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Woman relaxing in hot bath outdoors, enjoying thermal spa at snowy mountains. Winter holid

The Story Behind Cold Water Therapy and 'The Nordic Cycle'

Throughout the years cold water immersion has been used to help with illness, assist with mental health disorders and used as a method to improve overall health.  As society advances, the public face severe consequences and in turn suffer great amounts of mental health issues due to the lack of knowledge of the correlation between information overload, workaholism, burnout and stress-management.  Self-care is dismissed as a last priority and therefore mental health issues amongst society have been on the rise.  A way to combat and manage the advancing society, more and more individuals are turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and natural remedies rather than prescriptions from the doctors.  CAM and natural ways may include, yoga, herbals, healthier food intake, exercise, grounding techniques and activities such as cold-water therapy. 


Mental health disorders accumulate through life and rise at unexpected times, a range maybe include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Health professionals explain the chemical imbalance within the brain and the functioning of the brain which in turn causes individuals to experience poor mental health.  Placebo trials have previously been conducted for the treatment of anxiety with astonishing results expressing the change in anxiety levels to be lower after patients with anxiety were placed on placebo drugs for the duration of the trial.  This raises concern on whether the population are pressured to take prescription medication to treat anxiety when the mental health disorder may be treated more naturally without intervening with the balances of chemicals in the brain. 

If biological, social, and psychological factors were treated, then the wellness of mental health would increase naturally and chemical imbalances in the brain causing mental health disorders would slowly start to return to normal.  There is a transparent correlation between physiological changes which occur during cold water therapy and the wellbeing of individuals which points to a positive direction.  Even though some disagreements can be found upon research, most of the evidence indicates a better outlook for mental health and wellbeing through regular cold-water immersion and breathwork.

Cold water swimming has become popular over the years due to the rising number of people seeking natural ways to maintain general wellbeing. 


Cold water can be defined as any water temperature which reaches below 15 degrees Celsius.  


Where cold water immersion originates from


Cold water immersion has become a popular method amongst society to cure health and help maintain a favourable level of wellbeing.  It has been recorded that supervised experimentation with cold water began as early as 1790, with Dr James Currie leading the first ever experiment which involved humans and cold-water immersion.  Dr James Currie (1756-1805) born in Scotland, dedicated his life to excelling and improving quality of life by his role as a physician at Liverpool Infirmary, as well as taking on a role as a hydro therapist and campaigner.  Currie had a passion for life and began his work in 1790 into experimenting with cold water immersion (CWI) and how it could become a cure for illness and disease.  The interest into the effects of cold water on humans was fuelled by Curries previous encounter with a sinking ship which saw American crew members drown into a freezing cold sea, with a sea temperature of only 5 °C. 


Roman physician, Claudius Galen used cold water as a treatment option for fever hundreds of years prior to Curries sudden interest in the topic, with strong statements being made about cold water “curing everything”. References had additionally been established by Edwin Smyth Papyrus 3500BC outlining the beneficial use of cold water as therapy. 


Cold water therapy falls under the umbrella of cryotherapy, which is a form of therapy involving cold water, cold air and cold environments.  The benefits can be substantial if cold water therapy is used correctly, with many sporting athletes even using cold water immersion to reduce inflammation, prevent muscle soreness and aiding with speedier recovery.   

Open water swimming only became a ‘thing’ in 1810, by this point the population had been informed about sea bathing and the benefits of bathing in sea water.  Studies have reported bathing in sea water alone, regardless of the water temperature, to have a positive effect and an element of healing to many diseases.  Sea water compromises of many different vital minerals needed such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, cobalt, manganese, and boron.  Magnesium is a super nutritional mineral assisting with muscle relaxation, reduction in soreness and overall, a remarkable element for stress-management.  Sea bathing has also demonstrated an ability to improve circulation, increase blood flow and plays a vital role in the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Cold water swimming, or in some countries ice water swimming is a large part of the culture, especially in Nordic countries of Europe as the winter months become much colder bringing an opportunity to the horizon of swimming in icy lakes.  There is a social feature to cold water swimming, a cultural characteristic, competitive perspective, and health element. 


Some well-known competitive ice swimmers include Lynne Cox and Lewis Gordon Pugh.  In 1987 Cox performed her most famous swim in 6 °C waters, timing at 2 hours and 6 minutes, swimming from Little Diomede in Alaska to Big Diomede at the time part of the Soviet Union.  Lewis Gordon Pugh undertook his most recognised swims in climates such as the North Pole in 2007, Mount Everest in 2010 swimming across icy waters in the Himalayas and the English Channel in 2018. 


There are two main organisations across the world catering and organising events in cold water, the International Ice Swimming Association, and the International Winter Swimming Association, who typically only hold events if the water temperature is lower than 5 °C, cutting out a 25m distance rectangle in a frozen lake. 

The Nordic Cycle


 The ‘Nordic Cycle’ is a traditional practise in Nordic Countries of using cold and heat as a natural medical routine to improve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.   

The use of the Nordic Cycle involves being in a heated sauna, followed by an icy dip in an iced over lake or in cases where this isn’t possible, the use of an ice bath can be used instead.  The cycle is then repeated to gain the maximum benefits from each session. 

A popular method to perform the Nordic Cycle includes:

  1. Take to a relaxing hot sauna for 10-15 minutes

  2. Immerse into cold-water for 30 seconds – 6 minutes depending on whatever makes each individual feel comfortable

  3. Take yourself back into the sauna for some further detoxifying treatment

This process is an alteration between cold and heat and can be repeated more than once.  In Nordic culture the word ‘sauna’ originates from the Finnish language referring to a room full of steam or hot air used for relaxation or therapeutic purposes.  As more and more people turn to natural remedies to heal and treat illness or injury, the use of cold/warm aquatherapy keeps growing amongst our population.  When we look at the accessibility to such equipment or facilities, in Scandinavian countries most homes are built with a ready usable sauna, and as winter draws in, frozen lakes can be used as ‘cold baths’, whereas more Western European countries don’t offer the same ease of access.  As the popularity of the Nordic Cycle expands, equipment has now become available to buy such as portable ice baths and portable saunas for home use, or another great way to implement sauna into Western European living may include joining a health facility which offers the use of a sauna.

The Nordic Cycle can also practised from the comfort of your own home.  The process can be so simple but yet so beneficial, we explain how this cycle can be performed from the comfort of your own home in three simple steps.

  1. Fill your bath tub with warm water.  Soak in a warm bath for around 10 minutes.

  2. Switch to an icy shower for 30 seconds – 1 minute

  3. Immerse back into your warm bath for a further 10 minutes

Repeat as many times as you desire.  The Nordic Cycle is purely a process of alternating between hot and cold to increase the stimulation of blood flow reflecting benefits on circulation, improve immune system function, and reducing inflammation.  Weight loss or weight management can also be determined by using this simple method due to the effects on brown fat and the amount of energy used. 


Overall, the Nordic Cycle can provide highly effective solutions to individuals suffering from illness and disease, as well as maintaining general wellbeing by using a simple formula of hot/cold therapy.  The use of sauna has been a tradition in Nordic countries for decades, especially Finland where the word sauna originates from.  The benefits of implementing the use of a sauna alone without an ice bath range from detoxification, improvement in circulation, skin rejuvenation, weight loss (metabolism boost), stress management and many more. 

Our full book on cold water therapy will be available for purchase from August 2024.

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