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Replay: Biohacking: Water and The Whirl of Wellness with Dr Michelle Woolhouse and Professor Marc Cohen

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Replay: Biohacking: Water & The Whirl of Wellness with Dr Michelle Woolhouse and Prof Marc Cohen

Professor Marc Cohen, medical doctor, professor and biohacking expert and fx Medicine ambassador Michelle Woolhouse explore the benefits of water as a therapeutic tool. Our body’s cellular composition is two-thirds water which makes us highly responsive to water in its various temperatures, composition and states. Together they explore the benefits of Balneotherapy, the impacts of chlorinated water on the skin microbiome, and methods to expose yourself to heat and cold to induce hormesis, activate the immune system, and even burn fat.  

Covered in this episode

[00:33] Welcoming Professor Marc Cohen
[02:01] Humanity’s connections to mineral springs
[05:16] Cold water and hot water affects the body in different ways
[09:45] The effects of chlorine in water and steam and how to minimise exposure
[14:48] Cold water immersion
[18:12] Activating the parasympathetic nervous system: ‘The 10 hacks to relax’
[20:15] Brown fat and metabolism
[23:14] The ‘cold water hokey-pokey’
[26:40] Cold water impacts on immunity
[31:51] The benefits of heat and sauna
[37:44] The Whirl of Wellness
[40:20] Thanking Marc and final remarks

Key takeaways

  • Our bodies are composed of two-thirds of water where Balneotherapy – treatment of disease by bathing in mineral rich, hot waters can confer health benefits. 
  • Ingested chlorinated domestic water is usually detoxified by the liver. However, exposure by breathing in or bathing in chlorinated water can be most detrimental by skipping hepatic metabolism. 
  • The key to cold water submersion is YOU being in control. Controlled breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and builds resilience - This can teach practice of relaxation in a stressful situation. 
  • Activating thermogenetically decoupled brown fat through cold water exposure can provide a metabolic boost by utilising white fat stores for hear production. 
  • A staged cold-water exposure can be done at home lovingly labelled the “hot water hokey-pokey”. This method allows controlled breathing as exposure is gradual but with therapeutic effect.  
  • IR Sauna VS traditional saunas VS steam rooms. The difference is in the humidity in the air – the more humid the less tolerable to the temperature. Sweating aids with release of toxins such as pesticides, obesogens and improves sleep.  
  • Hormetic stress exposure not only has physical benefits but also builds the mind by reinforcing you can regain control and overcome challenges resulting in growth. 

Resources discussed and additional reading

Website: Professor Marc Cohen
Poem: The Whirl of Wellness by Professor Marc Cohen
Research: Water Bathing & Energetics 
Research: Analysis of the Microbiome (Bathing Biome) in Geothermal Waters from an Australian Balneotherapy Centre (Water, 2020)
Research: Microbial Diversity and Characteristics of Kombucha as Revealed by Metagenomic and Physicochemical Analysis (Nutrients, 2021)
Research: Detections of organophosphate and pyrethroid insecticide metabolites in urine and sweat obtained from women during infrared sauna and exercise: A pilot crossover study (International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2023)


Michelle: Welcome to fx Medicine, bringing you the latest in evidence-based, integrative, functional, and complementary medicine. I'm Dr Michelle Woolhouse. 

fx Medicine acknowledges the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia, where we live and work, and their connections to land, sea, and community. We pay our respects to the elders, past and present, and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. 

With the rise of the internet influencers, it seems everyone is a wellness expert. But arguably one of the most esteemed of all wellness experts is my guest today, Professor Marc Cohen. Marc has spent his life in pursuit of bliss. Professor Marc is a medical doctor, a university professor, an author, a poet, an entrepreneur, a wellness trailblazer, and a perpetual student of life. He has spent more than 30 years practising and researching holistic health and published more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers and many books and technical texts on wellness and natural medicine.

On the show today, we are going to explore the science and the practicalities of five of the best cost-effective, bliss-enhancing, aliveness-promoting wellness hacks. Welcome to fx Medicine, Marc. Thanks for being with us today.

Marc: Hello. Great to be with you, Michelle. Thanks for inviting me.

Michelle: Oh, my pleasure. You talk about balneotherapy, and you speak a lot about the incredible healing quality of water, the power of it to heal and to sustain health. And I know that mineral springs are a really strong interest of yours. What do we know of the benefits in the research, and does things like the mineral load impact the results? Tell us how it works and a bit of the history of it.

