Column: A song of ice and fire
SOFOS Associates’ Natalia Ramsden continues her series, which explores various techniques and treatments for enhancing cognitive performance - this time looking at hot and cold therapies
The body likes balance and will always do what it can to maintain (or return to) a state of homeostasis. So when the body is exposed to hot or hot cold temperatures, it undergoes numerous physiological changes in response to those temperatures, and as a way of coming back to that happy even place. In this column we explore hot and cold therapies and the reported benefits on cognitive performance.
Hot therapies have been around since Roman times but of course the effects are now being studied in a much more scientific and controlled fashion.
To start, researchers are finding that sauna use may reduce the risk for Alzheimer and other types of cognitive degenerative diseases. A Finish study published in Age and Ageing found that healthy men who used saunas four to seven times a week had a 66% lower risk for dementia and 65 percent lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
In terms of brain function, much of the work exploring the effects refer to infrared sauna. The infrared adds an additional therapeutic effect. What these researchers find are improved circulation throughout the body which means improved blood flow. The significance of improved blood flow to the brain is the greater transportation of oxygen and nutrients.
We also see an increase in BDNF from sauna use. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, something you have probably heard about in relation to aerobic and cardio vascular exercise, encourages the birth of new cells, which is crucial for cognitive function and memory. This sounds simple but is actually remarkable - until not that long ago, we were of the view that cells died and were not replaced. The now accepted view that new cells are born and that there are things we can do to encourage the process is phenomenal and has massive implications for performance.
We work with a number of clients in PE and VC and have recommended infrared sauna sessions to most of them. Always looking for ways to get ahead, or be better, they are usually fitness focused and frequent a gym goer anyway, so building this into their regime is relatively easy and certainly worthwhile when you consider the potential benefits. Where they may have included a sauna session every now and again for the overall health benefits, such as detoxification and improved sleep they may, until now, have underestimated the extent of these benefits and not have even considered the cognitive aspects.
This is an area receiving a lot of attention lately, and Wim Hof is partly to thank for that. Cold therapy simply means exposure to cold temperatures, and this exposure has profound effects on many parts of the body including the brain. We will discuss the benefits in just a moment, but let’s first detail how you access these freezing temperatures.
Wim Hof, known for the cleverly named Wim Hof method (and also the Iceman), is a practice where people expose themselves to freezing temperatures by dipping or swimming in freezing lakes in places like the Netherlands or the Nordics. Wim Hof himself is an extreme athlete and wellness guru, who really shot to stardom when in 2011 a paper was released showing how Wim was able to influence his autonomic nervous system, something thought to be impossible. As you can imagine this caught the attention of scientists and academics from around the globe and Wim has been collaborating with research institutions ever since to document the effects of cold exposure.
I appreciate we don’t all have a frozen lake on our doorstep and even if we do, it isn’t all year around. Luckily modern science and technology have provided an answer - cryotherapy chambers. There are two types of chambers, essentially head ir or head out (whole body chamber WBC) and sessions run for approx 3-4 minutes (4 minutes maximum) and you will find these at various health clubs, wellness spas, clinics dotted around the cities. For our clients, we tend to stick to clinician led services who we vet stringently to ensure the very best results.
There is a cascade of benefits from fat loss, immune system boost, balancing of hormone levels and so on. I recall one particular client, who having made the transition from investment bank to private equity house was struggling. Barely managing five hours sleep a night, he was constantly wired and stressed, and his body and brain were suffering the consequence.
His enhancement program included five initial cryotherapy sessions and we were amazed at how quickly he began to feel some of the benefits. He noticed an almost immediate improvement in his sleep quality, which frankly made everything else seem easier.
There was also a positive impact on his mood and it comes as no surprise as studies have shown us that cold exposure balances out hormone levels and is a catalyst of endorphin production (which will elevate mood). He reported a clearer head but couldn’t pinpoint exactly what that meant but, as a cognitive expert I recognised the feedback - one of the benefits of cryotherapy is an increase in norepinephrine - the neurotransmitter responsible for attention and focus.
What this client might not have necessarily felt at the time but was also like going on, is a switching on of cold shock proteins, one in particular (RBM3) plays a role in protecting the brain from cognitive and behavioral deficits associated with several neurodegenerative diseases. There are more and more research studies looking into cryotherapy as a cost-effective preventative method for Alzheimer’s because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects.
So, in our quest to enhance the brain’s performance, it comes as no great surprise that hot and cold therapies are regular fixtures for our clients. We always prescribe these carefully as part of a curated program and are excited to witness over and over again the benefits, especially those related to attention and focus. In a world where things are constantly fighting for mental space, we will take all the help we can get!