Curious About Contrast Bathing? Here’s What It’s Like—And Why It Can Be Beneficial for Your Overall Health (2023)

These days, it seems like everywhere you look, health experts, celebrities, athletes, and influencers are buzzing about treatments that utilize extreme temperatures—infrared saunas, steam rooms, cold plunges, or cryotherapy.

Research shows that subjecting the body to drastic changes in temperatures may have physical benefits, such as pain relief, reduced inflammation, and improved circulation. But what about alternating between extreme temperatures?

This method of switching from hot to cold (or cold to hot) temperatures, often going back and forth several times, is called contrast therapy, or contrast bathing, and has its own set of purported health benefits.

Contrast bathing is a tool that’s been used by athletes for decades to relieve pain and soreness and recover from intense physical activity. Now, experts are touting contrast therapy as a wellness practice that everyone can benefit from, especially for fighting inflammation and slowing down the aging process.

But is this practice really worth all the hype? And what’s it like to subject your body to such extreme temperatures back-to-back? To find out, I decided to take the plunge (literally) and speak to some experts on the topic.

The health benefits of contrast bathing

There are different benefits for hot therapy and cold therapy treatments. For starters, heat exposure boosts heart rate and causes blood vessels to dilate. This, in turn, causes you to sweat and induces effects similar to moderate exercise, according to Frank Lipman, MD, a leader in functional medicine and author of The New Rules of Aging Well: A Simple Program for Immune Resilience, Strength and Vitality.

Dr. Lipman recommends using an infrared sauna specifically. “Infrared saunas heat with infrared light and warm the body from the inside, not just on the surface,” he explains. “You’ll still sweat like a prize fighter but with less heat-related discomfort than you’d experience in a traditional sauna.” He recommends getting your doctor’s okay first, but says “time spent in an infrared sauna can be a safer and more comfortable way to gently work up a good sweat.”

Infrared saunas run approximately 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of heat exposure may help combat aches and pains, boost immunity by briefly raising the body’s core temperature, and stimulate blood flow.

In a 2016 study of Finnish men, those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 66 percent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those who only used a sauna once a week. Related research also found that frequent sauna bathing was also associated with a reduced risk of mortality related to heart disease.

When you add cold therapy to the mix, contrast bathing can lead to increased circulation, which may help decrease muscle soreness, reduce fatigue, and relieve pain. As Healthline explains, when your body is in cold water, your capillaries (small blood vessels) get smaller, and when you are in warm water, your capillaries open up.

Some contrast bathing enthusiasts believe these circulatory changes—the pulsing action of your blood vessels opening and closing—is what leads to the injury-relief benefits because the increase of blood flow allows for faster cellular recovery. In fact, a meta analysis published in 2017 found that contrast bathing helped athletes recover from fatigue after events.

Physical therapist Leada Malek, DPT, SCS, says that contrast bathing is more effective for recovery than passive rest after exercise, “though you may have to be exercising at elite levels for this effect.” Moderately active people might find just as much of a recovery benefit with other modalities like stretching and compression, she says.

At the very least, however, contrast bathing could offer a mental boost. A 2013 paper in PLOS ONE states that “water immersion may offer a generic psychological benefit whereby athletes simply feel more ‘awake’ with a reduced sensation of pain and fatigue after exercise.”

Can contrast bathing actually slow down the aging process?

Much of the research on contrast bathing focuses on recovery, especially for athletes, but Dr. Lipman says contrast bathing can also boost the health of your cells, which slows down the aging process.

Cold exposure in particular has been shown to increase the production and health of the mitochondria in mice. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, and as Dr. Lipman explains it in his book The New Rules of Aging Well, they are “the essential force of life and longevity.”

“Mitochondria transform food and oxygen into ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, a type of molecule that powers biochemical reactions,” he explains. “ATP molecules are especially abundant in the cells of your heart, brain, and muscles.” This is why mitochondrial function is so important for overall health and longevity.

