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Sauna to Ice Plunge

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Sauna to Ice Plunge | Biohacking your body
24 October 2023 | James Kearslake
Table of Contents

In Finland, it’s custom to be naked for your sauna to ice plunge.

Their sauna experiences are social evenings, often with friends, family, and even business meetings. It’s said that a lot of Finnish politics is done in the sauna.

If you find yourself doing business deals in Finland, you will have at least seen all your business partner has to offer.

What is the Sauna to Ice Plunge

The sauna to ice plunge is an experience that’s been around for centuries. A man-made sauna built near to cold or ice over water, you would traditionally do the sauna first, then plunge into the ice-cold water to benefit from the physiological and cognitive changes that occur when alternative between the contrasting temperatures.

The heat of the sauna activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as our rest and digest, relaxing the muscles, and creating a state of calm within us. When we then contrast the heat with the shock of the ice plunge, we trigger our sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response, flooding our system with adrenaline and creating a heightened state of alertness.

Alternating between these cycles has countless benefits for our physiology including preventing muscle tension and soreness, improving immunity defence, and dissolving stress hormones with instant effect. It also benefits cognitive performance and mental health, creating an immediate rush of endorphins, mental clarity, and aiding a quality night’s sleep.

Although the ice bath experience has become Instagram pop-culture, if we can ignore the ‘ego driven culture’ of those using it for clickbait, the experience of the sauna to ice plunge will in fact serve us superior benefits.

An image of a white, grey haired marine immersing himself in an ice bath_benefits of the sauna to ice

History of the Sauna to Ice Plunge

In Nordic countries, and particularly Finland, the sauna to ice plunge is an integral part of their culture, being used to socialise with others and build bonds.

In Eastern Europe, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, warm saunas are often followed by cold water plunges or rolling around in the snow.

The practice has also extended as far as Russia, Canada, and in Turkey the traditional Turkish baths, the ‘hammam’, is built with steam rooms and ice plunges.

In Japan, traditional outdoor onsens are bathing in the natural, geothermal springs, and some offer ice plunges alongside the hot springs. Modern, purpose-built onsens offer hot and cold pools, similar to hammams, and are found in hotels and health spas across Asia.

Benefits of the Sauna to Ice Plunge

The contrasting temperature changes from the sauna to ice plunge do serve us superior benefits for our physiology and cognitive performance. These include:

  1. Enhanced Circulation – Moving from the heat of the sauna to an ice plunge causes a dramatic shift in temperature, prompting blood vessels to constrict and then dilate. This process, known as vasodilation and vasoconstriction, improves circulation, and ensures fresh, oxygenated blood reaches all parts of the body. This helps alleviate existing and prevent the onset of muscle soreness.
  2. Muscle Recovery – Athletes have been including the sauna to ice plunge experience in their recovery program for well over a decade, and its fast becoming a recovery process for regular fitness people and gym goers. The sudden cold immersion helps reduce inflammation and muscle soreness, prevents muscle pain and tension, and speeds up the post-workout recovery process.
  3. Instant Cognitive Acuity – When you transition from the sauna to the ice plunge, you’re taking your body through an immediate physiological change from rest and digest into fight or flight. The shock from the ice plunge floods the system with adrenaline, increasing alertness and mental clarity, and creating an instant enhancement to cognitive acuity. 
  4. Stress Reduction – Because the sauna induces relaxation throughout the body, and the ice plunge triggers a rush of adrenaline after which we return to a calmer, more balanced state, it reduces stress hormones built up in the body, having an immediate and positive effect on our feelings of stress.
  5. Detoxification – Saunas help eliminate toxins and impurities from the body through our sweat. The ice plunge after the sauna then cleanses the skin and helps flush out extra toxins through increased circulation and lymphatic system activity.
  6. Boosted Immunity – A sauna to ice plunge also promotes white blood cell production, supporting the body’s immune system and also aiding healing of skin conditions like eczema, and psoriasis.
  7. Improved Skin Health – Alternating between the temperatures also stimulates the production of collagen, which helps maintain healthy and youthful skin. People with acne, eczema, and psoriasis can also benefit from saunas to ice plunges, as well as just a standalone sauna experience.
An image of a muscley, attractive whit

