The benefits of cold therapy (cold showers, cryotherapy, ice baths, etc.) are an increasingly popular health trend. Big name celebrities like Tony Robbins and Joe Rogan, along with a slew of professional athletes swear by the practice.
What exactly is cold water therapy?
Practitioners of cold water therapy use water 59 °F and under to stimulate health inducing benefits.
What are the benefits?
Fans of cold water therapy say the ritual helps:
- Boost the immune system
- Improve metabolic function
- Improve circulation
- Reduce inflammation
- Boost energy levels
- Improve mood
- Lose weight
And cold water therapy does have some benefits that are proven by science. So let’s dive into what those benefits are:
Can Ice Baths Improve My Immune System?
This study showed that participants were able to stimulate the body’s immune system with a combination of meditation, deep breathing, and cold therapy. When exposed to a bacterial infection, the participants that used these techniques had fewer symptoms. Their bodies “produced more anti-inflammatory chemicals (Monocytes, Lymphocytes, T-helper cells, and T-suppressor cells) and fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines in response to the infection.”
Can Cold Immersion Improve Metabolic Function?
Hormesis is when you expose your body to low doses of controlled stressors (like cold showers) that trigger healthy adaptive responses. When the cold water hits your body, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, as shown in this study. This is the part of your body that activates your “fight or flight” response. A release of the hormone noradrenaline and a variety of cellular mechanisms promote stress resilience, repair cellular damage and DNA, combat oxidative stress, eliminate toxins, reduce inflammation, improve blood sugar regulation, and also produce more mitochondria for increased energy to continue these healthy activities.
Can ice baths improve circulation?
This study showed blood flow to and from muscles improved thanks to cold therapy. When exposed to cold water, blood flow to the skin decreases. When the exposure to cold water stops, the body has to warm itself up, and then there is an increase in blood flow to the surface of the skin.
Does Cold Water Therapy Help With Inflammation and Muscle Soreness?
I’m sure you’ve seen professional athletes jump into an ice bath prepared by medical trainers. This study found that cyclists who completed intense training sessions had decreased soreness after they were immersed in cold water for 10 minutes. As did this second study which showed the same thing.
The reason a cold bath helps with muscle pain is that it causes your blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow to the area. Similar to putting ice on a specific area of injury, this practice helps reduce swelling and inflammation in the whole body since you’re subjecting your whole body to the cold.
Can cold therapy boost energy?
Yes, a cold shower is invigorating and will definitely wake you up. But will the increase in energy sustain? This study shows that cold therapy actually increases the number of mitochondria within your body. Mitochondria are structures within your cells that create the energy your body utilizes.
Can Cold Showers Help Ease Anxiety and Depression?
Cold water therapy is not a cure, nor the first course of action to treat any mental condition. This study showed that a regimen of quick cold showers decreased depressive symptoms.
Again, cold therapy does not substitute psychotherapy or any psychiatric help. However, when the shock of the cold water hits your senses and literally takes your breath away, it’s hard to think of anything else including negative thoughts.
Can Cold Showers help you lose weight?
This study showed that long-term cold exposure can stimulate brown fat growth. Brown fat, also referred to as brown adipose tissue (BAT), is a special kind of fat that burns energy and glucose to generate heat. 100g of brown fat can burn 3400 calories per day!
My experience with cold showers
After learning of all the great benefits of cold shower therapy, I was convinced! Day 1, I showered first thing in the morning after meditation. I had woken up exhausted, barely opening my eyes. I felt like crap with a body full of aches. I stood in the shower for 5 minutes hyping myself up to actually turn the knob and subject myself to the cold. When the ice water finally hit me, it was just as bad as you would expect. I lost my breath and screamed out loud. I only lasted 1 minute. But as I stepped out, I felt the high. I had a smile on my face, I actually felt the achievement. I breezed through my workout and felt great the rest of the day.
As the days went on, I found it was easier to just hop in and turn the water on before I hesitate.
After about 10 days though, my initial enthusiasm waned. My usual routine was to shower at night and I didn’t feel as though I was getting enough value for the effort. I am a healthy individual. I am very in-tune with my body and the biggest contributors to how I feel are what I eat, exercise, sleep, and meditation.
I stopped the cold showers. And for the next week, I did notice a downward change in my energy and mood.
Sure, it could be that I had a hectic week. But if I had been subjecting myself to some levels of hormesis via a cold shower in the morning, could I have been mentally and physically stronger to handle the stressful week? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
A Note from Dr. Rothman:
There is an old saying, “what does not kill you, makes you stronger”. We need certain stressors in our lives to help stimulate healing and repair mechanisms. Consequently, I am a huge advocate of hormesis on the body, whether it be cold showers, intermittent fasting, or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), etc. However, there is also the case of too much of a good thing. There is a fine line between healthy stress (hormesis) and dis-stress.
The key is to push your physiology enough to create the desired response without overwhelming your system. Bear in mind the basic principle of too much or too little of anything is detrimental to well-being.
How can you know if you are applying too much stress? Listen to your body. Whether you are doing intermittent fasting, high-intensity training, or cold water submersion, you should feel invigorated by these small doses of stressors. If you are feeling “wiped out” by these stressors, you may have exceeded your ability to handle these stressors. Everybody is different and has a different capacity to handle stress. Also, your physiologic states are not constant and therefore there may be times to be intense or less intense with your hormetic practices. Listen to your body.
Your body has an amazing capacity to heal itself if the proper conditions are met. Healthy eating, a balance between rest and activity, good sleep habits, mindfulness practices sunlight exposure, fresh air, and metabolic balance are all vital to your health. Do yourself a favor and work with a physician that understands how to heal, rather than how to treat symptoms and diseases.