The healing power of COLD – and conversely HOT.
You may recall some past posts related to the healing powers of hydrotherapy, if not click the link to refresh your memory.
A comfortable ‘first world problem’ that we have today is our thermostat. All year long in New England we work, live, and sleep in climate-controlled environments. This inhibits our bodies from shivering and sweating. When the body doesn’t have to work at regulating its temperature the mitochondria, cardiovascular system, and thyroid can get lazy.
Cold stimulates the Mitochondria
The mitochondria are parts of each cell that manufacture energy as ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate). ATP is used for every single action in the body, including contractions of muscle fiber to create a shiver reflex. Mitochondrial dysfunction is a major focus in the discussion of anti-aging medicine. Ask your doctor about Mitochondrial support if you’d like to learn more.
Cold temperature stimulates blood flow. Blood flow is determined by temperature sensors in our brain: if we are hot we send blood to the surface and extremities to cool down, if we are cold the blood flow will be shunted to the vital internal organs including the heart, brain, liver, etc to keep them warm. Consider blood flow to be like an exercise, since that’s what exercise does! If blood flow is an exercise that is not being challenged regularly, then the cardiovascular system may lose some of its capacity. Reduced cardiovascular capacity, aka sympathetic regulation, is a component in heart disease.
Seasonality has an effect on thyroid function1. The thyroid is known as the ‘metabolic thermostat’; when cold weather comes, the thyroid should work harder to maintain the temperature of the body. But if someone has hypothyroidism they may not be able to respond well to these environmental temperature changes. This explains why true hypothyroidism is associated with feeling cold, and cold extremities (reduced blood flow!).
Letting the environment challenge your body seems to have many health benefits. From anti-aging, cardiovascular support, optimal thyroid function, even to weight management. There have been associations with leaving the thermostat lower and weight loss. Conversely, hot environments can also yield proper weight management and there is no association between equator-dwelling populations and obesity (but this is the opposite end of the spectrum).
I am not saying New Englanders need to revert to barbaric times of using fire-only as a source of heat in the winter. However I do believe we can save our energy sources and drop the thermostat a little bit within one’s tolerable limits. Afterall, humans are incredibly adaptive.
Good for the Earth, good for your health, that is naturopathic medicine.
Here are some ideas:
- ending your hot shower with cold water
- take a hot yoga class
- sweat lodge
- barefoot morning dew walk – or short stint in the snow
With any of these activities, one must discuss with their doctor if they are healthy enough to partake.