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With sauna, the cool down is as important as the heat up

You know that feeling when we mistakenly step into a freezing cold shower?

“yowwwwwwwwwww!!!!” and we jump back in terror “Omg, that’s so coooolllllld!!!”

Well, here’s a little secret: we sauna enthusiasts seek out that feeling.  We are like crack heads for that adrenaline rush.  After experiencing this feeling over and over, we are able to unpack what is actually happening, in a weird, rational kind of way.

Conventional sequence from contact with cold water:

  1. Skin: “cold water, man! I’ll go tell the brain to get our muscles to react, fast!”
  2. Brain: “shit, the skin down there just told us that there’s fucking cold water hitting the body. Time for conditional response! sending an outpouring of stress hormones right now.  Hey muscles: pull back now!”
  3. Muscles: “righty, oh.  On it!”

We pull back.  We breathe hard.  We are freaked out, but we recover.

Experienced sequence from contact with cold water:

  1. Skin: “cold water, man! It’s just cold water, is this what we want?”
  2. Brain: “Yes, the skin down there just told us that there’s fucking cold water hitting the body. My conditional response has been rewired.  This feels fucking awesome.  No stress hormones needed right now.  Hey muscles: you good?”
  3. Muscles: “Shit yea, this is awesome, bring it on.”

Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari, (Sapiens), and behavioral psychologists everywhere remind us that basically 20,000 years of being chased by tigers have created conditional responses for survival.  Our minds secrete norepinephrine and cortisol that flood the body during stress.  This is hard wired into our system.  Cold plunges, cold showers between sauna rounds, and the Wim Hof Method of deep breathing and cold water exposure unearths benefits of more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens: rewiring the hard wiring.

With the authentic sauna experience, yes we enjoy ourselves like crazy.  Yet in addition, thanks to the clean rinse after every sauna round, we fully heat up and fully cool down as part from the rubber band theory and we, over time, chip away at 20,000 years of conditional response to rewire our minds, and our bodies.

We can learn from a 6th grader about how completely cooling down between sauna rounds, with a cold plunge or cold shower, greatly enhances our sauna experience (as well as augmenting our conditioned caveman immune response).

It’s been said that with sauna, when we surrender, we win.  As we build trust and confidence with heat AND cold, we are tapping into some serious shenanigans (note comment section below).

More simply put:

  • “eeeww!!”: before we got used to sauna hot and cold water cold.
  • “aaahh!!” : after we got used to sauna hot and cold water cold.

“Aaahh” is better than “eeeww”.

fall sauna cold lake plunge


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4 thoughts on “With sauna, the cool down is as important as the heat up”

  1. Check out May 2018 Wayne University Study, May 15, 2018, on Wim Hof Method: The defense of body temperature against environmental thermal challenges is a core objective of homeostatic regulation governed by the autonomic nervous system. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811918300673

    Copied from wimhofmethod.com:

    We all have innate mechanisms to deal with the cold: vasoconstriction; increased energy metabolism; pain signals telling us to not do whatever it is we are doing. These are so-called ‘bottom-up’ processes— environmental stimuli hit the periphery, and dictate an automatic physiological response. It works, to a point, but it is very limited and strictly regulated.

    Some additional endogenous operations work in the opposite direction: so-called ‘higher order cortical brain areas’ send out signals that have some endogenous thermoregulatory capacity. But these ‘top-down’ impulses were thought to play an extremely limited role in managing adverse stimuli. Previous studies have measured activity of these areas, and found their contributions to be negligible.

    However, a select few individuals display an extreme tolerance to cold that far exceeds what these bottom-up mechanisms could effectuate, and we happen to know one such individual very well. Wim’s seemingly superhuman ability makes him the ideal subject for research into these other, top-down pathways. Duly aware of these dueling mechanisms, the researchers at Wayne State set up a study that accounts for both.

    They subjected Wim to intermittent bouts of mild hypothermia, using a specially designed whole-body suit that has a network of tiny tubes woven into the fabric, allowing for temperature-controlled water and the capacity to measure skin temperature to within 0.1 °C. They then used PET/CT imaging and fMRI scans to measure both the periphery and whatever is happening in the central nervous system.

    So what did that show? When Wim does the WHM breathing technique, the higher order cortical brain areas are significantly more active. (These are also associated with self-reflection and internal focus, inducing a ‘here and now’ state that whisks away worry about the past and future.) Second, Wim appears to activate regions in the periaqueductal gray; a part of the brain that is the primary control center for pain suppression. This is a promising discovery that could lead to a potential role for the WHM as endogenous painkiller, and reflects results we already see today in people who effectively use the WHM to combat conditions like fibromyalgia. Finally, the measurements showed that the WHM breathing increases glucose consumption, in turn generating heat that warms circulating blood. This at least partly explains why Wim’s core body temperature does not drop.

    The results clearly demonstrate the capacity of certain regions of the brain to contribute substantial top-down regulation of the body’s response to averse environmental stimuli, upending the hitherto accepted theory that this function was almost exclusively reserved for peripherally-induced processes. As with most good studies, the answers have created many new questions. As such this serves as a solid basis for further research, which we hope will follow very soon.

  2. We like to roll in the snow when winter comes to northern Wisconsin after a hot sauna. Nothing better 😊 👍👍

  3. I agree that the cool down is a critical part of an enjoyable sauna, but I sometimes question how cold the rinse should actually be. I occasionally take a brief plunge through the ice into mid-30 degree lake water or a quick roll in the snow, but I find the endorphin release to feel about equal using cool water (60 degrees-ish) through a DIY showering can that I stay under longer. I wonder how others feel who have compared methods?

  4. Agreed, Jeff: The intensity and endorphin rush of a cool shower vs. cold plunge reminds me of the analogy of burning a charcoal briquette, vs smashing a charcoal briquette into crumbles. The briquette burns slow, but crumbles ignites like gas. With a shower, it’s like the crumbles: lots of surface area and air, so accentuated cooling effect. That’s how I read it, anyway.

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