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.
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.
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.
The contrasting temperature changes from the sauna to ice plunge do serve us superior benefits for our physiology and cognitive performance. These include:
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:
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
By setting aside time for this practice, we can disconnect from the daily hustle and bustle, focusing on our personal wellbeing.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I recommend a small portion of any of the below foods approximately two hours before you hit the spa:
While ice plunge experience offers numerous benefits, it’s essential to consider potential risks:
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.
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.
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