Marc: There's lots of different questions there. Yeah. So, I've always been a big fan of water, and water is the most mysterious and complex substance in the universe. There are 72 scientific anomalies that we just don't understand about water. So, there's still magic contained in water that we just can't know or explain. But the things we do know is that water is the matrix for life. If you look at your body by mass or by volume, you're about two-thirds water. But if you look at the number of molecules, you're 99.9% water molecules. That's because water molecules are tiny compared to the other proteins and nucleic acids and collagen and etc. So, we really are water beings.

Michelle: Moving water.

Marc: Yeah. And the only reason why there is life on earth is because earth is in the Goldilocks zone where liquid water can exist. Now, water can exist in the phases of solid, liquid, and vapour. And Gerald Pollack talks about the fourth phase of water, which is structured water, which is what's in our bodies. And that's why we're not a puddle on the floor being 99.9% water molecules, is because the water in our bodies is structured, a big matrix molecules like collagen and proteins, etc. 

And hot springs is also where life originated. So, if you look back through the history of life, life started where the hottest water on earth met the coldest water on earth, at the very, very bottom of the oceans where you have 10 kilometres deep. And cold water is dense, so cold water sinks to the very bottom of the oceans, and you can have water at -22 degrees centigrade and still liquid at the bottom of the oceans where there's high pressure. And also, at the very bottom of the oceans, there are these, they call them black smokers or white smokers, so these hydrothermal vents — hot springs essentially — where water comes up superheated coming through the earth's crust. And that could be 400 degrees centigrade and still liquid. And that water that's coming up through the earth it's dissolved all the minerals. 

So, it's super-heated water, still liquid, it's full of minerals, it's meeting this very cold water. So you have this incredible range of temperatures and pressures and solutes where organic chemistry can happen. And that's our best understanding of where life was created.

Michelle: Wow.

Marc: And if you look at humans, lying in hot water is just such a pleasure...

Michelle: Pleasure.

Marc: ...a joy, a relaxation, it's healing. And hot springs have been around, and hot springs have been actually in every continent. So hot springs have been around since humans were around. 
And throughout human cultural traditions, hot springs have always been considered sacred. They're places of healing, they're places where wars wouldn't happen. So, if there was a battle, very often the wounded would come to the hot springs, and they weren't allowed to fight around the hot springs. That was where healing was happening, not fighting. 

And the different properties of different waters, again, there's still a lot we need to learn, but they're different. So, wherever the water comes through the ground, there are different mineral properties. So, there's salt springs, and carbon dioxide springs, and lithium springs, and iron springs. So different rocks and different minerals impart different properties to the water.

And also, the different temperatures. Temperatures are a really powerful way to move blood around your body. When you're in a hot place or you had a hot bath or a sauna, blood comes to the surface, you open up your blood vessels. And when you're in cold water or the cold, you vasoconstrict and move blood away from the surface into your core. So, by manipulating the temperature of the water that we bathe in, we can actually move blood around our body. And that can be very useful for healing, but also for detoxification, forcing blood to go through places where there's a build-up of inflammatory fluid or metabolic waste. And then forcing that blood to go into the core of your body when it goes through your liver and kidneys and then get excreted. And the water that we drink, and staying hydrated is one of the most important things.

And then we are also just understanding, we published a research a while ago on the bathing biome, and we did some analysis of water coming from 600 meters underground at the Peninsula Hot springs in Melbourne, where I'm now medical director. And there are natural bacteria that are under the ground. And when we bathe, we're not just bathing in water. Water doesn't want to be sterile, water wants to be alive. Water naturally attracts life. 

And we've had this illusion over the last 100 years that bacteria and germs are bad for us, and we have to wage war on them. We use antibiotics and disinfectants and chlorine and pesticides and sanitisers. And that understanding's being challenged now. And we are realising that bacteria are us, there’s more genetic bacteria in our body that's bacterial genetics then human genetics. And the bacteria create neurotransmitters in our gut, they're the greatest source of serotonin. Most of our immune system resides in our gut with our gut microbiome. It's like we carry soil around with us inside our guts and the villi are like the roots that get the nutrition from that soil. And just like in a garden, the quality of the soil will determine the quality of the plant.

Michelle: Is the quality of the plant and the fruit. Yeah. Absolutely.

Marc: That's right. And if you want to improve the quality of your plants or your garden or your fruit trees, you add life to the soil. You add biomass. You add nutrients to the soil. And same with us, if we have a diminished microbiome in our guts, our health suffers. And we still don't fully understand the complexities of the microbiome, but we know that it's not just to do with the single one, this is a bad bacteria, this one's a good one. It's about the diversity and the interaction.

Michelle: Yes, and how they interact.

Marc: Yeah. It's like a garden, an ecosystem.