Ongoing Effects for the Body

While the sauna to ice plunge offers immediate benefits for cognitive improvement, mental health, and physiology, it also continues to benefit the body long after you’ve gone home. Benefits include:

  1. Metabolic Boost – The sudden changes in temperature spike the body’s metabolic rate, promoting calorie burning and weight loss long after the event.
  2. Endorphin Release – The sauna induces the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood enhancers. The ice plunge then heightens the sensation, creating a natural high that continues with us into the evening and next day.
  3. Improved Sleep – The endorphins also aid a quality night’s sleep, and, if sessions are maintained, can significantly improve our sleep patterns as the parasympathetic nervous system is regularly activated.
  4. Mental Clarity – The contrasting states between our rest and digest followed quickly by fight or flight also sharpens our focus and aids mental clarity. It’s why many high performers start their day with hot to cold showers and using them as circuit breakers throughout the day when experiencing limited cognitive processing.

How Sauna to Ice Plunge Reduces Stress

The combination of moving from a sauna to ice plunge can reduce stress with immediate effect. When done regularly, it also aids long-term, positive wellbeing and mental clarity

  1. Releases Endorphins – The journey from a hot sauna to ice plunge causes a significant change in body temperature, triggering the release of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that lift our mood when activated.
  2. Enhances Relaxation – The heat of the sauna activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as our rest and digest, relaxing the muscles and creating a state of calm within us. The warmth is then contrasted with the shock of the ice plunge, triggering our sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response, flooding our system with adrenaline and creating a heightened state of alertness. Alternating between these cycles improves our ability to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest, helping us achieve a more relaxed state.
  3. Improves Sleep – Regularly engaging in the sauna to ice plunge experience can lead to improved sleep quality. The deep relaxation experienced during this practice can help alleviate sleep disturbances and promote a deep, more restful sleep. Over time, it becomes easier to achieve a sense of calm before bedtime.
  4. Regulates Stress Hormone – Exposure to the extreme temperatures of a sauna to ice plunge can significantly improve stress hormone regulation; lowering levels of cortisol and increasing the production of dopamine and serotonin.
  5. Creates Mental Clarity – The extreme temperature changes switch the mind between a relaxed state and heightened sense of alertness. These shifts spark the brain into full function, which is why high performers use it to refresh and refocus in preparation for intense mental activity.
  6. Is an Act of Self-care – Although the ice plunge is often pitched on social media as ‘a warrior mindset’, it should in fact be seen as an act of self-care and relaxation. It offers us the opportunity to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest, and combined with the release of endorphins and ongoing sense of wellbeing, creates a sense of calm and stillness within us. Yes immersing yourself in an ice plunge involves overcoming fear, but it is more beneficial to focus on the after effects which include an increased sense of stillness for us.

By setting aside time for this practice, we can disconnect from the daily hustle and bustle, focusing on our personal wellbeing.

How it Aids Muscle Recovery

The sauna to ice plunge has been used by professional athletes for well over a decade for its ability to aid muscle recovery, and is now becoming widely included in the recovery process for everyday fitness people.

The sauna to ice plunge aids muscle recovery through various ways:

  1. Reduces Inflammation – One of the key mechanisms behind muscle recovery is the reduction of inflammation. During a workout our muscle fibres are broken down which leads to inflammation and soreness in the muscle. The sudden immersion in cold water from the ice plunge causes vasoconstriction, which reduces swelling in our muscles. This constriction also helps flush out waste products, such as lactic acid, which accumulate during exercise and contribute to muscle soreness.
  2. Enhances Blood Circulation – The change from heat to cold also prompts a significant shift in blood vessel size, known as vasodilation and vasoconstriction. As the blood vessels constrict in the cold water, it transfers blood away from the extremities and towards the core of our body. When we return to the sauna, the vessels dilate, rapidly increasing blood flow throughout the body. This process enhances the delivery of essential nutrients and oxygen to the muscles, aiding in muscle repair and recovery.
  3. Improves Lymphatic System Function – The lymphatic system plays a key role in removing waste and toxins that built up in our body. Immersing ourselves in the ice plunge stimulates the lymphatic system, helping it remove waste products efficiently. As a result, the recovery process is accelerated, and the risk of muscle stiffness and soreness significantly reduced.
  4. Releases Endorphins – The release of endorphins also reduces pain and improves our mood, and has an analgesic effect on the body which makes it easier to tolerate muscle soreness from our workout.
  5. Relaxes Muscles – The practice also helps induces muscle relaxation, reducing the overall tightness and swelling of muscles.
  6. Initiates Faster Healing – The increased blood flow and enhanced nutrient delivery to the muscles accelerates the healing process, helping muscle fibres repair quickly, and allows for better muscle growth and overall performance.

