Erin Gillin, 24, a Long Island research assistant, and several of her friends make a New Year’s Day tradition of jumping off a pier in the North Shore hamlet of Centerport into frigid Long Island Sound waters. She says she likes the feeling of her blood rushing back to her skin when she emerges.
“The water is immediately freezing cold—pins and needles,” says Gillin. “We swim around for what feels like a full minute but it’s probably only a couple of seconds. Once you get dry clothes on you just feel really relaxed. Once you’re warm you’re happy as a clam. I would call it therapeutic. You’re almost half asleep by the time you get home.”
Andy Sturm, 54, a New Jersey construction worker, was happy to spend a few minutes in several of the triple-digit temperature saunas at King Spa & Fitness in Palisades Park, New Jersey. But he declined to brave the spa’s 200˚F sauna room, which, the spa says, helps speed up metabolism and relieves muscle and back aches.
He did, however, eat one of the eggs that the spa bakes in the sauna.
People have been pushing themselves beyond their conventional 98.6˚F body temperature comfort zone—in both directions—for centuries. They’ve been turning to extremes of hot and cold to relieve afflictions, boost sports performance or simply chill out.
Dry heat saunas soothe and relax tired muscles, lessen anxiety and cleanse the skin; in addition, using a sauna can ease cold and allergy symptoms by relieving congestion and promotes a more restful sleep by relaxing the body, says Alan E. Sanderfoot, author of Hot Tubs, Saunas & Steam Baths (Storey). Steam rooms, meanwhile, are also credited with relieving discomfort associated with inflammation and upper respiratory congestion, as well as an irritated throat, dry mucous membranes and sore muscles.
Some science and plenty of cultural tradition supports those benefits and the practice of immersing ourselves in saunas, steam rooms, cold plunges and, increasingly, methods abetted by modern technology.
Ella Stimpson, spa director at Sea Island, says the golf resort on the southeast coast of Georgia became the first US resort to offer whole-body cryotherapy when it installed a machine from Impact Cryotherapy of Atlanta last month.
“It reduces inflammation,” Stimpson says of the cryotherapy machine, which resembles a telephone booth, but shorter so the user’s head can stick out. “Your body goes into this fight-or-flight mode, so your blood is pulled into the core, and once you step out of that and the blood rushes back, there’s a release of endorphins and of course a flush of new oxygenated blood.”
The air inside the cryotherapy machine is circulating while the unit is in use. How cold is the air? “It depends on how cold you can take it but we take it down to -220˚ Fahrenheit,”
Stimpson says the feeling the cryotherapy machine leaves you with is akin to having a good stretch session. “Typically our golfers report an increased range of motion,” she says, “and certainly for a golfer that’s key.”
Because cryotherapy has made further inroads in Europe than in the United States, much of the research on the method is out of Europe. Impact Cryotherapy, the Atlanta supplier of cryotherapy machines to Sea Island and others, points to research showing benefits of cryotherapy in physical performance and some medical conditions.
In one study from the Paris-based National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP), for instance, runners who endured injury recovered more quickly from three whole-body cryotherapy sessions within 48 hours after the injury than from heat applied to the skin. In other INSEP research, a single exposure to whole-body cryotherapy was shown to significantly decrease inflammation and may accelerate recovery and reduce exercise-induced muscle damage.
In a 2006 study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology, rheumatoid arthritis patients saw some pain relief after whole-body cryotherapy. The treatment also benefitted multiple sclerosis patients, according to a 2010 article in The Journal of Medical Investigation.
As for heat, a study released in February by the University of Eastern Finland says men who frequently used saunas had reduced risks of fatal cardiovascular events and death by other causes, an article published online by JAMA Internal Medicine reported. While earlier studies have linked sauna bathing with improved cardiovascular and circulatory health, this was the first study to associate regular sauna bathing with reduced risk of death, particularly from cardiovascular diseases.
The study also showed that the amount of time in a sauna seemed to make a difference.
Compared with men who spent less than 11 minutes in the sauna, the risk of sudden cardiac death was 7% lower for men whose sessions were 11 to 19 minutes, and 52% less for men who took saunas for more than 19 minutes.
Like some earlier studies on saunas and heat therapies, the study concluded that more research was needed. In this case, further studies are needed to show the “potential mechanism” linking sauna use and heart health.
Besides the backing of some scientific research, the use of heat and cold has thousands of years of rich multicultural history behind it.
To the Finns, a sauna experience involved more than sweating in a sauna bath, followed by darting into a chilly lake or diving into a fresh blanket of snow, observes author Sanderfoot. It was an important part of the Finnish social culture; a bride prepared a sauna for her in-laws, and Finns used saunas to get through difficult times. Rural neighbors took turns preparing a communal sauna after workers finished their hard day in the fields. And, Sanderfoot says, because the tannic acid from smoke was seen as sterilizing the sauna surface, a sauna was used for some minor medical procedures and as delivery rooms for women giving birth.