Contrast bathing may also boost autophagy, which is how the body repairs damaged cells. Dr. Lipman explains that when cells become damaged, the autophagic process kicks in, “recycling” the still-good parts of the cell to create new, healthy cells.

“Autophagy can be likened to a cellular fountain of youth, delivering an impressive array of preventative benefits protecting us from dysfunction and disease,” he says. Autophagy has many preventative health benefits, such as controlling inflammation, boosting immunity, and yes, regulating mitochondrial function.

What it’s like to do contrast bathing IRL

Luckily for my own curiosity and for the sake of journalism, my gym, Equinox Wall Street, had recently gotten a cold plunge tub that sits near the heated jacuzzi tub and dry sauna.

Although I had frequented the sauna and jacuzzi before, I wasn’t sure if I was up for the challenge of sitting in a cold plunge. Yet, clad in a one-piece bathing suit, I headed to the jacuzzi, which was about 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and stayed in for about 20 minutes. Then I moved on to the dry sauna, which was about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, for a little over five minutes. So relaxing! I didn’t want to get out to subject myself to something uncomfortable, but I knew I had to complete my experiment.

As soon as I got in the cold plunge, the freezing water stung my bare legs. The water was 47 degrees Fahrenheit, which doesn’t sound that bad, but I’ll be the one to tell you that it’s really f'ing cold. I only submerged up to the top of my legs and lasted 20 seconds before getting out. I went back to the dry sauna for a few more minutes and decided to try again; although I was able to get up to my mid-torso the second time, I only lasted 15 seconds before calling it a day. Although I did notice an immediate mental boost, I ended up taking a hot shower in the locker room to heat back up.

A couple weeks later, I wanted to see if I could make it to a full minute.So I started again in the jacuzzi for 10 minutes, followed by the dry sauna for 10 more minutes. Once the cold plunge was available, I got in. I submerged up to just below my boobs, but kept my arms outside the tub. Let me reiterate that it was really f'ing cold, but I managed to make it a full minute!

I found that slowly moving my legs up and down within the tub (while still underwater) helped make it more bearable. Also, breathing is key—my breathing pattern could only be described as “a Lifetime movie actress going into labor in a made-for-TV movie,” but it definitely helped.

I know many people recommend ending on cold, but I couldn’t fathom the idea of just going back to the locker room and changing into my street clothes after freezing my buns off. So I ended with another few minutes in the dry sauna, which made the whole experience more tolerable.

Overall, I did feel invigorated. That second day, I had been up since 4:30 a.m., and even after my cold plunge at around 9 that morning, I had plenty of energy all day. I did notice that I felt a little clearer when it came to focusing and getting work done (let me preface this by saying I also take Vyvanse for my ADHD, which is helpful for this, too). But there’s no denying the immediate mental boost I experienced after getting out of the cold tub.

Is contrast bathing worth it?

I know I’m in a privileged position to belong to a gym that has a jacuzzi tub, dry sauna, and cold plunge, so I do plan on adding this to my routine a couple times a week. The cold plunge is definitely a test of mental resilience; I’m determined to work my way up to two minutes with my arms in the tub. The fact of even lasting a full minute is enough to instill confidence in myself.

I am by no means a hardcore athlete, so I’m not sure how beneficial contrast bathing will be for my fitness recovery. But if it can help my muscles after my strength workouts, that’s an added bonus. And the potential anti-aging benefits that Dr. Lipman outlined are enough to keep me coming back for more.

How to do contrast bathing safely and effectively

While not everyone has access to cold plunges and saunas, don’t let that deter you. Contrast therapy can be as simple as ending your hot shower with a minute or two under cold water, or stepping outside in winter for a few minutes after being in a warm indoor space.

Jordan Crofton, family nurse practitioner and director of patient care at THE WELL, says she frequently recommends contrast bathing to patients. Her personal regimen is 10 minutes in a steam room followed by 10 minutes in a sauna, and then a few minutes in a cold plunge with breathwork (to help her body relax, since extreme cold can shock the system). She repeats the circuit two to three times.

