Chill Out? Ice Baths & Cold Showers Have Surprising Health Benefits.

Introduction to Cold Exposure Therapy

You’ve heard your favourite influencer talking about it. You’ve seen millionaire CEOs and celebrities install ice baths in their homes but what actually is cold exposure therapy or “cold water immersion”..?

Cold Exposure Therapy, involving practices like ice baths and cold showers, has gained popularity for its potential health benefits. Historically, cold therapy has been used for pain relief and inflammation reduction, and it’s now being explored for broader health applications, including mental well-being and physical performance enhancement (Bouzigon et al., 2016).

People that do this regularly report transformative effects on their mental and physical wellbeing. This blog is going to dive a little bit deeper into this trend, explore some of the most common claims and offer some practical advice for those looking to give it a go.

Understanding The Initial “Shock” Reaction

If you’ve tried it you know this feeling. It’s the sudden gasp that involuntarily escapes when you jump into an icy cold pool or you shut off the hot water tap and it jumps to freezing cold for the last 30 seconds of your shower. We call this the “cold shock” response. It’s a quick spike in heart rate and stress hormones, that signature gasp and possible hyperventilation as you try to adapt.

If you can get through this initial response however, your body will start to adapt and you start shivering. This is a natural response and it might be playing a crucial role in how cold exposure therapy works some of its magic.

What Are The Biggest Reasons People Take The Plunge?

 

(1) Mental Health Benefits

A lot of people use cold therapy as a tool for mental health management, particularly for reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The immediate hormonal response triggered by cold water immersion, such as the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, might be one of the explanations behind the post-dip euphoria. The research is ongoing as to the potential long-term benefits of cold therapy for better mood and mental health.

A few studies followed people who started regular open-water swimming, who experienced improvement in their depression symptoms so much so they stopped needing medications. But was it the cold water, or was it the fact they started to do regular exercise..?

In terms of improving your ability to handle stress, the cold shock is essentially activating your “fight or flight” stress response. By choosing to expose yourself in a more controlled setting you are encouraging your body to adapt to handling stressful situations and encouraging it to be less activated ie. handle things better. Worth a shot!

(2) Boosts Metabolism & Fat Loss

It’s no secret that our overall health as a population appears to be declining. We’re more overweight and inactive than generations before us. So when it’s been proposed that something as simple as being in some cold water can boost our metabolism, it naturally peaks peoples interest. 

Research has found that acute or repeated exposure to cold is thought to improve insulin sensitivity, which helps regulate blood sugar. As diabetes is running rampant, improving insulin sensitivity and being able to better manage blood sugar levels would be invaluable! There’s also mixed evidence that it boosts immune cells in your body so people are connecting this to an improvement in your immune system. 

Let’s talk about fat. We have multiple (three in fact) types of fat in our body. The most common one that people often think of is called “white fat”. An excess of this is what leads to obesity. Another kind of fat, which has been linked to improved metabolism after cold exposure is “brown fat”. 

Brown fat is located around the neck, kidneys and the chest and gets activated during cold exposure just before your body starts to shiver.  When it gets activated, it’s responsible for keeping you warm in cold temperatures by warming the blood. This process of creating heat burns calories. So whilst technically the creation of heat DOES burn calories, we have very little (<2%) of brown fat in our bodies. The increased calories burned are almost insignificant in comparison to those that would be burned by our lean muscle mass. So whilst it’s a nice little bonus, you can’t cold-plunge your way to weight loss.

(3) Exercise Recovery

Cold therapy has been linked with reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), inflammation and micro-damage after exercise. However, results are often mixed. For example, people who are looking to build muscle strength, taking an ice plunge after training actually blunted muscle growth (due to the anti-inflammatory effect). Now, this was only ~10-20% but if you’re an aspiring athlete, that can be quite a big difference! 

An interesting concept I found was that contrast therapy (alternating between hot and cold) could theoretically improve recovery because it encourages better blood circulation. In contrast therapy, you’re basically dilating and constricting the blood vessels manually using the alternating temperatures. One study did find that cold water immersion and active recovery  (stationary cycling) have similar effects on inflammatory and cellular stress responses in muscle after resistance exercise, suggesting that cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimising these responses (Peake et al., 2017).

Getting Started With Cold Exposure:

It seems like a harmless activity, that does pose promising benefits. But, as with everything it’s important to approach this practice safely. It’s particularly important for people with cardiovascular issues or other health conditions to consult with a healthcare professional before starting. 

Also understanding the risk of hypothermia and the “after-drop” effect is crucial. The “after-drop” involves getting out of the water and having your blood vessels dilate, sending the chilled blood back from your extremities to your core and it can actually further decrease your core temperature. 

Start small.

Get an understanding of how your body reacts to the cold exposure. It can be the final 30 seconds of your shower, or 30 seconds in a tub full of cold water (without ice). As with anything, gradually build up over time. To fully gain the benefits of cold exposure, you do need to be in water that is 15 degrees (celsius) or less. But you don’t need to start there. More is not necessarily better either, roughly 10mins per week spaced out over 3 sessions is enough.

What’s My Take On Cold Exposure Therapy?

I think anything that is relatively harmless with potential to improve health is always worth considering. Assuming there are no risks or specific health concerns, it’s worth a try! As for many of the proposed health benefits I’m slightly more reserved. It’s not because I don’t think that cold exposure does these things, it’s my concern that people will look to cold exposure as a way of avoiding other things that are more beneficial.

Staying active, eating well, minimising stress and getting enough sleep can do everything that cold exposure does – but better. Energy needs to be placed on these things first, before we start focusing on building regular cold exposure into our routines.

An interesting concept is that humans have become too comfortable. We have complete control over our environments, we control the temperatures we live in. We used to be exposed to changes in temperature due to the climate or physical activity. A lot of us today are so comfortable that we’ve lost the ability to handle changes in stress. 

Don’t underestimate the power of “choosing” to be uncomfortable. Everybody wants to have a sense of control over their lives. The old saying “get comfortable being uncomfortable” can be applied to cold exposure in my opinion. 

Choosing to be uncomfortable, helps us grow our comfort zone. 

If you’re ready to get uncomfortable and find out what you’re truly capable of, book a free 30min call and let’s figure out what we can achieve together!

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