This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few years ago, when I was in college, I was on a volunteer trip in the North of Wisconsin and I was invited to an Ojibwe sweatlodge. I had never had an experience like that before. It was incredibly powerful, like being reborn inside a volcano. But it also tested the very limits of my heat endurance, particularly since Christian missionaries influenced the tribe enough that women have to wear thick long skirts while men go into the lodge shirtless. I never did a sweat lodge again, but when I moved to Sweden I discovered sauna culture, which has many of the same benefits, but is usually much more casual and less extreme (except for a few stupid isolated incidences like the guy last year who died in a "sauna contest."). In Scandinavia saunas are often paired with swimming in cold water, which is probably why that region, along with Russia (which has a Banya culture), produces some of the world's top cold-water swimmers (many of whom are women, who have an advantage thanks to higher body fat). I'll write more about that later, particularly since I hope to interview some swimmers when I go to Stockholm next month. I'm also planning to write some more on sauna and the studies done on that subject. Fire adaptation isn't just a joke.
But lately I've thought of sweat lodges because of the whole "cold adaptation" thing that's caught on a bit. Richard Nikoley posted a pro-Dr. Kruse anti-intellectual screed. The gist of it seemed to be: well, I benefited from cold water, so Dr. Kruse must be onto something and I like him anyway. Ok. Dr. Kurt Harris and Dr. Emily Deans tried to talk some sense into him. Thankfully Ray Cronise, who happens to be an expert on the subject, showed up and finally Nikoley listened to a voice of reason. If you are interested in doing some thermal hacking with cold, I strongly recommend that you follow Ray's sane science-based recommendations.
Water temperature less than 60F/15.5C and air temperature less than 32F/0C are great lines of WARNING. in temperatures lower than this there is a chance of hypothermia. Walking hypothermia* can be very serious (google it) and so it stands to reason when you go below these thresholds it’s 1) at your own risk and 2) should be done with caution.
Contrast that with Dr. Kruse's recommendations, which involve ice water and he dismisses the significance of numbness, saying "My entire torso has been numb for 8 months now." Yikes.
Sweat lodges were touted for similar health-related benefits, as well as used for quasi-Native American new age rituals, often to the chagrin of actual Native American tribes. Unfortunately, in 2009 several people died in a New Age sweat lodge ceremony. The Lakota Nation filed a lawsuit against the guru responsible for the faux-sweat lodge ceremony that pushed so many people into the danger zone. The Lakota were concerned about their traditions being used irresponsibly.
Either way, you'd all have more fun and probably get more benefits by heading to your local Banya or Korean sauna and doing a normal sauna session and then a dip in the cold pool. Maybe have some good offal-rich soup that most of those traditional sauna places serve. When I lived in NYC I often went to Coney Island Banya, but I've heard good things about Castle Spa, a Korean place in Flushing. However, none can compare to the Finnish saunas. Nothing like a sauna next to a ice-filled lake. And grilling some sausages on the coals. And total co-ed nudity (actually less sexy than you would imagine). Or the Austrian sauna I went to in the mountains where we ran outside into the snow.
Sauna + cold pool = fun
Numbness = bad, and not fun
I find that the more regularly I do sauna, the better I am at dealing with cold. And that's important, since I don't drive and I've lived in cold climates for the past decade. And I like wearing miniskirts even in the dead of the Chicago winter. And being able to forget my gloves. I wasn't always this way. When I first moved from Georgia to Illinois I remember having to sleep under two comforters and an electric blanket.
And the Game of Thrones scene that I always think of when I read people from the South talking about cold adaptation:
* you might want to look up afterdrop too. Also I find it interesting that other neurosurgeons have done controversial cold therapy.