If you're trying this at home, Dr. Malek suggests starting out by spending one minute in a hot bath, followed by one minute in cold water, and alternating for five to 15 minutes, about an hour after exercise. The hot water should be between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and cold between 55 and 60 degrees. Just don’t spend more than a few minutes at a time in the cold water in order to prevent cardiac distress and other negative side effects—cap it at three to five minutes, tops.

Crofton mentions that some companies offer at-home infrared sauna experiences, like HigherDOSE’s infrared sauna blanket, which you can do at home and follow with a cold bath or shower. Clearlight also makes infrared saunas you can install in your home.

Still unsure? Start out by ending your hot shower with 30 seconds of cold water. If you like how that makes you feel, then you might be ready to take the full contrast bathing plunge (literally).

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Curious About Contrast Bathing? Here’s What It’s Like—And Why It Can Be Beneficial for Your Overall Health (2)

Tags: Active Recovery, Healthy Body, Holistic Treatment


Curious About Contrast Bathing? Here’s What It’s Like—And Why It Can Be Beneficial for Your Overall Health? ›

Contrast bath therapy is a series of brief, repeated immersions in water, alternating between warm and cold temperatures. Research supports the use of contrast hydrotherapy to lessen muscle fatigue and to decrease pain, swelling, and lactic acid buildup following intense exercise.

What is the contrast bath and its benefits? ›

Contrast baths (CB) is a thermal treatment modality used to reduce upper and lower limb pain, soft tissue inflammation and edema, and muscle spasm and joint stiffness at subacute phases and to facilitate recovery from training.

What are the benefits of contrast therapy? ›

Contrast bath therapy treats edema, stiff joints, inflammation of soft tissues, muscle spasms, and painful limbs (upper and lower). This treatment method is common with athletes. Athletes use it to treat muscle damage, sore or painful muscles, and to speed up recovery after injuries.

What is the science behind contrast baths? ›

The theory behind contrast bath therapy is that the hot water causes vasodilation of the blood flow in the limb or body followed by the cold water which causes vasoconstriction, increasing local blood circulation. Additionally, the lymph vessels contract when exposed to cold, and relax in response to heat.

What are the physiological effects of contrast baths? ›

Increased blood flow due to heat also helps reduce pain and muscle spasms by rapidly removing toxic metabolites [8]. Contrast bath therapy (CBT) using cold/hot alternation can treat acute and sub-acute injuries.

When is the best time to take a contrast shower? ›

“A contrast shower is best in the morning as the cold temperatures are stimulating,” Ploch said. “Many people use this technique after a stressful workout because it can decrease muscle soreness.”

How often should you do a contrast bath? ›

The soaks are alternated for a total of up to 15 minutes, with the first and last soak in cold water. Ideally, the baths are repeated 3 times a day.

Are contrast showers healthy? ›

The hot water causes an opening of the blood vessels, and cold water makes them constrict. Alternating the hot and cold water causes the circulation to move rhythmically, stimulating the circulatory system. Since good blood circulation is vital for cardiovascular health, contrast showers are good for our heart.

What are the risks of contrast therapy? ›

The primary risk of contrast bath therapy is that you could damage your skin if the water temperature is either too hot or too cold. It could also cause a heart arrhythmia. Contrast bath therapy isn't safe for every condition.

How long should you do contrast therapy for? ›

Contrast therapy consists of immersing your legs in alternating containers of warm and cold water for several cycles over a 20-30 minute period.

Is contrast therapy healthy? ›

Contrast therapy can trigger a release of positive hormones. Regular practice can offer longterm benefits affecting mood and mental energy. Alternating between hot and cold exposure stimulates hormone behavior such as: – The storage and release of norepinephrine, improving attention and focus.

What are the benefits of contrast water therapy to recovery? ›

Alternating between hot and cold pools expands and contracts your blood vessels increasing blood circulation and reducing inflammation. The rapid blood flow carries extra oxygen and nutrients to your muscles to assist with repair, decrease pain and also increase your metabolism.