Michelle: Yes, and that complementary planting probably, when you plant things next to each other, they love that. The plants grow together.

Marc: That's right, we have the symbiosis. I’ve just created a company recently that actually uses that symbiosis where we make kombucha. And you have this symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast, prokaryotes and eukaryote that work with each other and actually work with humans. So it's actually a symbiotic culture of bacteria, yeast, and humans where we feed, we make a nice cup of tea and we give tea and sugar to this culture. And with culture, it's nice to have a cup of tea. We’re highly cultured people sit around, have a cup of tea, well, microorganisms do the same thing. They have a cup of tea.

Michelle: That's right. They love a cup of tea.

Marc: And they make all these other nutrients. So we did a metagenomic and physical-chemical analysis of kombucha, and we found out that there was two and a half times the polyphenol content in the kombucha compared to the green tea that we started with.

Michelle: Wow. So it's actually it’s they're more than the sum of their parts really, which is...

Marc: Well, they're making their own nutrients. They make B12, they make biotin, all these extra nutrients are being created from this ancient evolutionary knowledge from symbiotic colony. So complex, but so wonderful to tap into.

Michelle: So wonderful. It's so exciting to really think about that because it almost brings up just such beautiful imagery and also how important it is to really respect the wonder and the mystery of the body and also the wonder and mystery of the planet.

But I wonder also about chlorine. We put chlorine in our water supply and we put chlorine in our public supply.

Marc: This is the fear that we've had. Water doesn't want to be sterile, but it can carry toxicity, it can carry infections. And infectious outbreaks, cholera and typhoid were devastating and town planners were so scared of it that basically, after the First World War when they realised chlorine is really a great killer, it can kill humans. They used it in the First World War to kill people. But we can put it in the water supply and it can kill bacteria. And from a public health perspective, that makes sense because you don't want big outbreaks when there's not great sanitation. 

But now 100 years, or more than 100 years later where cholera and typhoid is not such a big worry. From a public health perspective, they still want to chlorinate water. They put chlorine in the water at a level that when it comes out of your tap, it'll kill things.

Michelle: Yeah.

Marc: So it'll kill bacteria, that's the intention. So that's great from a public health perspective, but from an individual perspective, it's actually devastating.

Michelle: Yeah.

Marc: Because when you bathe in chlorine, you're actually stripping away the natural oils from your skin. And these oils naturally protect you from the sun damage. They protect your skin from drying out. That oil supports good bacteria in your skin that protects you from pathogens. And when you strip that away, your skin dries out. You encourage pathogens. So conditions like eczema and dry skin and dandruff and acne become more prevalent. And when you drink water with chlorine, you're actually waging war on your gut microbiome, which is your beautiful garden that you need to cultivate.

Michelle: And what about asthma and the lung, like breathing in, because it's obviously such a volatile chemical. And you walk into these places and you inhale that.

Marc: It is absolutely... They did some research in the late 1990s where they were looking at the delivery of chlorine into the body through breathing it, direct contact through your skin or drinking. And it's not just chlorine, it's the disinfection by-products, its chloramine, it's trihalomethane, these quite toxic chemicals, chloroform that get metabolised from chlorine. And what they found is when you drank chlorinated water, none of those products appear in your blood because it passes through your liver first, once it goes into the stomach. And while it's a big hit on your liver, your liver has to detoxify it. But it does. So none of these disinfection by-products stay up in your blood. 

But when you have a bath, even if you are breathing fresh air, just the contact of the water from your skin, you get this big hit of disinfection by-products and chloramines etc. And the same if you’re just breathinging the air from a bath, from chlorinated water, you get another big hit. And that's because when these chemicals come through your skin or through your lungs, they don't pass through the liver, they go directly into your bloodstream.

Michelle: Yeah. And you've got a few little life hacks about that. Tell us about them.

Marc: Yeah. Well, so I've been trying to work out the best water for myself and for my patients for years and years. And I was trying to find the best water filter and I end up creating a whole company that has beautiful water, which is filtered, structured, balanced, blessed and flows freely. 

But, when I travel, I love bathing. But you go to another city and you're in a hotel and you turn the bath on and the whole hotel room fills up with chlorine and I don't want to bathe in chlorinated water. So I worked out if you put the bath on really hot and leave the fan on and leave it for 20 minutes because chlorine is so volatile, then all the chlorine will evaporate. And you can have a relatively chlorine-free bath just by leaving it really hot and waiting 20 minutes.

Michelle: That's great.

Marc: And if you can't afford a filter, if you boil the water, the chlorine will evaporate or become volatile. However, it's not just chlorine that's in our water, there's a whole range of chemical pollutants like pesticides and microplastics. And most of these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals and they're what we call obesogens.

