I thought I was invincible. For all of my adult life, not a single case of the flu. But one day five years ago it hit me like a ton of bricks—a debilitating flu virus that had me down for the count four days before a very important trip.
Burning up and shivering at the same time as I lay buried in a pile of comforters, barely able to feed myself, I fell in and out of sleep through day-long Netflix binges. When my then-boyfriend brought me some soup, he suggested I try an old family remedy—take a shower alternating between hot and cold water. He claimed a hot-and-cold shower, also known as contrast therapy, would stimulate my circulation and speed up my healing.
Already at my weakest moment, I literally cried my eyes out at just the thought of doing what sounded like a form of torture when I was already feeling like death. I’m pretty sure I resisted doing it for at least two days. But by day three of my flu I was willing to try anything to get well, so I sucked it up and took a couple of hot-and-cold showers. And by day four I was on the road from California to Texas feeling 80-percent better. I’m not positive the showers were the cure, but after that it was hard not to have some faith in the remedy. Luckily I haven’t had to do it again since then and don’t know if I ever would, because it really did suck!
But, with the arrival of flu season, I decided to take a closer look to see if there’s any science to back up this remedy.
Hot-and-Cold Showers, Then and Now
Exposing the body to radical temperature changes to improve health isn’t a new idea: Saunas and hot springs promising serious wellness benefits like toxin elimination, improved skin, and weight loss have been popular in Scandinavia for some 2,000 years. In the early days, participants would sit in the sauna for a few minutes and then rush outside to feel the shock—and energizing effect—of freezing-cold temperatures. Today, health spas boast souped-up infared saunas that reach anywhere from 122 to 144 degrees in conjunction with cryotherapy, in which a person enters a full-body freezing chamber to be exposed to minus-250-degree temps for a short period of time.
Why Contrast Therapy Might Actually Work
There is something to the idea of a hot-and-cold shower after all. Cold external temperatures can ease inflammation by constricting blood vessels and restricting blood flow, and optimize internal organs by moving blood to them. On the flip side, hot temperature exposure dilates blood vessels, increasing blood flow back toward the skin; essentially boosting circulation and allowing cells and substances in the immune system to move readily through the body and serve their healing functions efficiently.
Dr. Frank Lipman says he believes contrast therapy can be helpful. “Alternating between hot and cold water teaches your body to adapt to stress, which makes your system stronger and more resilient,” he says. “The back and forth supposedly can activate your immune system because as your body tries to warm up, your metabolic rate speeds up and this leads to the release of white blood cells, which protect your body against disease.”
Other potential benefits to contrast therapy include pain management and muscle recovery. Hydrotherapy in general has been shown to improve immunity, but it still hasn’t been studied enough for a conclusive verdict. Still, it’s worth it to discuss the risks and benefits with a physician. If you can take the heat—and the cold—it might be just the trick to get out of a flu funk faster.
How to Try It At Home
You don’t need to go to an intimidating med-spa or drop a load of cash in order to reap the benefits. Here’s how to try contrast therapy at home, for free.
- Get into a shower with a water temperature that feels comfortable to your body.
- Slowly increase the temperature of the water until it’s as hot as you can tolerate, and quickly wet every part of the body, including your head and face.
- Take a deep breath, and turn the temperature down until it’s the coldest you can tolerate. (No matter how uncomfortable it feels, you’ll be okay, promise!) Again, allow the water to hit every part of the body.
- Repeat step 2 with hot water again, but try to go hotter, and stick with it for a few seconds longer than the first time. Then, do the same, repeating step 3 with cold water.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 five more times, then dry off.
Illustration by Foley Wu