Do contrast showers work to lose weight? ›

A CONTRASTING SHOWER: A contrasting shower helps to boost your metabolism. The higher the metabolism, the more calories you burn. Do we need to say more? Not only this contrasting shower helps you to get rid of toxins, it also normalises blood circulation.

How does contrast work in your body? ›

Contrast distinguishes, or “contrasts,” between organs, tissues, bones, or blood vessels during your imaging exam. It doesn't change any of these things, but it changes how your X-ray, CT, or MRI scan sees them. Contrast is important because it helps radiologists distinguish between normal and abnormal conditions.

Are contrast baths good for arthritis? ›

Knee joint pain can be reduced in the elderly using a contrast bath. The towel compression method may be more effective than the water method.

Should you shower morning or night? ›

“Humans tend to perspire at night,” Dr. Goldenberg said. “When you wake up in the morning, there's all this sweat and bacteria from the sheets that's just kind of sitting there on your skin.” So take a quick shower in the morning, he said, “to wash all of that gunk and sweat off that you've been sleeping in all night.”

How long should a contrast shower be? ›

Experts say the best results come not from one cold shower or bath but by alternating between hot and cold water. Also known as contrast water therapy, this generally involves showering for about 20 minutes as normal.

Is contrast therapy good for knees? ›

Contrast therapy utilizing the Hyperice X device demonstrated effectiveness in affecting pain reduction, swelling, and knee ROM.

Is contrast bath better than ice bath? ›

There is not much evidence that contrast baths work better than ice, but the theory is that changing the temperature back and forth between cold and warm creates a kind of pump. Heat causes blood vessels to get bigger and cold causes them to get smaller.

What is the healthiest shower? ›

According to most dermatologists, the ideal shower temperature is anywhere between 98°F (37°C) and 104°F (40°C)—and no more than 105 °F (41°C). Rinsing under lukewarm water allows you to stay comfortable and maintain your body temperature while reaping all the benefits of both hot and cold showers.

How many calories do you burn while taking contrast therapy? ›

The contrast therapy will have you burn up to 1000 calories. That's not bad for less than 45min of pampering!

What kind of shower is good for circulation? ›

Cold showers can help reduce inflammation, relieve pain, improve circulation, lower stress levels, and reduce muscle soreness and fatigue. Hot showers, meanwhile, can improve cardiovascular health, soothe stiff joints, and improve sleep.

Is contrast hard on your heart? ›

Although most patients are able to receive contrast media without significant adverse reactions, events occur in a minority of cases. These reactions range from mild discomfort (injection-associated pain and heat sensation) to more significant cardiac, renal, and hypersensitivity reactions.

Is contrast damaging to kidneys? ›

In many cases, the use of a contrast dye is necessary to enhance these tests, but sometimes these dyes can either lead to kidney problems, or cause problems in patients with kidney disease.

How long does contrast stay in the brain? ›

The current standard of care for such discrimination is repeat follow-up imaging1: Contrast staining generally washes out within 24–48 hours, while hemorrhage persists for days to weeks.

What do you wear to contrast therapy? ›

Contrast Bath Physical Therapy

If it's your first class, arrive at least 10 minutes early so you have time to complete a waiver and meet your instructor. You will want to wear whatever you're comfortable ice bathing and sweating in. Most people opt to wear a bathing suit or something similar.

Should you have a warm shower after a cold shower? ›

Dr. Maynes is quick to point out, though, that a cold shower should always be followed by a hot shower. The latter wash, she says, finishes off what the cold shower started by fully flushing out the lactic acid that has built up in your body.

Is it good to have a cold shower after a hot bath? ›

Improves circulation.

Alternating between hot and cold water while you shower is an easy way to improve your circulation. Cold water causes your blood to move to your organs to keep them warm. Warm water reverses the effect by causing the blood to move towards the surface of the skin.

Is contrast therapy good for muscle growth? ›


Athletes exposed to contrast therapy had a higher 1-rep max on the leg press, more muscle power (as measured by isometric force), and performed better on the jump squat compared to recreational athletes who were not receiving the therapy2.