Michelle: Wow. That's enough to activate everybody, isn't it?

Marc: Yeah. Well, there's this whole epidemic of obesity. You wonder why, but it's because we're actually consuming obesogens, these chemicals that make us obese in our water supplies. They're in our food. And it's not a great outlook for public health.

So, I'm a big fan of Bill Mollison who's the founder of Permaculture, and he says, when you get the basic things right, other things go right by themselves. But if you get the basic things wrong, it's really hard to play catch up. But when you get the basic things right, so the body just takes care of itself. 

So when I consult with patients, I say, “I want you to be able to sleep well and digest well. Because if you're not sleeping well and digesting well, anything else I do is not going to work. And if you are sleeping well and digesting well, anything else I do will be amplified and your body will take care of itself.”

Michelle: That's such a synergy in the whole of healthcare and medicine. Just get those basic pillars right. And 90%, 95%, 99% of the job, because the body is just so intelligent and can just get itself back on track.

So, let's talk about cold water plunging, because that's a big fad. What's the research telling us about this? I know it's got a long history and, obviously, places like Finland would ice plunge and then saunas, etc. And we're going to talk about saunas in a sec, but, so, do we know about how long, how often, what's actually happening with the physiology? Is it about the brown fat? I know there's lots of questions, but maybe we can...

Marc: We know a lot about cold water immersion. There's different situations. So, for example, there's a lot of research has been done on unintentional cold water immersion. That's when someone falls off an ocean liner in the North Sea or a Navy SEALs getting exposed to extreme conditions. And in those situations, cold water can be deadly. 

So when you get immersed in cold water, especially if it's involuntary, there's a gasp reflex. It's involuntary where you go, “Ah!” the cold water gasp. And if you are on an ocean liner and suddenly you fall off into the freezing water and you have a gasp like that, but you're underwater when you gasp, you're going to have a lung full of water and you drown immediately.

And then the other thing that happens when you enter cold water, especially unintentionally, is you have this incredible adrenaline response, this sympathetic nervous system, fight and flight, adrenaline response. And if you have a brittle heart with unstable heart rhythm, that can throw your heart into an arrhythmia and you can have a heart attack and die of a heart attack. So essentially, you're dying of fright because of the water. And sometimes they call that “dry drowning” because when they do an autopsy, there's no water in the lungs, but the person's drowned. And often this happens within a meter or two of being able to grab something. So that can happen very quickly. So that's the cold-water panic response that leads to heart attack. 

So if you're doing cold water intentionally, it's really important to be in control and to do it gradually so you can control your breathing. And once you can control your breathing, then that's really powerful because that gasp response and the hyperventilation that occurs when you're in cold water immersion, ahh, that breathing, that reproduces the body chemistry and the breathing pattern of anxiety. A panic attack. And some people who have had PTSD or have had trauma in the past, this gives them the opportunity to relive that trauma in a very controlled way.

So, you can actually overcome it and get mastery over your own body in doing that. So it's a really good opportunity to practice being relaxed while you are stressed. And that builds your resilience. So if you can practice being relaxed when you are stressed in a controlled environment, then when the universe throws uncontrolled environments and stresses you, you have the skills to say, “Okay, I can deal with this. I know what to do.”

Michelle: I noticed after a couple of months of doing it is my exhalation started to be longer. So I would slowly almost do that prolonged out breath in which to calm my body down. And it felt almost like really innate and really from my core. And I thought that was just such an interesting thing. It was like my sympathetic nervous system...sorry, my parasympathetic nervous system was really kicking in to calm my body down in that controlled, stressful environment. 

Marc: Because that's getting mastery. You're getting mastery over...

Michelle: It felt like it, yeah.

Marc: ...a stressful situation. 

And I've come up with a few other hacks to deal with that. So, a few years back I travelled with Wim Hof and gave a lecture on the science behind the Wim Hof methods. And I was trying to teach people how you can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, your rest and digest system while you are stressed. And I came up...there are 10 things you can do with your body that mimic what would happen when you are safe in your cave, when you are in parasympathetic rest and digest mode. And I call these “the 10 hacks to relax.”

Michelle: Great.

Marc: And these are things you can do anytime you are scared, upset, anxious, or in pain that you can tell your body you're in control. And it's super simple. And it's a poem. I've come up with a lot of poetry lately. My medical knowledge is been converted into poems. I've always loved medical mnemonics. 

