So why, and how, does this make us feel so good? To answer this, we will be diving into some human anatomy and physiology this week, giving us a great opportunity to learn how our bodies work.
All of our body’s systems are in place to maintain homeostasis, meaning the optimal health level to sustain life. Many environmental conditions can disrupt homeostasis so different systems have developed automatic emergency plans to help deal with the situation. When we use hot and cold to affect the body, we are mainly causing the circulatory system to react. Our circulatory system consist of our blood vessels (arteries, arterioles, capillaries, and veins) that circulate (hence the name) our blood to every area of the body to deliver nutrients and pick up waste products to cells. Our lymphatic system runs parallel to the circulatory system to help pick up and filter extra fluids that are squeezed out of the capillaries and return the fluid to the blood once it has been cleaned. Hot and cold can affect this system as well. So, how does it all work?
Our veins deliver deoxygenated blood to our hearts’ right atrium, then it pumps it from our right ventricle towards the lungs to pick up more oxygen. Once it has been oxygenated, the veins return the blood to the hearts’ left atrium and from there pumps it out to the body from the left ventricle. It leaves the heart via our ascending (going up) and descending (going down) aortas, our largest blood vessels as they receive the largest and most pressurized amount of blood. As the blood is continuously pumped through the body, the vessels it travels through get smaller and smaller until it reaches the capillaries. Capillaries are only about 1 blood cell wide so as the blood cells get squeezed through, most of the liquid is squeezed out into the interstitial (between cells) areas of the body. This is where the lymphatic vessels will pick it up, pump it through various lymph nodes (filtration sites) and deliver it back to the nearest blood vessel or duct for it to join the blood again.
When we put our bodies into a warm area such as a hot tub, heated pool, steam, or sauna, our brains’ thermostat registers an increase in heat and starts emergency procedures to dissipate it to maintain our normal resting body temperature. This is done by vasodilation (blood vessels opening) to move the blood around the body faster, primarily to our most distal (far away) areas of the body such as hands and feet. Our hands and feet are great at radiating heat out from the body. You may notice that when you are in hotter and/or more humid areas you may experience swelling in your hands and feet/ankles, physically showing you how much more blood the body is pumping to those areas to try and cool off, and the lymphatic system struggling to keep up.
Conversely, when we put our bodies into a cold area such as a cold pool, ice bath, cold sauna or just plain Canadian winter, our brains register the cold and start emergency procedures to ensure our resting temperature is stable and our vital organs warm. Opposite of the reaction to heat, our blood vessels now vasoconstrict (blood vessels closing) to restrict a portion of blood flow from the distal areas of the body and shunt it to our core (abdomen). This is why you may experience your hands and feet becoming colder more quickly than the rest of the body. We need all of our vital organs to maintain life; however, we could live without our extremities and our brains will always make the necessary if somewhat harsh decision to maintain our core temperature over our whole body temperature.
We, humans, are clever and have found out all about these body functions, to the point where we can use them and even manipulate them to help us feel great. We know that heat generally helps ease sore muscles and joints so we have developed hot tubs, brings hydration and nutrients to the area, allowing muscle tissue and connective tissues to relax. This increased circulation can also help flush any congestion from areas. We know as well that icing an injured area can help suppress pain and inflammation. By applying cold, the blood vessels constrict in an effort to save body heat, so fewer fluids are brought to the area. Fewer fluids equal less inflammation which can help lessen swelling and pain. Don’t worry the area will still receive all the healing factors it needs however, as the body generally overreacts a little bit so there is plenty to go around!
Here at KurSpa we have built our hydrotherapy areas around the idea of contrast bathing to help increase the experience of wellness and relaxation. By using alternating areas of hot and cold, we trigger the body’s natural responses and can help increase our body’s circulation, and therefore elimination of toxins, to help feel an overall improvement in wellbeing. Of course, being in a quiet and relaxing environment also helps, however you can recreate contrast bathing in multiple ways at home until you can join us again. Here are a few ways to enjoy at home and how to use them:
Timing of contrasts: There is a reason we like to stay in the warmer environments longer than the cold – dissipating heat by vasodilation can feel like a longer process and is aided in part by sweating as well. Vasoconstriction can be much more abrupt and responsive, as well as feeling much more intense, needing less time. Also, as warm-blooded creatures, warmth is more natural and inviting to us. This is why we generally advise a ratio of 3:1 (3 minutes hot: 1 minute cold). Of course, depending on what feels good to you, you can adjust this ratio. Just be alert and watch for signs of overheating (nausea, dizziness, and headache) or freezing (uncontrollable shivering, loss of sensation, pins and needles, blanching of the skin).
Contrast Showers: These are a great way to wake yourself and get a boost for your day. Run your shower as warm as you normally would and stand underneath it for 3-5 minutes. Next, you can do this two ways, depending on how brave you are: 1. Turn the temperature of the water down gradually until it is cold enough to just bear. 2. Turn the water directly to cold. Stay under the cold water for one minute (or as long as you can bear). Then turn the water back up to your normal warm temperature. You will want to do this contrast at least 3 times to feel any benefit.
Localized Contrast Baths: These are a great way to help with chronic swelling in areas of the body. Using footbaths or a double sink, you can place feet/ankles/lower legs or hands/wrists/forearms into the smaller bath and contrast just like you would do in the shower. If you suffer from old injuries, chronic swelling (not the result of a very recent injury) or repetitive strain injuries, contrast bathing can offer relief by helping improve circulation through that specific area, getting rid of any fluids that are just hanging around and delivering fresh blood and nutrients to the area. If you want you can also add to the baths: Epsom salts to the warm bath and essential oils to the cold bath, peppermint essential oil can be particularly invigorating.
If you have areas of the body that are harder to isolate and a full contrast shower is not your idea of a good time, you can contrast with heat and cold by using a heating pad or water bottle and an ice pack. If you are doing it this way, place a lightly dampened (just barely damp, not wet at all) towel between your skin and the heat source, then, alternately, place a dry towel between the skin and the ice pack. You can extend the times with this to 7-10 minutes of heat then 2-3minutes of cold.
An important step to always remember is to end with cold, especially when there is inflammation involved. You always want to be decreasing the amount of heat and swelling and cold is the answer.
Now when we are able to welcome you back to the KurSpa you will be well versed in the theories behind all of our wonderful amenities and be able to use them with even more wellness in mind.