What is a contrast shower and how it works
Contrast showers (also known as alternate showers) are showers that use hot and cold water in alternation. Contrast showers are used as mental and physical alertness tonics and as methods of detoxification. With contrast showering the blood and lymph vessels contract when cold water is used and dilate when hot water is used. This creates a pump effect that enhances arterial flow into the tissues, venous return (blood flow from the tissues towards the heart via the veins) and lymphatic drainage (drainage of excess water and waste products from the tissues towards the heart).
As arterial flow is boosted, tissues get nourished and oxygenated. As venous return and lymph drainage are enhanced, more toxins and waste products can find their way out of the tissues and towards the heart, from where they are ultimately directed into the liver and kidneys for detoxification and expulsion from the body.
Do contrast showers affect cellulite?
Contrast showers are a good home remedy for cellulite prevention and, to a lesser extent, celulite reduction. As we explained in another article of this website, cellulite comprises seven components (poor circulation/lymphatic drainage, inflammation, toxin accumulation, skin looseness, fat accumulation, glycation and scar tissue formation). The first 3 of those components are directly or indirectly affected by contrast showers in a favorable way.
As we explained above, contrast showers encourage the blood and lymph vessels to pump more vigorously and thereby increase the diffusion of nutrients and oxygen into the tissues and at the same time also boost the removal of toxins and waste products from the tissues towards the detoxification organs of the body. In addition, metabolic rate of the affected tissues increases and inflammation tends to heal faster. Since toxin and waste product accumulation, inflammation and water retention are important parts of what we call cellulite, it is apparent that contrast showers would help reduce or at least prevent cellulite.
Contrast showers, cold showers and cellulite fat reduction
In addition, since contrast showers boost sympathetic nervous system activity and thereby metabolic rate, they should - to some extent at least - help reduce the most important component of cellulite: fat. We now know that cold stimulates the release of noradrenaline (norepinephrine), the most important fat-releasing hormone of the body. In this case one would be tempted to think that cold showers are better than contrast showers in boosting topical fat loss, but the opposite is true. Continuous norepinephrine release eventually leads to a tolerance effect on the adipocytes, which simply stop responding to it. However, intermittent release, stimulated by a contrast shower, should not cause the same tolerance effect and thereby may be more effective than continuous release stimulated by a cold shower.
How hot showers and contrast showers differ in their effect on the body and cellulite in particular?
The difference between a contrast shower and a hot shower is that with the hot shower arteries and veins dilate leading to more nutrients entering the tissues (which is great), more water entering the tissues (which is not that great...) but less waste products and water leaving the tissues (which is really unwelcome), thereby potentially increasing water retention and inflammation. In addition, hot showers relax the central nervous system and decrease metabolic rate.
Cold showers in contrast, can have an immediate vasoconstricting effect (blood and lymph vessels contract) which boosts drainage and venous return, and therefore can be very effective in removing waste products from the peripheral tissues, but do not create the vigorous pumping effect that contrast showers create, and are therefore less efficient than the latter.
In addition, contrast showers are better tolerated by most people than cold showers, which especially in the winter can be very unpleasant.
Finally, cold showers stimulate the central nervous system and increase metabolic rate but the same effect is produced by contrast showers, as is evidenced by the increased mental alertness and vitality people feel after taking a contrast shower. And as we mentioned a few paragraphs above, the local metabolic rate increase from a contrast shower might be higher than that achieved by a cold shower.
How to have a contrast shower for the whole body
I love contrast showers as they increase my alertness and make me feel vigorous and alive. The way I take them is as follows. If I feel tired and hot, I start with cold water (as cold as I can tolerate) and thoroughly cool down all parts of my body. This usually takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Then I switch to hot water (as hot as I can tolerate) and again warm up the whole body, again for anything between 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
In the winter I tend to use hot water for more time and in the summer I tend to use cold water more. I repeat this procedure 2 to 5 times, always listening to signals from my body. I do not force myself to do something that my body doesn’t want and if one day I don’t feel like it I just don’t contrast shower.