Incorporating the sauna to ice plunge practice into your fitness routine can be beneficial after intense training sessions or sporting events. It provides immediate relief for muscle soreness, and also contributes to long-term recovery and improved performance.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex

People who regularly engage in cold-water activities, such as cold-water swimming or ice baths, have shown a fascinating adaptation known as the mammalian diving reflex. The reflex is a fascinating physiological response that occurs in mammals, including humans, and which we share with seals and whales, and allows us to endure extreme cold temperatures for extended periods.

It’s an automatic and adaptive reaction when exposed to cold water, it helps us conserve oxygen and protect the body during submersion. The body drops the heart rate significantly, conserving oxygen and allowing us to hold our breath longer.

The main features of the mammalian diving reflex include:

  1. Bradycardia – The heart rate decreases significantly which reduces oxygen consumption and redirects blood flow to vital organs like the brain and heart.
  2. Peripheral Vasoconstriction – Blood vessels in the extremities constrict, reducing blood flow to the limbs and directing it to the core of the body to preserve heat and oxygen.
  3. Transfers Blood – Blood is transferred from the limbs to our chest cavity, further conserving oxygen.
  4. Increases Breath-holding Ability – The reflex can extend the time we can hold our breath, meaning we can remain under water for longer.

The mammalian diving reflex is more pronounced in cold water and can vary among individuals. It has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to improve survival during underwater submersion and is particularly well-documented in marine mammals like seals and dolphins.

Should you Sauna Before Ice Plunge?

The order in which you do the sauna and ice plunge can influence your experience and the physiological effects to some extent, however there is no fixed rule. The choice depends on our personal preference and specific objectives. Here are some considerations for both sequences:

Starting with the Sauna

  1. Mental Relaxation – Beginning with the sauna can be mentally relaxing. The soothing warmth prepares the mind and body for the contrast of the ice plunge.
  2. Endorphin Release – The sauna promotes the release of endorphins, which can set a positive mood for the rest of the experience.
  3. Muscle Relaxation – The heat can relax muscles, potentially making the transition to the ice plunge more comfortable.
  4. Detoxification – Sweating in the sauna can help detoxify the body, and followed by the ice plunge flushes out impurities through increased circulation.

Starting with the Ice plunge

  1. Invigoration – Starting with an ice plunge can spark the body into a state of alertness from the shock of cold water. Some find it an invigorating experience in the morning to prepare for the day.
  2. Enhanced Circulation – The ice plunge causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), which can reduce inflammation and muscle soreness. Transitioning to the sauna afterward can promote vasodilation (widening of blood vessels), enhancing circulation further.
  3. Stress Reduction – The ice plunge initiates a stress response, which is followed by a relaxation response when moving to the sauna. This can create a balancing effect on stress levels.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to start with the sauna or the ice plunge depends on your personal comfort, objectives, and the overall experience you desire. Many people choose to alternate the order to keep the experience interesting and to test their body’s adaptability.

My personal preference: Sauna to ice plunge, always. And finishing on an ice plunge to start alert and awake after the experience.

My recommendation: Find whichever works best for you. You need to enjoy the experience so you return to it again – there is little point incorporating something into your recovery plan which you hate doing.

Can you Use a Steam Room Instead of Sauna?

Absolutely. I personally never use a sauna if a steam room is available, I much prefer the wet heat of a steam room. I find it cleanses my skin far better, aids healing of my eczema, and leaves my skin looking far fresher and rejuvenated.

A sauna creates dry heat, which can make the heat feel more intense.

It is entirely a decision of preference.

