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Medical truth behind so-called 'fire and ice' therapy

As the therapy gains popularity among those trying to improve their overall well-being, KARE 11’s Karla Hult went to health experts to learn more.

MINNEAPOLIS — You’ve seen the posts, the headlines and the claims: The so-called “fire and ice" therapy has taken hold among those keen on improving their well-being.

And that may be especially true in Minnesota, where a Scandinavian cultural connection coincided with those wanting to improve their physical and mental health.

“From the physical benefit to the medical benefit and social benefits, it seems to have really found us at the right time,” observed John Pederson from the rooftop of the Hewing Hotel on a recent frigid night.

Pederson – who cofounded the 612 Sauna Society and Stokeyard Outfitters – has long been a local proponent of the popular trend, noting what he considers “a full package” of individual and community health benefits. Pederson personally believes that where medical science has so far failed to provide a lot of data on the topic, history provides its own kind of proof.

“It’s ancient technology that we’re working with here. The fire and the ice,” Pederson said after recovering from his own sauna and cold immersion routine.

A ‘fire and ice’ trend with ancient roots 

Sure enough, Pederson and other hot-cold enthusiasts have some support on their side when it comes to historical references. Several studies, including this one filed in the National Library of Medicine, trace the practice back thousands of years.

The study, which first appeared in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, specifically states: “The beneficial effects of cold-water immersion (CWI) on human physiology dates as far back as 3500BC with the Edwin Smith Papyrus making numerous references to cold being used for therapeutic purposes.”

From there, perhaps, the trend carved its path – arriving at various points – in countries, continents and communities across the globe, including Turkey, Japan, Russia, Native American communities, South America and, yes, Scandinavia.

“Nordic sauna is the one we’re familiar with here in Minnesota,” Pederson noted.

Nowadays, national enthusiasts and experts have bolstered the historic claims – most notably, perhaps, Dr. Andrew Huberman of Stanford University. Huberman and others frequently cite smaller studies and more obscure findings to verify believed health benefits from better cardiovascular health, boosted immunity, weight loss, and even benefits for those more vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases.

But despite those significant claims and the promises they hold, traditional medicine is a bit more hesitant when it comes to all this trend can effectively accomplish when it comes to personal well-being.

The medical perspective 

Dr. Asma Siddiqi is an integrative medicine physician with Allina Health’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, a field dedicated to discovering the most beneficial practices and behaviors for improving a person’s overall well-being. Translation: Dr. Siddiqi approaches the “fire and ice” therapy with an open mind. But she also applies scientific standards, including a common one: Correlation does not imply causation.

“Most of your health claims which are mentioned – like boosting your heart health and immune support, losing weight – they’re based on anecdotal practices, small studies,” Dr. Siddiqi said about the growing “evidence” supporting the trend.

Siddiqi specifically referenced a large study in Finland – one that followed more than 2,000 men for about 20 years and discovered specific health benefits of a frequent sauna routine. Even then, she noted, the study did not control for correlation.

“We cannot placebo control some of these lifestyle aspects, so there is correlation,” she said, adding, “There is not a really profound scientific backing to comment on the cause-and-effect relationship. So there are health claims, but it’s all very ambiguous.”

But within that ambiguity, Siddiqi does note some scientifically proven benefits, beginning with social connection.

“There are a lot of data which says community support does help with your mental health. So, that we can prove. That we have a lot of data on,” Siddiqi said.

Other noted benefits, referenced by Siddiqi and based on her review of multiple studies, include icing, which may reduce exercise-related inflammation; sauna sessions, which could help to release toxins; and the combination of “hot-and-cold” therapies, which also seemingly result in a boost of “happy” hormones.

“It’s bringing up some of the endorphins, some of the hormones, that make you happy. So you get focused and excited,” she described.

The key, Siddiqi notes, is to recognize that without significant studies designed to control for correlation, individuals need to judge for themselves — and with medical supervision – what they stand to gain… and lose.

“Always consult with your personal doctor before engaging in anything extreme,” Siddiqi said, further noting the possible risk to those with cardiovascular issues or those who are especially young or old. “You gasp your breath, so you have to be ready and careful because not everyone is prepared for that shock.”

And finally, Siddiqi predicts the medical community will follow a community interest in seeing more scientific studies on this practice.

“People are inspiration for the medical community. So if there are questions, we are here to answer. Even if there is not any evidence right now, I’m sure someone will look into it,” she predicted.

All the proof they need 

On a recent icy morning, a group of runners gathered at a gaping hole on the northern side of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. They laughed and joked while stripping off their already scant clothing to just shorts, tops and shoes — before all lowering themselves into the frigid water.

“We embrace the north! We embrace the north,” the group chanted in unison, while witnesses, fully bundled in The North Face outerwear, looked on in amazement.

Minutes later, Embrace North co-founder Kellen Kersten explained his theory for why the trend has persisted – and even grown – despite the lack of scientific proof for the believed health benefits.

“We don’t hammer hard on all the science behind it, it’s more like – it feels good and it brings people together,” Kersten said after exiting the sauna session that followed a short run back to their current south Minneapolis location.

Craig Ringsven, owner of The Nordic Nook in Golden Valley, agrees with Kersten’s outlook, to an… ahem... degree. But the licensed physical therapist also sees the value – and limitations – of the published studies, so far.

“There’s a couple things you have to realize about research and evidence, it’s that it’s always changing and it’s not perfect,” Ringsven noted, before referencing what he sees as the promising effects on a person’s arteries. He states the therapy can decrease the chances of a person suffering from heart attacks, strokes and even Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

“The hot and the cold makes these arteries more flexible. So they can dilate bigger when they need to, and they can contract better when they need to. So they can provide more blood to the area that needs it quicker.”

A couple of years ago, Ringsven followed his heart rather than the latest research, turning his backyard hobby into an actual business. Today, the Nordic Nook offers both a “wood-barreled sauna and a cold plunge pond” sweetly situated within a cozy environment, giving customers a chance to personally verify the trend.

“Your body really tells you what’s good for it by listening to it. And so anyone who’s ever done anything like this, I’m pretty sure can attest that you just feel so good afterwards that it can’t not be good for you,” he shared, moments before welcoming his next wave of customers.

From Ringsven's nook, back to the roof of the Hewing Hotel. 

On the same evening, KARE 11 documented the “fire and ice” therapy within the hotel’s sauna and on its rooftop, KARE 11’s Karla Hult immersed herself – literally – in both the sauna’s sweltering heat and the tub’s polar cold.

“Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness,” Hult said, as she quickly resorted to deep breathing to help cope with the uncomfortable cold immersion.

Later, Hult acknowledged she felt she’d accomplished a physical feat – and even felt relaxed and strong – while also enjoying the social connection.

And all of that, John Pederson noted, was not a coincidence, but just further “evidence” of a trend steeped in history and experience.

“Anytime you discover something beautiful, something you think is helpful and wonderful, it’s fun to share it. And just seeing the way it lights up other people and you know, brings to life whatever is really on their mind or in their heart,” Pederson stated, before offering his final summary of proof: “You really do get to take it with you and can start to change your life rather rapidly.”

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