Most of us know that drinking adequate amounts of water is integral to optimal health. But the use of water in relationship to our health is actually quite under-rated. Though the founders of naturopathic medicine, then known as nature cure, realized the amazing potential of water as healer, its potential has yet to be popularized in our culture.
Hydrotherapy can be defined as the use of water, either internally or externally, in the treatment of disease and the maintenance of heath. (1) While hydrotherapy encompasses many different treatments, contrast showers are easily done at home and provide an abundance of benefits! The basic idea is to alternate 2 mins of hot water with 30 seconds of cold water 3 times through, always ending with the cold water (detailed directions below).
Ultimately, water is used as a medium for temperature, hot or cold, to cause physiological responses in the body. But why would we want to use cold water in the shower? Let’s take a look at some of the physiological responses of subjecting ourselves to short bouts of cold water, these come from my hydrotherapy textbook referenced below. (1)
Short Cold Application (<1 min)
- Increased O2 absorption
- Increased CO2 excretion
- Increased nitrogen absorption and excretion
- Increased tissue tone
- Increased peripheral white blood cell count (these guys fight infection!)
- Increased peripheral red blood cell count
- Decreased blood glucose
- Stimulating to both circulation & metabolism
The logical next question is: why bother with alternating cold with hot?
Short hot applications (< 5 mins) cause a dilation of the blood vessels. Applying a short cold application (<1min) will cause an initial constriction of the blood vessels, followed by dilation. Thus, alternating the hot with the cold creates a vascular pumping action to increase the removal of toxic products (from infection, diet etc) and increase healing. (1) This alternation also increases the metabolism and immune system. (1)
Why do I love contrast showers so much? I eased into this seemingly strange practice in year one of my program and I have come to absolutely love it. Benefits I have experience first hand:
- Increase Immunity: Yes, yes and yes. When everyone in my household, workplace or school is getting sick I DO NOT slack on my contrast showers. While I obviously can’t say they are the absolute reason I seem to stay generally healthy, I do know they play a large role.
- Energy: Ending your shower with 30 seconds of freezing cold may sound painful but its actually quite energizing once you get used to it. I find my energy is definitely increased when I include contrast showers in my routine. Who doesn’t want more energy during the day?
- Less Muscle Pain: I work out quite regularly and I find that contrast showers help speed my recovery. I assume this is due primarily to the fact that they help remove built up toxins (lactic acid etc).
- Decreased Sensitivity to External Temperature Change: In all honesty, in winter it can be tough to wake up and jump in for a contrast shower. However, I have noticed that they have helped to regulate my super sensitive nature in terms of external temperature changes. I am often freeing when everyone else in the room is in a T shirt….. when I am diligent about my contrast showers I find this is less noticeable for me.
- Skin: I have found that the use of contrast showers (especially in winter) really reduces dry skin and eczema.
In all honesty, while they may be a little uncomfortable at first, contrast showers are SO easy to include in your daily/weekly regime. Below I have shared a handout I created in my first year Hydrotherapy course explaining the “how to’s” of contrast showers.
As always please consult your own ND as this may not be suitable for you. The main contraindication with most hydrotherapy treatments is peripheral vascular problems/ circulatory issues (often associated with diabetes) because sensation may be diminished leading to scalds/burns.
Reminder: this post is not meant to be construed as medical advice, but only as informational and based on personal experience. You should never enter into any treatment protocol/supplementation/exercise without the advice of a licensed naturopathic doctor or other health care practitioner. For more clarification on this please refer to the disclaimer at the bottom of this page.
1. Boyle, W. & Saine, A. (1988). Lectures in Naturopathic Hydrotherapy. Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications.
Photo credit 1: laszlo-photo / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)