fatigue around the body.
On the other hand, cold therapy has the opposite effect. Cold exposure causes the blood vessels and contract. This helps waste products like lactic acid to be flushed from the body and has several other benefits like swelling reduction after exercise.
When alternated between hot and cold temperatures, this can cause a sort of ‘pumping’ effect on the blood vessels and lymphatic system which can overall reduce inflammation, help to deal with stress, increase blood flow and assist with muscle recovery. Let’s explore these benefits a little more.
5 Hot Cold Therapy Benefits
May Reduce Inflammation and Muscle Soreness
Contrast therapy has predominantly been used for centuries to help athletes with sore muscles and muscle inflammation in the body. The cold treatment helps to reduce inflammation- just like you’d apply an ice pack to a swollen ankle at school.
On the other hand, hot therapy helps to increase blood flow in the body. As the blood flow around the body increases so might oxygenation of the blood, causing hemoglobin (a protein in the blood that transports oxygen) to get oxygen into muscles more efficiently and increasingly relax muscle tension.
While most of us aren’t professional athletes we can all still benefit from this. Alternating between hot and cold conditions can help to relieve muscle soreness after a gnarly gym session or too many workouts as well as help with pain relief, muscle spasms, and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
The cold-heat treatment can also provide a mild workout in itself. Due to the contraction and relaxing of muscle tissue and blood vessels during the alternate therapy, the muscles are engaged, much like a light workout. This is a great alternative for those recovering from a physical injury or an intense training session.
May Help the Body to Deal with Stress
While there is still little scientific evidence to confirm this is the case, contrast therapy, and especially cold therapy or cryotherapy might help us to better cope with stress. Increased resiliency is one of the best benefits of taking cold plunges; the controlled strain of sitting in icy water or taking cold showers can train the body to better deal with stress, through hormone changes.
Mike Tipton, a researcher in cold water swimming, found that cold water swimmers had a better adaption to stress, with decreased levels of cortisol in their bodies. He found that exposing your body to cold water repeatedly over time helps the body to react less to the shock of cold water and in the same way, long-term stress.
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Could help with Joint Swelling and Stiffness
In a similar way to reducing inflammation, contrast therapy might also be able to aid joint swelling, stiffness, and chronic pain caused by stiff joints.
Through the alternating temperatures, blood vessels will contract or expand leading to potentially improved blood circulation throughout the body. This may also have an effect on joints, reducing stiffness and swelling as well as helping with pain management and range of motion.
May Increase Levels of Glutathione in the Body
Glutathione is an antioxidant that’s essential for the immune system to function well. It’s pretty important when it comes to cell growth and building and repairing tissue. Glutathione helps to protect cells from free radicals and therefore keeps the body from damage. As you can imagine it’s essential for muscle growth and repair.
While you can buy glutathione in supplement form, it is produced by the body in order to protect the cells naturally from oxidative damage. While there isn’t really much research done on how contrast therapy affects glutathione, what there is indicates that hot cold therapy might increase glutathione levels.
May have Detoxifying Effects on the Body
Alternate exposure to extreme temperatures not only has an effect on the blood vessels. The lymphatic vessels also contract in cold water and then relax in hot temperatures. Alternating between the two can cause a pumping effect on the lymph system which can help to move waste fluid more efficiently through the body- essentially having a detoxifying effect.
After all, it is the lymphatic system that’s responsible for moving waste and toxins from the body. A stagnant lymph can mean the potential build-up of illness and inflammation, which is something we want to avoid.
As you can see hot cold therapy benefits are plentiful and it’s something you might want to give a try after a long and tiring gym session or if you’re in need of some relaxation or a reset. While further studies need to be done to reinforce some of the preliminary ones there’s no denying that heading for a contrast therapy session will leave you feeling revitalized and rejuvenated, both physically and mentally.
Disclaimer: This article is meant to educate and entertain. This is not medical advice. You should always see a qualified medical professional before carrying out contrast therapy or any other therapy or medical treatment. Hot cold therapy can prove dangerous for those with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or cardiac problems. Hot cold therapy is not advisable for pregnant women, those with open wounds, or other potentially dangerous medical conditions. Always see your doctor first.
Will you be trying out the hot cold therapy benefits for yourself? Let me know how it goes for you in the comments and questions below, I’d love to hear from you.
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