Re-Set with EndorpHins

IMG_2566The holidays are great for spending quality time with family and catching up with loved ones. As a grad student, it’s hard to schedule in down time as you’re thinking of how to prep for the upcoming New Year. I’m sure many of you can relate to always being on the go and have difficulty in finding time to tune everything out.

I was surprised to experience a moment of mind and body relaxation on my first visit to a Nordic spa, Thermea. It’s a European bath spa specializing in hydrotherapy: body exposure to hot and cold extremes that appear to have therapeutic potential by inducing hormonal release and promote relaxation. On a student budget and spending about 5 hours at the spa – it was worth every nickel (since pennies don’t exist in Canada anymore)! I am here to tell you that it is definitely worth the splurge, especially after stressful work deadlines or a busy holiday season.

First, the YIN (the hot): you experience a dry sauna room that reaches temperatures ranging from 74-80C – yes you’re sweating from parts you didn’t think could. The heat allows your blood vessels to dilate so more blood can reach the surface of your skin to increase perspiration and regulate your body temperature. As your body temperature rises, your heart rate also increases.

Now the YANG (the cold): next you go for a freezing cold dip – yes that means you have to put your body in a cold pool and go under a cold waterfall. In my experience, this wasn’t relaxing at all, and my body went into a complete temperature shock: cue adrenalin release.

Also known as epinephrine, the fight or flight hormone. It gets released under stress and increases blood flow to the muscles; commonly given for treating cardiac arrest. Now to put this into perspective from the scene in Pulp Fiction, it’s what John Travolta injects into Uma Thurman’s chest after she over doses on heroine; this would not happen in reality but it adds to movie magic!

Ok, back to the spa: I felt like I was undergoing hypothermia after the cold waterfall, so I quickly headed into a hot wet sauna (the principle of Nordic spas is to go through hot and cold cycles). Next, I stepped into a temperate pool set to 21C, so it reminded me of the lake on a cool summer night. Of course the first minute felt uncomfortably cold followed – but to my surprise…this not so warm pool started to feel pretty good…and then it felt amazing!!

Yes I had the “Eureka” moment and understood what the thermal experience was all about. I think this was the moment when the endorphins were circulating throughout my body, giving me that “runners high” and making me feel really good. Endorphins are small proteins in our brain that make neurons happy. They were first described in the 70s as an “endogenous morphine” or morphine naturally made in the body (see Wikipedia for more). Endorphins mimic morphine like effects and serve as a natural pain reliever or help in reducing muscle soreness – hence, relaxing! Unfortunately I couldn’t find any reports that could explain how this occurs during hydrotherapy treatment.

With my scientific background, I had to be able to Re-plicate my preliminary results (Re Spect Science pun intended)! After a visit to the hot tub, I headed into the dry sauna and got mentally prepared for the cold pool. This was my second time going in and immediately after, I could not believe how great it felt!! Yes I had the adrenalin and endorphins pumping throughout my body and it felt so good that I went through the cold waterfall twice! I mean, who goes through a cold pool voluntarily?

As per the website’s suggestions, I was drinking water throughout the experience, but I still felt dehydrated. I must have had at least 2-3 bottles of water after I left. Once home, I had the most relaxing sleep I had in weeks and woke up feeling refreshed. I noticed my skin looked healthier too: the heat opens up your pores and helps in detoxifying by remove excess oil. I continued to drink large amounts of water the next few days to keep my body thoroughly hydrated.

Although, hydrotherapy has been an ancient practice reported to improve and manage many diseases (published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences, PMCID: PMC4049052), experts to this day don’t fully understand how this occurs.

So if you need some quiet time away from your busy school/work life or a break from visiting relatives during the holidays, I highly recommend experiencing the benefits of a thermal spa. Alternatively, you could jump in and out of a lake and a hot tub – but who’s got time for that!

As my sign off, here’s my spa day haiku:

Nordic spa treatment
Hot sauna plus freezing dip
Re-lax and Re-peat

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Wajihah Mughal

Note: this post was not endorsed by Thermea.

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