Should you Eat Before a Sauna to Ice Plunge?

It is recommended eat a few hours before a sauna to ice plunge, and to ensure you’re sufficiently hydrated. Your body is going to sweat out salts and minerals, and the ice plunge will trigger your metabolic system, so it’s important to have sufficient fuel inside you.

You need to also drink water throughout the process – I always take a 1.5 litre of coconut water with me into the spa as it has a high source of naturally occurring electrolytes, which is just what you need after a workout and heavy sweating session in the sauna.


  1. Stable Energy – Consuming a light meal or snack before a sauna to ice plunge can provide you with a source of energy, helping to stabilise blood sugar levels and prevent potential light-headedness during the practice.
  2. Improved Comfort – Having a small meal or snack before a sauna to ice plunge makes the experience more comfortable and manageable, and may prevent nausea or dizziness.
  3. Hydration – Certain foods, like fruits and vegetables, will help you remain hydrated and replenish critical micronutrients you will use during the sauna and ice plunge.


  1. Discomfort – If you eat too much however, expect to feel bloated and uncomfortable in the sauna.
  2. Digestion – Digesting a large meal can divert blood flow away from your muscles and extremities, which may not be ideal if you plan to use your body or mind after the ice plunge.
  3. Dehydration – If you eat salty, processed, or sugary foods, you will be dehydrating your body before going into the sauna. This will adversely effect your physical and cognitive performance after experience.

I recommend a small portion of any of the below foods approximately two hours before you hit the spa:

  • Fresh fruit (e.g., an apple, banana, or berries)
  • A small serving of yogurt
  • A handful of nuts
  • A small salad or a vegetable smoothie
  • Oatmeal with some nuts or seeds
  • Plenty of water.

Risks with Sauna to Ice Plunge

While ice plunge experience offers numerous benefits, it’s essential to consider potential risks:

  1. Dehydration – The intense heat of the sauna can lead to excessive sweating, potentially causing dehydration. It’s crucial to drink plenty of water before and after the session.
  2. Heat Exhaustion – Spending too much time in the sauna can lead to heat exhaustion, with symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. Limit your sauna time to prevent this.
  3. Hypothermia – A sudden ice plunge can put strain on the heart and cause hypothermia. Always start with a short duration and gradually increase your time in the cold pool.
  4. Cardiovascular Risks – The sudden ice plunge can put the heart at risk. Anyone with heart conditions needs to consult with their healthcare professional before attempting an ice plunge practice.
  5. Skin Sensitivity – People with sensitive skin or skin conditions should be cautious in extreme temperatures. I recommend keeping the temperature low in the sauna or steam room, and building it up to a temperature that works for you.

Final Thoughts

The sauna to ice plunge practice is an invigorating experience and offers superior health benefits. It is the reason is has sustained as an integral part of Nordic and Eastern European culture.

It does come with its risks, in particular during cold immersion, so it’s important not to do it alone while you learn your body’s individual tolerance levels.

It is also important to recognise that this isn’t a social media trend solely used for Instagram clickbait – while some content creators overlook the mindful aspects of the practice, you should see it as a practice that serves you countless benefits and can support your physical and cognitive performance.

High performers will continue to use the sauna to ice plunge experience as part of their tool kit to improve body and mind. The practice will only continue to build in the UK and US, and within the decade will be a regular experience for the masses. Similar to Asia, I expect we will see more health spas, gyms, hotels, and property developers including the facilities into new builds and for those wealthy enough, the sauna and ice plunge will be a staple development in their homes too.

More people will be looking at how to incorporate this practice into their daily lives.

Who is James Kearslake?

Having been biohacking my mind and body long before it became fashionable, I’ve always lived by the benefits of nature’s resources to improve cognitive and physiological performance. Using my years of experience, products, and wellness practices, I’m now helping others elevate their cognitive performance to help build the life they want. I save you the time I’ve spent learning, so you can focus your time on building.

Proudly AI Supported

I proudly use AI to support development of my articles. As a heavily dyslexic person, writing can be a time consuming process with words often jumbled up and sentences the wrong way round. AI has become my crutch; allowing me to share the immense interest in my mind, while making content creation quicker and more accurate. AI is my benefit.

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