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Hot, Cold, and In Between: Exploring Fire, Ice, and Salt in the Quest for Wellness

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Twylla Lannes, left, and Petra Rowan Rhines “cold plunge” in the North Branch River this winter. Photo courtesy Petra Rowan Rhines.
For thousands of years humans have healed themselves with water, be it hot, cold, or lukewarm, much of which can be found in central Vermont. Saunas, a float tank, and people who “cold-plunge” into wintery rivers are all here. Curious about how heat, icy cold, and salty water might heal the body, I looked into some of these treatments to learn more.

Hot

I stepped outside the steaming sauna into the January night, in a bathing suit and a deep sheen of sweat. I did what Nils Shenholm suggested, spread my arms and whumped back into a thick patch of virgin snow. I rose from the white, exhilarated and bright pink, heart racing from the extreme temperature change.

Shenholm, of Solhem Sauna, builds and sells saunas out of his workshop in Waitsfield. He invited me to try out an early prototype, an elegantly crafted wood structure near his mountainside home. He had fired up the woodstove before I arrived to get the sauna up to temperature — between 176 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Sauna, “a bath that uses dry heat to induce perspiration, and in which steam is produced by pouring water on heated stones,” according to dictonary.com, is the only Finnish word in the English language, Shenholm said, “But it’s more than sitting in a hot room and sweating in 15-minute intervals.” It’s sitting in the hot room for 15 minutes, dipping in cold water or snow, then starting over for two or three rounds.

Saunas originated in Finland over 2,000 years ago, Shenholm said, but most cultures have some version of it. Families would sauna bathe together once a week to clean up for church, he said. And sauna benefits are astonishing; it deep-cleans skin, assists recovery from strenuous activities, improves sleep, eliminates toxins, and reduces stress. Without alternating with a dip in cold water or snow, though, you miss the “hydrotherapy.”

“The general idea with hydrotherapy is that heating (i.e., sauna) and cooling (i.e., cold plunge) cause dilation and constriction of the vessels in the body (acting like a pump), which stimulates the circulation and moves the lymph. This provides a very effective detox by moving waste through the system and promoting healthy blood flow,” said Dr. Casey Ellison, a naturopath in Montpelier. Ellison recently purchased the Crowley building on the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus to open a bathhouse and clinic, she told The Bridge.

Sauna’s cardiovascular benefits were highlighted in a Finnish study that tracked participants who engaged in sauna bathing regularly over 20 years. The conclusion, published in 2015 on the Journal of American Medical Association website:

“Increased frequency of sauna bathing is associated with a reduced risk of SCD (sudden cardiac death), CHD (fatal coronary heart disease), CVD (fatal cardiovascular disease), and all-cause mortality. Further studies are warranted to establish the potential mechanism that links sauna bathing and cardiovascular health.”

Also, it feels good; after dropping into the snow, I went back for another round.

Cold 

Petra Rowan Rhines, a holistic health practitioner in Montpelier, “cold plunges” regularly  throughout winter, in rivers, lakes, and even a bathtub in her friend’s woods. She keeps a “cold plunge pack” — two towels, a bathing suit, and swim shoes  — in her car for unexpected dips.

“I got into it to manage stress and anxiety,” she said, explaining that cold “tones and activates” the vagus nerve, and “when that nerve is activated it gives us the opportunity to take a moment and not respond to stress with fight, flight, or freeze. Instead, it gives us a moment to think about how we might want to respond.”

In other words, she said, “Cold plunging is a way to move past stress and find a quiet beyond that. … Every time I walk toward the water, all the fear voices come up and I keep going…until I’m up to my chin. Then I sit in the water like that for maybe a minute. Then I go under, and come back out and sit for another minute, with the water at my chin. 

“Everything gets really quiet and really still … I can see everything with a new kind of clarity. It’s because my body is in a state of ease at that point.”

Rhines incorporates breathing exercises learned from a friend who studied with Wim Hof, the “Iceman” and creator of the Wim Hof Method. The idea, Rhines said, is to train your body to warm itself from the inside out.

“We usually don’t ask that of our bodies,” she said. “Instead we put clothes on or we stand by a fire or we get in a warm room. … but we can actually (warm up) from the inside out.”

Lindsay Tanner wrote on pbs.org about the benefits of regularly cold plunging, from mental clarity, reduced stress, and improved response to insulin, to anecdotal evidence that cold plungers get fewer colds. The story also notes “cold water immersion raises blood pressure and increases stress on the heart. Studies have shown this is safe for healthy people and the effects are only temporary. But it can be dangerous for people with heart trouble, sometimes leading to life-threatening irregular heartbeats.”

Intrigued, but don’t want to dip in an icy river? Rhines suggests starting with cold showers. “End every shower with cold and … let your body move past the shock and get to a place of ease that lives just on the other side of shock,” she said.

Salt

Integrated Acupuncture in Montpelier recently added “flotation therapy” to its list of services. The “float tank” is a huge, shallow bathtub filled with 1,400 pounds of Epsom salt in body-temperature water. You can float in full darkness, with or without music, but lights are available, controlled by the user.

I tried out the float tank after receiving a promotional gift certificate (normally it cost $69) inspired by the description on the website as “a weightless, meditative environment that fosters sensory reduction, encouraging deep introspection and stress relief. Proponents of floatation therapy highlight its potential benefits for physical recovery, stress management, and enhanced mental clarity …”

Jonathan Fleming, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist at Integrated, made himself the in-house “float expert” when he brought in central Vermont’s first float tank about a year ago. He said floatation therapy can lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol in the brain.

“I love the idea that it’s warm,” he said. “The idea of being able to offer a therapy that is researched and just warm was really appealing to us. … It fits well with Chinese medical theory, which is the main [thing] in our office.” He also pointed to the “great physical benefits for muscles” in the Epsom salts.

“Epsom salts are packed with magnesium, an essential mineral in the body,” he said, which can help “when people might have muscle spasms or nerve stuff going on. It’s an important mineral for the body and absorbs through the skin.”

The tank is cleaned multiple times a day, Fleming said, using a 35% hydrogen peroxide solution, filtering the water four times over in 15 minutes, and a UV light that helps with disinfection.

I decided to go for the full experience in the dark, but was relieved that a sliver of light shone through a crack in the door. The experience lived up to its description. After an hour of nearly falling asleep while floating, I left the tank with the kind of muscular pain relief I usually get only from deep tissue massage.

Get more information about floating at acupunctureinvermont.com/float-in-vermont.

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