So, the 10 hacks to relax are simple, it's just touch all your fingers, wiggle your toes, soften your stomach, breathe through your nose, sigh, smile, swallow, sing, flutter your eyelids and focus within. And those activities will activate your parasympathetic nervous system. So if you're in cold water or if you're anxious, you're about to do public speaking, wherever it is, if you do those physical activities, you are activating your parasympathetic nervous system and telling your body...

Michelle: Yeah. So actually actively and consciously going into stress, but using that sense of mastery supports that physiological resilience, that state of hormesis. Yeah?

Marc: Correct.

Michelle: Yeah. So tell us about hormesis. I mean, for me, it feels like...

Marc: Hormesis is good. It's stress that makes your body adapt to the stress. So then your body is better adapted the next time you get stressed. So if you go for a run, running is stressful. You're causing this inflammation and you are damaging bits of muscle, but then your muscles respond and you get more new muscle growth and your heart and lungs become fitter. So you are now better equipped to run the next time.

Michelle: And with the cold water plunging, what do we know about brown fat? 

Marc: There are different levels that happen when you do cold water immersion. So there's the immediate response, which is the hyper ventilation and the vasoconstriction. And a lot of the benefits from cold water emission happen very, very quickly in the first 60 to 90 seconds. And that's overcoming that initial sympathetic nervous system response. And if you just get out and then naturally warm up, that's a really great exercise to do. 

But if you can stay in longer and you get to the point where you're shivery, where your body starts to shiver, you don't really want to get to the point where your teeth are chattering and your muscles are shaking involuntary, but just a little bit shivery. That's telling your body is that winter is coming. We have to start upping our metabolism. 

And your body has a natural heating system that is built in around your chest, around the big blood vessels around your clavicles and around your heart. And that is brown fat. And brown fat has more mitochondria than white fat. And the mitochondria in brown fat are thermogenetically decoupled, which just means that instead of producing energy for muscle contraction or something else, they just produce heat. So it's like a little heater unit. 

And brown fat doesn't use glucose for energy because glucose is too valuable for your hearts and lungs, and the rest other organs. What brown fat uses for energy is the most efficient energy source you have: white fat. So brown fat will take white fat, and white fat is where you store fat around your hips and your stomach and it turns that white fat into heat. So that's a holy grail of weight loss.

Michelle: Genius.

Marc: And that's what babies do. That's what bears do when they hibernate. I mean, when you and I went to medical school, we were taught that adults don't have brown fat. It was only in infants. That's because a human infant can't shiver. They don't have strong muscles to shiver, and they've got a big surface area to their volume. So they'll lose heat very quickly. So, babies actually have brown fat deposits that keeps them warm. And even young children, often you'll see young children running around with not many clothes and parents, “Put your jumper on, you're going to catch a cold.” 

But children actually have a higher metabolism and they generate more heat than adults. But you can stimulate that in adults by exposing yourself to cold. And if you expose yourself to cold, you can actually reproduce and regenerate brown fat. And then what you're doing is you are actually burning energy and turning it into heat. You’re actually burning your white fat rather than just using energy for muscle contractions, etc.

Michelle: Wow. So I wasn't expecting such advice on the obesity epidemic, but cold water plunging and getting rid of chlorine and stopping water filters in terms of obesogenic pesticides and hormones and whatever. I mean, there's two pretty good things that we can all start to do.

Marc: And yet it's so basic. This is really basic.

Michelle: So basic. Yeah. Awesome.

Marc: I came up with another little routine, and this is after I'd toured with Wim Hof and telling people about getting in the cold water wasn’t just the alpha males and all the people who really gung ho about it. I was running some retreats at Gwinganna and places where the people were like, “We can't do cold. We don't do cold.”

Michelle: Yeah, I know. I'm allergic to cold water.

Marc: Yeah. A lot of people have a big fear and they just can't handle it. So I actually came up with a routine that lets you handle cold water very gradually. And I called it the cold water hokey pokey. Because it such a simple thing to do. You don't need any equipment, you can just do it in the privacy of your own home. Doesn't take much time. 

And essentially what you're doing is going to the shower and you start with a really hot shower. And hot showers are nice. And then you get the temperature and you turn it up a little bit. So, at the end of your normal shower, you are actually getting really hot and flushed and vasodilated. So all the blood's coming to the surface and you're feeling really warm and then you make the decision to turn the hot water off and the cold water on, but you just wet your left foot. That's actually quite pleasant because your body's been really hot. And then you wet your leg and you put your right foot and your leg in.

Michelle: Shake it all about.

