In our world of emerging trends like cryo-therapy and hot yoga, it’s becoming more common for people to subject their bodies to temperatures that might be higher or lower than they are used to for wellness purposes. However, can temperature extremes really be healthy? Is it actually safe to expose the body to more heat or more cold than it’s used to? In a word: yes - but in moderation.
You may be familiar with the terms hypothermia and hyperthermia. Hypothermia is when the body is too cold and loses more heat than it can absorb. This happens when the body’s core temperature goes below 95 degrees Fahrenheit and starts with shivering - a method used by your body to try to increase body temperature. One the body’s internal temperature reaches about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, cellular metabolic processes actually begin to shut down, making walking almost impossible. Of course, that’s the extreme and there’s a lot in between, but most humans can’t withstand internal core temperatures below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other end of the spectrum, hyperthermia is when the body is too hot and, in the extreme, can lead to heatstroke. Heatstroke occurs when there’s an uncontrolled increase in body temperature and it exceeds the body’s ability to lose heat. While it can vary, typically hyperthermia begins when the core body temperature is above 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit - and extreme hyperthermia is around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, the key enzymes in the body begin to break down, and at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the cells start to die.
With both of these terms, it’s important to think about your internal (or “core”) body temperature. Of course, the internal and external temperatures can differ, but the key issue is the internal temperature, your body’s ability to regulate that temperature and stay hydrated. As we know, our bodies can adjust and acclimate to some environmental changes gradually - and we can even build tolerance and resiliency. You may have heard references to the “rule of threes” when it comes to survival with air, water, and food. Those threes are 3 minutes, 3 days, and 3 weeks - so most human bodies can only survive about 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. Still, we’ve all heard of individuals who have exceeded those limits, pushing the boundaries of what we thought was humanly possible. Training and exposure to extremes of temperature, when done properly, can unlock a form of environmental conditioning and the body’s tolerance can actually increase.
So yes, in moderation, temperature extremes can be healthy. However, as always, it’s important to know your limits, listen to your body, and stay hydrated.