Lessons from a Houseplant: Part IV- Temperature
In part I of “Lessons from a Houseplant”, we looked at why outdoor plants are stronger and more adaptable than houseplants. We then applied this idea to human beings using some basic tenants of biology. We looked at why our culture is set up to encourage us to be weak houseplants and how it’s affecting our health and our ability to adapt to stressful circumstances.
In “Lessons from a Houseplant: Part II”, we looked at how we can manipulate our diet to become stronger and healthier. We looked at adding supplementation as our own Miracle-Gro, to patch the holes in our “soil”. We also looked at the benefits of fasting and creating a controlled nutrient scarcity, and how that benefits us both mentally and physically. Check out that article in the link above.
Our third post in the series looked at our relationship to light. Though we don’t use light for direct energy production as plants do, we still need sunlight for many different aspects of our health and functioning. We looked at light both literally, in the form of exposure to sunlight, as well as metaphorically in terms of sleep.
In this post we’re going to be looking our relationship to temperature. We’ll address why our obsession with comfort is causing us to miss out on a lot of physical and mental benefits of hot and cold, and some ways to rectify that.
For plants, temperature is an everyday stressor, and whether we really think about much or not, it also controls much of plant physiology. Temperature determines when a seed will germinate, the rate at which a plant will grow, when it flowers, and how much fruit it produces. At the end ranges, temperature controls the plants life cycle and also determines when they’ll die. We’re seeing this now with the fall season. The next chance you have, take a look at the different plants in your yard or in your daily commute and see how they’re responding to the season and the temperature shift that’s taking place.
Now let’s look at what temperature has to do with us. Historically, human beings lived and died based on their ability to regulate temperature. Staying warm was the major issue most humans, but overheating was also a concern in some areas of the world. We developed all kinds of different tools, from animal skins and warm clothing, to shelters designed to regulate temperature, to the control and use of fire. These skills and tools have been integral in keeping us alive and helping our species to thrive.
But, as we tend to do, we modern humans may have taken it too far. Is it possible that we’re actually becoming TOO good at regulating our ambient temperature? Are we losing out on some of the adaptive physiological (and psychological) benefits of regular exposure to extreme temperatures? Many people think so, and I’d have to agree with them.
I spent over 20 years living in Arizona and routinely experienced temperatures above 110ºF in the summer. And now I’ve lived in Minnesota for the last 4 years and have also seen the opposite, temperatures in the winter dropping down well below 0ºF, with wind chills as low as -50ºF. In both climates, people’s routines are governed so much by trying to stay comfortable temperature-wise that they never allow themselves the chance to experience any of the adaptive benefits of exposure to extreme hot or cold. Our bodies’ temperature regulation systems aren’t stressed regularly and we aren’t forced to adapt, making us weaker bother mentally and physically.
We know that when we experience intense heat or cold, our bodies and minds undergo incredible stress. Our physiology changes dramatically, forcing us to adapt and become stronger against a similar stimuli in the future. We see upregulation in the immune system, a release of beneficial heat-shock and cold-shock proteins, regulation of the cardiovascular system and blood pressure. In the case of extreme heat, we also sweat a lot which has a number of benefits for us (but don’t forget to rehydrate using electrolyte-rich fluids).
Mentally, we get outside of our comfort zone and are able to work on toughness, mindfulness, and pushing past our constructed boundaries. By regularly going outside of our comfort zone and learning to still be present and in control, we gain an incredible willpower and trust in ourselves. Keeping our minds clear and focused even when the body is experiencing intense stress or pain is a major key to performing at our best in athletic competition and other high-pressure situations.
If you already have a mindfulness practice, you can certainly use it in an extreme temperature environment. If you don’t have any mental practices, try “simply” controlling your breath (I put simply in quotes because it can be anything but simple) and focusing on coming into the here and now. The body naturally wants to mount a sympathetic response when introduced to extreme cold or heat, but by focusing on each inhale and exhale, we can begin to slow the breath and the heart rate. The body learns to preserve energy and heat and we don’t have that freak out sympathetic response.
If you feel that you want to take things to the next level, try adding Tummo meditation to your routine. Tummo is an ancient yogic breathing practice that provides the practitioner with the ability to control their own body temperature even in extremely cold temperatures. There are studies in which Monks in the middle of winter were draped with wet towels and after extended meditation, were able to cause steam to come out of the towels. Tummo is also used by The Iceman, Wim Hof in some of his more extraordinary feats. Check out an awesome VICE documentary on Wim Hof here.
There are a number of different methods and ways of exposing ourselves to heat and cold. Below I’ve compiled a brief list for each with some good informative links. You’ll have to do the research and experimenting yourself to determine what the best methods are for you. As always, start slow and be very mindful of how your body is feeling and reacting to the new stress. If you ever feel that it’s too much or your body isn’t handling the temperature well, get yourself into a comfortable cool or warm environment. If you’re going to push it to the limit (limiiit… I couldn’t resist), please have another person around who can help you if things go south.
- Hot Yoga– My personal favorite. Allows the positive effects of a hot room plus the mental and physical benefits of yoga. The combination makes this especially effective.
- Sweat Lodge
- Steam Room
- Whole-Body Cryotherapy Chamber
- Cold Plunge / Ice Swimming
- Sitting in the Snow
- Cold Showers
You can also try doing a combination approach in which you alternate sauna/sweat lodge with sitting in the snow or a cold plunge. This should be done with caution however as it provides an even stronger stress to the body than simply hot or cold alone.
As always, we love to hear about your own personal experiences with these different mental and physical practices. And if you have any questions about using temperature to become stronger and more adaptable, please don’t hesitate to hit the contact button to send us a message!