Marc: Then you put your right-handed arm and your other-handed arm, and that vasoconstricts the blood vessels in your arms and it sends that blood into your core, so you don't feel cold. You're still feeling warm even though your limbs have been in cold water. And then you keep breathing calmly and you smile to yourself because that's what it's all about. Having that calm breathing when you go into cold is really the key. 
And then the little trick is you take a big breath in, and then as you are putting your left side in, you sigh. So, normally when you put your left side of your body under the cold water, when the water hits your neck where the blood vessels are close to the surface, that's when you gasp. That's when you normally go, ahh, like that.

But if you trick your body, so instead of, before you put your left side in, you take a big breath and then you go, huh, so your side, just as you said, when you go into the water, and then you still feel the cold, but you don't get the emotional fear response, that reaction from the cold. And lastly, you put your left side in, then your right side in, and your front side in, and you turn yourself around, and you continue breathing calmly, and you smile to yourself because that's what it's all about.

Michelle: Correct.

Marc: And then you put your whole head in, and again your head is where you lose a lot of temperature, a lot of heat. So, putting your head under cold water, it's a bit of a shock. But you sigh again, and you move your head around, you stand still, get a drenching, slowly turn yourself around, continue breathing calmly and smile to yourself because that's what it's all about. And then you put the water on your groin, your kidneys, and your armpits, all the places where the blood vessels are close to the surface. 

And you'll find by the time you've done that, you'll be able to stand under the cold water and breathe calmly and smile to yourself and be quite relaxed. And at that point, you can turn the tap off and get out of the shower and you've spent about...it only takes about a minute, but you would've spent the morning singing and dancing and you feel really invigorated and alive. And you've also overcome your procrastination muscle. You've done something you didn't really want to do and achieved something. 

So then the next time in your life you have to do something you didn't really want to do, that phone call you didn't want to make or that job that you really weren't excited about, you can get on with it and do it because you've practised doing that in the morning.

Michelle: That's right. And it's also got some positive impacts on immunity.

Marc: Oh, it does.

Michelle: How does that work?

Marc: We still don't fully understand the immune system, as I said, most of it it's in your gut. But I studied with Wim Hof, he's got such charisma and such self-confidence that he’d say, “Oh, I could overcome anything with a bit of breathing and cold water immersion.” And they actually tested him with some endotoxins, so it was the E. coli lipoprotein. So it wasn't the actual bacteria, but it was the membrane around the bacteria. And I injected that into his blood. So it actually confuses the body to think you have septicemia, a blood infection. And normally, you'd get fevers and chills and body shakes and pain for about 24 hours. And then because you haven't gotten actual infection, it would go away.

So, it's a really good test of the immune system. And they did that with Wim and he didn't react, and they said, “Oh, you're just a freak.” He goes, “No, I can teach anyone to do that.” And they said, “Really? How long will that take you? A year, two years?” He goes, “No, I'll do it in a week.” 

So, he made it up, he went along, but he was so confident. And they said, okay. So they got, I think it was two dozen people that were that special. And he took them away to Poland and showed them a week of breathing and cold exposure. They ended up hiking up in the freezing cold conditions up to the top of the mountain in their board shorts. And after the week of training, they all went through the same process and were able to resist, their immune systems were able to resist this sort of infective response.

Michelle: That's incredible.

Marc: And I think it's this hormesis, you're...

Michelle: It’s that physiology…

Marc: ...using the sympathetic nervous system. And basically, what happens...the basic mechanism that we do understand is when you're in fight and flight, when you're in that panic mode, which the cold water does to you, your immune system turns off. And that's because when you're in the middle of a battle or running away from a tiger, you don't want to waste energy healing. You want to have all your energy to escape and then you heal when you've escaped and you're safe in your cave, that's when your immune system turns on.

Michelle: So you're almost activating it, you're activating the immune system after the event. So you're strengthening it through that resilience experience.

Marc: Yeah. Well, you are deactivating it during the event, so you're turning it off and then it's responding afterwards. And it's similar with your mind. So when you're in fight and flight, when you are scared, you don't think properly. Your rational thought is turned off because in those moments you want to act instantly and instinctively. You don't have time to, should I turn this way or should I run that way?

So your thinking mind turns off. That's a physiological response. And if you are scared and if someone's, making you scared, you won't think right. So it's really good to have techniques that can bring you back like the hacks to relax, can bring you back and relax. And that's when you'll make the best decisions. 

And in fact, after you come out of a hot and cold experience or even just a cold experience, there's a point, and you asked me before, how long and what temperature? And that's really hard to answer because it varies for everybody depending on the time of day, depending on their mood, depending on how fit they are, depending on whether they've got worries in their mind. So it's really not about the time and the temperature, it's about the response that you get. And this point that happens that I call “the point of forced mindfulness,” and that's the point when your body says to your mind, “Hey, let's get out of here. It's too much." It's just asking you to tap out. And that point is the point where you're actually overcoming a hurdle.

