In the Nordic countries it is a tradition in the winter to first sweat in the sauna and then dip in icy water. This procedure is repeated multiple times, therefore also referred to as the Nordic Cycle. This tradition is not only something for Nordic people or adrenalin junkies. The history of hot and cold originated more than 1000 years ago. However, now science has shown the benefits of this ancient tradition. Before we start, this is recommended only for people who do not have any health issues (e.g heart conditions). First check with your doctor if you can do it!
What is it?
The word sauna originates from the Finnish language where the meaning is roughly translated to bath. Saunaing is so popular in Finland that almost every household has a sauna. A friend of mine told me when buying a house Finns first inspect the sauna before going into the kitchen. I experienced it myself the sauna in Finland is a social hub for friends and family while sweating in over 90 °C (Check out my blog about my trip to Helsinki!)
Saunas are heated (65 to 100 °C), confined, wood-lined rooms with benches and a range of seating. Usually, electronic heaters heat up a basket of rocks but sometimes also wood fired stoves are used. On these rocks, you apply the infusion creating steam and aroma in the room.
Ice plunges are as simple as it sounds: a dip into cold water. The places I have been to have ladders where you can let yourself down into the water. You stay there for a moment and go back into the sauna. It sounds scary and cold and yes it is pretty freezing. But trust me it’s worth trying out you will feel like a new person!
The whole concept of cold or heat exposure is the principle of hormesis. This means exposing yourself to deliberately small amounts of stress makes your body becomes more resilient. It is the same principle for some benefits of exercise but also mental challenges.
The sauna alone has demonstrated positive effects on lowering the overall mortality by going 4 to 7 times per week. The effect of sauna on the body has been studied quite extensively. Research also showed a decrease in risk for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and neurocognitive diseases but also nonvascular conditions such as pulmonary diseases.
Ice baths have shown many benefits such as increasing blood flow, supporting the immune system, and reducing muscle soreness. One of the interesting mechanisms is that cold exposure leads to the promotion of brown and beige fat cells. They have more mitochondria than other fat cells and burn more calories because their function is to keep your body warm. Lastly, cold water immersion also improved insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity.
The combination of both sauna and ice baths showed similar activation of brown and beige fat cells in a recent Danish study. The Nordic cycle also increases your heart rate and constricts your blood vessels. The body then releases adrenalin and endorphins which makes you feel awake and rejuvenated. This is demonstrated by research which shows improved mood as a result. Personally, it feels great to be in the cold water but it might not be for everyone. However, almost everyone feels like a new human afterward.
Where to do it?
There are multiple sauna places in Stockholm and surrounding areas. The other weekend I went to Hellasgården. It is a little bit outside the city, however, it is wonderful for a hike around the lake. If you have your own ice skates you can plan your sauna trip with a round of skating on the lake. It is one of the most peaceful places to skate I have ever seen. Obviously, only go on the lake if it is safe. Otherwise, I wanted to try out for a sauna in Centralbadet and maybe treat myself to a spa afterward.
How to do it?
There are a lot of different ways how people do it and what brings the biggest benefits. However, just see what works for you. Obviously, if you are new to it you should go easy and spend five to ten minutes in the sauna in one sitting. Once you get more experienced you can increase the time up to 20 minutes, however, it is important to not go for much longer due to dehydration. In general, bring a water bottle since you will be sweating a lot! A lot!
Next is your dip into the cold water. Here, you should try to stay in for a bit but not extend it dangerously over 5 minutes. I know 1-minute sounds short but trust me once you try it you know how long it can feel. Do what feels comfortable for you.
Generally, it is recommended to repeat the process 3-4 times. If you want to try it out separately it is recommended to do 11 minutes of cold exposure (divided by 3 or 4 sessions) and 57 minutes of sauna per week.
I hope you enjoyed the insight into this nordic tradition and some of its benefits. If you have any questions or feedback feel free to comment down below or contact me through my profile!
I am Tade. I am Nigerian/German and the blogger for the Master’s Programme in Nutrition Science. Before KI, I was studying in the Netherlands. My whole life I was interested in food and sports, and that is why I decided to study nutrition. When I learned about KIs group-focused teaching and the international environment I knew where I wanted to go. When I am not exploring or trying different foods I am playing basketball in Solna. If you are ever up for the challenge, you know where to find me!