Hot and cold – sauna, bath and shower

One of my kids’ favourite story touches on one idea I had heard growing up: to stay healthy you need to shower hot and then cold in the morning. That always struck me as a bit odd. At the same time, ironically, I like going to a sauna and absolutely love thermal baths.

The idea of a hot and cold shower and a sauna is similar. It’s the sensation of warmth and (potentially) freezing cold which creates a shock to our system. I want to use this post to explain how this shock might be beneficial to some of us.


The idea behind a hot and cold shower

A few years ago there was this internet graze of an ice bucket challenge. Remember the one, where your friends challenged you to tip a bucket of ice-cold water over your head? I wasn’t challenged, lucky me.

But the idea behind the ice bucket, or any other form of a cold shower, can be traced back to Shinto priests in Japan. They use a cold shower as a religious ritual to meditate while raising their metabolism at the same time. I’m sure that wasn’t the idea of the ice bucket challenge but a welcomed side effect.

Showering hot and cold has the same idea behind it: briefly shock your body and with that raise your metabolism.

Some people claim to be only showering cold in the morning or at night. The reasons are manifold but among them are to increase their energy and to save the planet. Either way, this hype is not what I’m talking about here.

I find it more interesting to think about what happens when our bodies go from comfy warm to freezing cold.


Enter, sauna…

Not just because I now call Sweden home, am I a big fan of saunas, steam baths, and hot baths in general. There is nothing more relaxing and energising on a cold day than to sit somewhere hot (I’m thinking at least 35°C in a bath or 80°C in a sauna) and to follow it with a cold shower.

There is a long list of potential benefits from sauna bathing, from relaxing to sweating (some call it detoxing) and stress relief. Some of them might be more obvious for some people but not others.

I think the one thing a sauna, steam bath, and a thermal bath have in common is that they give us time to unwind. Sitting, sweating, and just enjoying the heat gives time to relax and to let the mind wander.

While this is my personal take on a sauna, others are bit more in-depth. Recent studies suggest that sauna bathing reduces the risk of cardiovascular malfunction (in other words heart problems) and lowers blood pressure.

Now, these benefits come from sauna bathing. But since I don’t have a sauna, let’s go back to the shower.


Benefits of a hot and cold shower

The few times I did try a cold shower after a warm one in the morning I noticed that I felt much happier (maybe because I did it) and energetic. This energy is similar to a shock but less drastic. By briefly submerging in cold water, our bodies react with stress and subsequently stress relief. This stress relief increases our adrenalin and (potentially) our white blood cell count. Adrenalin will make us feel happy and white blood cells fight bacteria.

There are very few studies which point to the fact that cold water is beneficial for our immune system. As part of a Kneipp therapy, cold water is used to stimulate the sense.

The general problem with the benefits of cold showers is that hardly any of them are scientifically proven. Johann Georg Krünitz for examples claimed in the 18th century that cold showers help our bodies adapt to cold weather and hardship in life. But, there is no proof for a claim like that. However, it makes sense to me. Considering my heated house and good winter clothes, I don’t actually have to endure the cold and maybe that makes me less resilient to changes in my life.


In the end, the benefits of a cold shower are personal. Whether you enjoy it and it gives you more energy or not, is up to you. But I think we can all learn from the masters of sauna, the smartest kids, and the happiest people on earth: the Finish. Hot and cold must have something to do with it. I’m sure to give it another try and see what I notice.

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