Michelle: I think that's also a really good point, too, of knowing when to call enough because I think sometimes we think about stress and we keep going. I know myself, I'm like a workhorse. I can keep going and going. And it was actually really important for me to learn when to call enough and stop it. So it's beautiful, almost symbolic of life and sometimes when we do these very nature-based experiences can simulate just really common everyday experiences.

Marc: At that point, your mind and your body are on the same page.

Michelle: Yeah. Nice. I love that.

Marc: And at that point, it's really good time when your mind and body, especially when you're deeply relaxed and your mind and body are on the same page when you can make really good decisions. Because your decisions are coming not just from your head but from your guts, and we're coming back to the gut bacteria now because your gut instincts and tuning into the wisdom of your gut is really helpful.

Michelle: Yeah, and your heart as well. That central core of that essence.

Marc: And at those times, your heart is relaxed, your pulse can go right down, your breathing goes down. But when you are in the point of stress, that forced mindfulness, that's when you can practice being relaxed. That's when you can get the 10 hacks to relax. You can take some breaths. 

It's similar to what happens in yoga when you do a yoga stretch. And there's a point where you say, “I'm not going to stretch any further, I'll hurt myself, but I'm just trying to relax in this stressful position.” But just like in a yoga class, when you stress your body and then you practice being relaxed while you're stressed. At the end of the class, you do the Shavasana, the Corpse Pose, and you practice relaxing while you're relaxed. And you get this very deep relaxation and that's the point where you want to make decisions or when your mind and body are on the same page.

Michelle: Yeah. Beautiful. And what about heat? We talked about the hot springs and how important temperature is, but saunas are obviously an extreme temperature. Is it much the same? Is it a hormesis experience as well?

Marc: It absolutely it is. And hot and cold work really well together. And this is something that hasn't been well represented in the scientific literature. So there's lots of research on sauna bathing and showing that if you sauna regularly, let’s say, three times a week or more, that you reduce all-cause mortality. You reduce the risk of dying of any cause and that...

Michelle: Brilliant.

Marc: ...you reduce heart attack and stroke and Alzheimer's disease and all these, and pneumonia is all reduced. However, most of that research was done in Finland where it's just natural that when you have a sauna, you go out and jump in the cold. And it's taken for granted. 

And sauna culture has gone around the whole world. In fact, sauna is the only Finnish word that has become common in the English language. But a lot of places that hotels and gyms will have a sauna, but they don't have a lot...up until now, it's just happening right now where people are putting effort into the cold experience.

And I think people are still wondering, "Oh, we don't want to put a cold experience because people might have a heart attack and die.” They're still a bit scared of it. However, in Finland and Scandinavia and Japan and in the Baltic region, Russia, they love saunas, but they also do it naturally in the cold. And combining the hot and the cold is like a bicep curl for your vascular system. Hiking up your blood vessels in the hot and contracting it in the cold.

Michelle: And so is there a difference between far infrared, and the plain old heat sauna or...?

Marc: There is. Infrared saunas, they don't have the steam or the water, and water transmits heat 25 times more effectively than air. So the more humid it gets, the less temperature you can tolerate. You can tolerate a dry sauna at 110 degrees centigrade, which sounds crazy, but you can. But whereas the steam room is 48 degrees, it might be too hot. 

Now with an infrared sauna, you're just using infrared radiation directly into your body and that generally will heat your body at a lower temperature. So, in a 50 or 60 degrees in an infrared sauna will be enough to get you to sweat, whereas you might want 80 or 90 degrees in a traditional sauna. And infrared saunas, they vary according to the quality of the build and the type of heater panels that they use. Generally, you get what you pay for. But a lot of people like infrared because you can sweat at a lower temperature and it's more comfortable.

Michelle: And it's the sweating, is it the release of toxins? Is it something else about sweating because exercise and sweating have obviously been shown to be really effective from a longevity or all-cause mortality experiences?

Marc: Yeah. So sweating is good for you. And people say, which sauna should I use? And whatever makes you sweat, because it's really the outcome that you want. And sweating is really complex. I had one of my students, Joy Hussein, who’s a medical doctor who has spent seven years doing her PhD on sauna research. We published quite a bit of research. In fact, a week and a half ago, we just published another study that showed that you actually excrete pesticides. These organophosphate pesticides, which are some of the obesogens I was talking about actually getting excreted in sweat.

Michelle: So we got another hack for weight loss...