Is contrast bath good for plantar fasciitis? ›

Injuries Treated With Contrast Bath

Injuries that benefit from contrast bath treatments are those that cause swelling and pain ​around soft tissue and the joints of the body. 2 These injuries include, but are not limited to: Ankle and leg fractures. Plantar fasciitis.

Is a hot or cold bath better for inflammation? ›

“While icy temperatures help reduce inflammation, heat helps dilate blood vessels and promotes blood flow,” Kurtz says. If your muscle is spasming, heat is best.

Which water is better for recovery? ›

Cold water immersion (CWI) is the practice of immersing the body in cold water that is less than 15˚C/59°F. It's used as a recovery method, usually immediately after a workout as a measure to enhance the healing process. When you jump into an ice bath, your blood vessels constrict and get smaller.

Is water therapy good for lungs? ›

Hydrostatic pressure strengthens the diaphragm, improving the musculature in the chest area surrounding the lungs.

How long does water therapy last? ›

Depending on a patient's tolerance, an aquatic therapy session can typically last anywhere from 25-75 minutes.

Do hot showers burn belly fat? ›

Heat from a hot shower can cause you to sweat out some water weight, but it will not burn significant fat. The only reliable way to lose weight and keep it off is to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Does contrast showers help cellulite? ›

Contrast showers are a great anti-ageing home remedy and also a great, inexpensive method for cellulite prevention / reduction.

Does contrast go to your brain? ›

Gadolinium-based contrast agents can not only deposit in the brain, but also in the skin, bone, liver, and other organs.

Where does contrast dye go in your body? ›

Contrast dye can be injected into your blood vessels (to show the vessels), it can be ingested orally (to show the upper gut), or inserted into the rectum (to show the lower gut). In some CT scans, all three types of contrast (so-called "triple contrast") are used.

What are the after effects of contrast? ›

Late adverse reactions after intravascular iodinated contrast medium include symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, itching, skin rash, musculoskeletal pain, and fever.

What are the disadvantages of contrast shower? ›

The primary risk of contrast bath therapy is that you could damage your skin if the water temperature is either too hot or too cold. It could also cause a heart arrhythmia.
This is especially important if you have:
  • open wounds.
  • heart issues.
  • high blood pressure.
  • deep vein thrombosis.
Jul 29, 2020

Do contrast showers burn fat? ›

A CONTRASTING SHOWER: A contrasting shower helps to boost your metabolism. The higher the metabolism, the more calories you burn. Do we need to say more? Not only this contrasting shower helps you to get rid of toxins, it also normalises blood circulation.

Does contrast stay in your body? ›

Contrast agents are safe to use during scans, and your body naturally rids you of them within a day or two when you urinate or have a bowel movement.

What are the negative effects of contrast dye? ›

Late adverse reactions after intravascular iodinated contrast medium include symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, itching, skin rash, musculoskeletal pain, and fever.

Is a contrast shower better than a cold shower? ›

Contrast showers have the potential to increase your energy,” Vasan said. “The shocking quality of alternating from hot water to cold water can provide a quick burst of energy and alertness.” If you've ever gone from a hot tub or sauna to a cold plunge, you've certainly experienced that kind of jolt.

Do contrast showers boost immune system? ›

Not only contrast showers are refreshing and invigorating; they are known to have a lasting immunity-boosting and anti-aging effect through stimulating our circulatory system. In fact, it's one of the top “biohacks” that work exceptionally well for maximum benefit that you can do very easily at no cost.

How many calories do you burn with contrast therapy? ›

How Many Calories Will I Burn? The contrast therapy will have you burn up to 1000 calories. That's not bad for less than 45min of pampering!

Which shower is best for fat loss? ›

Cold showers may help boost weight loss

Some fat cells, such as brown fat, can generate heat by burning fat. They do this when your body is exposed to cold conditions like in a shower.

Is it better to take a cold shower then warm or warm then cold? ›

Alternating between hot and cold water while you shower is an easy way to improve your circulation. Cold water causes your blood to move to your organs to keep them warm. Warm water reverses the effect by causing the blood to move towards the surface of the skin.


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