Sanderfoot cites an old Finnish proverb: “The sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy.”
Sanderfoot defines saunas as typically producing dry heat with no more than 40% humidity through ladling water over hot rocks, while steam baths maintain 100% humidity.
Steam baths originated in Greece and found their way westward to Rome and, later, north to the Ukraine. The ancient Romans took their time moving from bath to bath, making a steam bath a grand social affair with family and friends, Sanderfoot says. They would use a laconicum, or hot-air room, and a caldarium, or steam room, in addition to cold- and hot-water rooms.
As Sanderfoot observes, many cultures have their own variation on the practice. The Turks built a central domed structure in their bathhouses called a hammam. In India, steam baths, or swedana, are part of Ayurvedic purification and cleansing. Native Americans use steam-infused sweat lodges in their spiritual practices. The Aztecs built beehive-like structures called temazcalli in Mexico. Early Japanese baths were natural caves where dry leaves were burned for heat, and seawater was introduced for steam. And in Thailand, Sanderfoot notes, herbal steam baths were used in rural temples.
What’s Old is New Again
It is not difficult to find some of these ancient touches in today’s spas. Ornately tiled hammams with curved stone benches, for example, are becoming increasingly popular in modern spas. And Asian spas such as King Spa in New Jersey and Spa Castle, with locations in New York and Texas, incorporate domes patterned after old structures, some with gold leaf on the interior walls to reflect the ancient belief in the healing powers of the element.
Spa Castle in College Point, in New York’s borough of Queens, features seven sauna rooms in its co-ed “Sauna Valley,” with temperatures ranging from 129˚F to 182˚F, in addition to dry and steam baths in its men’s and women’s changing areas. Between each of the hot saunas, the spa suggests that guests spend a few minutes in its 37˚F cold room, where ice clings to the walls.
The Spa Castle ice room, known as Iceland, “acclimates your body temperature back to room temperature” and prepares your body for going into another hot sauna, or finishing your rounds through Sauna Valley, says Stephanie Chon, executive director of operations for Flushing, New York-based Spa Castle. It’s akin to the way diners having a multi-course meal might suck on a lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate.
Increasingly, spas are using both cold and heat, and recommending that guests alternate between them. The shift between the extreme temperatures is supposed to improve circulation, though more evidence is needed to show that definitively, says Megan Christian, PT, SCS, CSCS, senior physical therapist at Sports & Spine Rehabilitation at Brockport, New York, part of the medical center at the University of Rochester.
“When you go into a cold environment vasoconstriction happens,” Christian says. “It decreases swelling and inflammation in that area. Then when you transfer to the heat, it’s vasodilation, which brings blood flow back to the area. So they say it creates a pumping motion. That’s one of the theories behind it.”
In the case of heat therapies, the anecdotal evidence seems strong. “Sometimes people use these therapies in an effort to detox,” observes Cindy Geyer, MD, medical director for Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. “I wouldn’t claim that it detoxifies per se, except if you look at all the ways the body secretes things, through the sweat and the skin. The claims are not supported by science, but we know that sweating is a route to secrete things, and heat can help support that.”
There’s wide agreement, however, that saunas, steam baths and similar facilities can cause harm if used incorrectly. Pregnant women, children and anyone who has consumed alcohol excessively should avoid sauna use altogether, for example. And Sanderfoot says a physician should be consulted if you suffer from obesity, heart disease, low or high blood pressure, circulatory system problems or diabetes. It’s a good idea to consult a healthcare practitioner in any case. Nor should you sleep in a sauna; hyperthermia could set in if you don’t wake in time. A sauna should be properly vented as well. Exit immediately if you feel dizzy, sleepy or uncomfortable.
Most facilities limit the use of these condensed heated environments to 15 minutes, notes Canyon Ranch’s Geyer.
At King Spa & Fitness, the New Jersey spa that bakes eggs in its 200°F sauna, workers begin an oak wood fire in the sauna’s kiln at 4:30 each morning to get the heat up to that temperature during the day. It is a Korean tradition more than 500 years old, a sign informs visitors.
Patrons enter the sauna with thick mats for protection from the heated loess (a type of yellow soil used in traditional Asian saunas) floor and then emerge drenched in sweat. A staff member, present for safety, is seated outside and opens and shuts the sauna door with a long attached rope to make it easier for patrons to exit. On a recent visit, we saw her enter the sauna to tell a woman not to lie down so she would not risk falling asleep and remaining in the sauna beyond a safe limit.
The spa’s ice room is nearby, as is a café where the sauna-baked eggs sit in bowls atop a counter.
Whether visiting a spa that re-creates the brick domes of ancient faraway lands or that tout modern chrome and glass, spas can offer a respite like no other. Only a wall may separate you from the harried outside world in which you spend most of your time. But for those moments, you can be transported worlds away. Hot and cold treatments, backed by some science and centuries of multicultural history, can go a long way in that effort.