Marc: Yeah, yes, shredding.

Michelle: ...or weight management.

Marc: You literally clean your body from the inside out.

Michelle: Nice.

Marc: And there is a lot to do. There's a lot of benefits of sweating, and it is a detoxification pathway, although it's really important to stay hydrated. And it's also when you are in a sauna, it's a really good cardiovascular workout. And this is a workout you're doing when you're sitting and relaxing, or sitting and chatting with someone, or lying down. But your heart is pumping a lot harder, you're breathing a bit faster, and your blood vessels are opened up, which means your heart has to work harder, not just faster, but harder because there's more open pipe to pump the blood through. So you need more force. 

So there's a lot of really good research to show that people with heart failure and cardiovascular disease benefit a lot from regular sauna bathing. We did a big global research study on why people sauna and all the benefits of sauna, and most people with heart disease don't use saunas, even though that's probably the most evidence-based use of the sauna in terms of medical conditions. But what we did find was that people use saunas for relaxation, and then pretty much across the board, when you use the sauna, you sleep better.

Michelle: Beautiful.

Marc: And coming back to the basic things, anything that makes you sleep better will improve things across the board. So, you're detoxifying, which is a great thing. You are sleeping better and you're exercising your vascular system and your cardiovascular system. So these are all really positive things for general health. And if you can incorporate that in your lifestyle and make that a regular practice, then this is a hormetic stress response when you are maintaining your resilience. So then life can throw other stresses at you and you can handle them very easily.

Michelle: It's such a good way of looking at longevity and lifestyle, bringing it into the everyday because a lot of these things are so pleasant… 

Marc: It's also social. Something that can be shared.

Michelle: Yeah, exactly. And you often do do it with other people because of that excitement factor or that relaxation factor. Sure beats going for cocktails because you're together.

Marc: So that's it. You're connecting with yourself, you're connecting with nature, and if there's other people there, you connect with them as well. That's quite a bonding experience. So, you're talking about the currency of wellness is connection. And something that connect you with yourself, with nature and with other people, if you can include those things in your life, then you're going to have a good life.

Michelle: Amazing. I have so many more questions. So I'm going to try and pin you down again, Marc, because listening to you is just like listening to a fountain of some encyclopaedic, natural, ancient wisdom.

Marc: Yeah. Thanks, Michelle.

Michelle: So gorgeous.

Marc: This is a bit short, but maybe I'll end with another poem.

Michelle: Yeah, I'd love you to.

Marc: So this is during the lockdown when you're talking about the things you're doing during lockdown. I went to write down, what are the things people can do at home that will improve their immunity, reduce anxiety, and that require very little cost, training, or equipment, and that will have scientific evidence behind them? And I started writing this list of all the things, and I've been studying complementary medicine for 30 years. That was all the different things and activities, and this list came out as a poem. 

So the poem is called ‘The Whirl of Wellness.’ It's on my website. And, if you go to my website, each of the activities has a link to the scientific research behind it. So there are 50 activities in this poem, and when you go through it, you'll realize these activities connect you with yourself, with nature, or with other people. So, The Whirl of Wellness.

Hold someone's hand, gaze into their eyes
Go barefoot in nature, bask in sunrise
Choose a dance partner, and go find your groove
Do tai chi or yoga, mindfully move
Share a massage, enjoy healing touch
Focus on one thing and don't think too much
Make time for a hobby, play chess, fly a kite
Make use of your hands, draw, paint, sew or write
Help someone in need, donate to a cause
Play games, meditate, read stuff from bookstores
Turn off your screens, get a good sleep
De-clutter, spark joy, and love what you keep
Dig around in a garden, pick up a guitar
Slip into a bathtub, sauna, or spa
Care for a pet, take up a sport
Go on vacation, and make your home a resort
Lie in a hammock, relieve pent-up stress
Relax and do nothing, and then do even less
Laugh out loud, share a joke, give someone a kiss
Say a prayer, chant a mantra, and follow your bliss

Michelle: Wow. If that's not the best advice ever on the fx Medicine podcast. Evidence-based, well-being, bliss-focused wellness hacks by Professor Marc Cohen. Absolutely gorgeous.

Marc: Evidence-based poetry.

Michelle: Thank you everyone for listening today. Don't forget that you can find all the show notes, transcripts, and other resources mentioned in today's podcast on the fx Medicine website. I'm Dr Michelle Woolhouse, and thanks for joining us. We'll see you next time.


The information provided on FX Medicine is for educational and informational purposes only. The information provided on this site is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional advice or care. Please seek the advice of a qualified health care professional in the event something you have read here raises questions or concerns regarding your health.

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