At the end of this cycle of intense temperature variations, I calm down my system by using cool water (not cold) followed by luke-warm water (not hot). Finally, I finish with water at exactly the same temperature as my body. So the full routine could be summarized as follows:
- Cold/Hot: x2~5 cycles, ½-3 minutes each
- Cool/Luke warm: x1~2 cycles, ½-3 minutes each
- Neutral: x1~2 minutes
How to apply a contrast shower only on the areas affected by cellulite
If you are only going to “work” only on your thighs and hips then you may skip the cool/luke warm cycle, as well as the neutral part of the routine, so that you achieve maximum effect. For full body contrast showering it is important to somewhat calm down the system, otherwise you may feel cold later, especially in the winter. You may also get over-stimulated. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with really stimulating your thighs only, in fact this is exactly what we want to achieve. And as the stimulation is only localized, you will not feel too cold or too “hyper” with a thigh-and-bottom-only contrast shower.
But be careful, applying a contrast shower to affect the cellulite on the stomach, waist, chest or upper arms, may give you a cold or diarrhea, as these areas are too close your internal organs, which don’t normally like cold. Also, be careful when you work on your inner thighs or the buttocks not to irritate the intimate areas with the cold/hot water sequence.
How to maximize the effects of contrast showers
The best time to apply a good anti-cellulite cream is immediately after a contrast shower, as the hot/cold shower will increase the effectiveness and absorption of the cream. In turn, the best time to have a contrast shower is immediately after exercise, which will produce a synergistic effect and will help remove lactic acid and waste products from the muscles. The best time to body brush is immediate after a contrast shower and immediately before applying a cream. And finally, the best time to have an anti-cellulite treatment is immediately after exercise (as I explain in another article) and immediately before a contrast shower. So the ideal complete routine should be something like this:
- Cellulite cream (optional)
- Cellulite treatment (or self-massage)
- Contrast shower
- Body brushing
- Cellulite cream
You may include or take out of this routine as many or as few steps as you want. This is an ideal routine whose full application depends on time, and also on the cost of the treatments and the creams. Body brushing, as I explain in another article on this site, is not as effective as beauty therapists and journalists want you to believe, and the only reason I suggest it is as an exfoliation method to help increase the absorption of the anti-cellulite cream you may be using.
Maximise your cellulite cream's effectiveness, help prevent cellulite
Neither a contrast shower nor self-massage can replace the effectiveness of a good anti-cellulite treatment, but they cost nothing and can be used as no-cost add-ons to your course of professional cellulite treatments. In addition, by maximizing the absorption and effectiveness of your cellulite cream, a contrast shower will make the money you paid for the cream go further.
And if you don’t have cellulite, why not use contrast showering to offer a pleasant micro-massage to your thighs and buttocks and therefore boost circulation and prevent cellulite? Of course the combination of contrast showers with muffins and caramel macchiatos will not keep the cellulite at bay for long. However, with a reasonable diet, contrast showers will help you prevent cellulite. Generally speaking, the more naughty food you eat (you know, fats, starches, sugars, alcohol) and the more sedentary you are, then the more professional cellulite treatments and use cellulite creams become important, if you ant to avoid cellulite.
Other forms of contrast showering
Athletes and sports people use contrast baths to recover from or prevent sports injuries and post-exercise muscle pain (also known as DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness): alternating sauna or steam bath with a cold water plunge is another form of "contrast showering". Some athletes go as far as immersing themselves in a hot bath first and then plunging into a tub filled with ice cubes. I wouldn't advise covering your whole body in ice cubes, unless you know you're fit enough for that,, but immersing your legs in a really cold plunge is a fantastic way to stay firm and smooth.
You must not take very cold, very hot or contrast showers without medical approval if you suffer from a diagnosed or suspected heart disease, circulatory and respiratory conditions, diabetes, asthma, if you have a cold or other infection, if you faint easily and if you are in poor health in general. Contrast showers are very powerful and therefore must be treated with respect. In general, localized contrast showers on the calves and thighs are pretty safe, whilst full body contrast showers produce full body effects and must be treated with even more respect. So if you are uncertain, ask your doctor first before applying the advice contained in this article.
The worst time to have a contrast shower is before going to bed as it will probably keep you awake for some time. One of the best times is to have it first thing in the morning, as it can help you wake up - but only if you are brave enough. Unfortunately, I can only do that in the summer.