Cold therapy has been widely celebrated for its purported health effects. Here’s what science says about the benefits of enduring frigid water
You’ve likely heard of cold water therapy from numerous podcasters and celebrities, who extoll the benefits of doing a cold plunge or taking a frigid shower first thing in the morning. Cold water therapy is paraded on Instagram and TikTok, claiming to cure depression, burn fat and help you live longer. If you’re like most people, the thought of immersing yourself in freezing temperatures isn’t appealing.
This article explores the scientific evidence and assesses if the health benefits are worth enduring the frigid water.
Cold water therapy has been used in many cultures throughout history. Ancient Greeks and Romans used cold water for fevers and for relaxation. Many countries in northern Europe regularly use ice bathing as a relaxation technique. Perhaps this is why Finland has been named the happiest country in the world for 6 years in a row.
Types of cold water therapy
There are two main types of cold water therapy. Cold plunging is when participants immerse themselves up to their necks, sometimes including their hands, in cold water. Whereas others achieve cold water therapy by taking a cold shower.
Ice tubs such as Ice Barrel have gained popularity as an easy way to access cold water. If you live in a place with chilly lakes and streams, then cold plunging can be zero cost. Cold enthusiasts may view ice-cold showers as a false form of cold therapy. Nonetheless, both cold plunging and cold showers have various health benefits. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to decide if they’re worth the shivers.
Everyone has a base inward temperature that fluctuates throughout the 24-hour circadian cycle. The main temperature gauge in your body is called the preoptic hypothalamus. Receptors from your skin and neurons from all over your body communicate with the preoptic hypothalamus to conduct thermoregulation.
Although our first instinct when we’re overheated is to apply cold to our back, necks and head, this may be having the opposite desired effect. Certain areas of the body have a type of skin called glabrous skin, which is unique in that it cools down your body swiftly. The palms of your hands, the bottom of your feet and your cheeks all have glabrous skin. Cooling your feet and your hands will help you get colder, faster.
Cold showers have not been studied as much as cold plunging. The ideal way to get health benefits from cold water therapy is to cold plunge in a tub or natural resource at temperatures between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. You can still get benefits from exposing yourself to a cold plunge or shower at higher temperatures, but they won’t be as drastic. It’s important to start gradually. You should be uncomfortable and challenged, but not to the point when it could pose health risks. As always, consult your doctor before trying cold plunging.
Over time, your body adapts and will need colder temperatures or a longer amount of time to get similar effects. You may need temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit to challenge yourself, however, this is highly individualized. Whether you opt for a cold plunge or a cold shower, plenty of scientific evidence supports that cold therapy has numerous health benefits.
Improves mental health and performance
Anytime you’re exposed to cold water an influx of hormones will happen. Namely, the adrenaline hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine will increase. What’s interesting about cold water therapy is that dopamine is also released. Dopamine is the main driver for feelings of motivation; it also makes us feel rewarded and inspires us to pursue objectives.
This study showed that dopamine levels increased by 250% after cold plunging in water that was 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Dopamine won’t stay that elevated forever; it will eventually taper off, but the improved mood that cold enthusiasts feel is in part due to this hormone.
These hormones can also increase mental focus and performance. When practicing cold water therapy, you’re essentially training yourself to overcome stress. As you control yourself by staying in the cold you build mental resilience. This in turn trains your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher decision-making and controlling impulses. As you become stronger in mental resilience, you may feel less stressed, worried and anxious when normal life stresses occur.
When your body becomes cold, it must work harder to reheat. This causes an increase in metabolism. Researchers have found that following a cold plunge of 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit, metabolism was increased by 350%. Again, it will eventually taper off, but more calories are used during that increase. The temperature of the water does matter when it comes to increasing metabolism. Cold plunging at 68 degrees Fahrenheit only increased metabolism by 93%.
The largest impact on metabolism is through the conversion of white fat cells into brown fat cells. White fat cells aren’t very metabolically active. Brown fat cells have mitochondria and are used to help raise your body temperature. The more you use cold therapy the more your white fat cells will adapt into brown fat cells. In turn, this will lead to a gradual increase in metabolism in the long term.
It’s important to not heat yourself up after cold water therapy but allow your body to naturally do so. This ensures that you’re getting the maximum benefit from your shivering.
Faster muscular recovery
If you’re an athlete, you may have used cold therapy to recover after a game. A review of the scientific literature found that cold water therapy was effective for recovery after high-intensity exercise. Participants felt less sore and were able to perform again quicker than those who didn’t use cold water therapy. This is likely because it can decrease inflammation.
There are mixed results on if cold water therapy is useful in recovery for all types of exercise. Lower-intensity exercise recovery may not benefit from cold water therapy.
Although uncomfortable, cold water therapy is an effective way to increase your mood, metabolism and recover after high-intensity exercise. The temperature of the water should depend on what you can tolerate, but you should still challenge yourself. It can take time to build up to ice-cold temperatures. Accessing cold showers is a great place to start when trying out cold water therapy for the first time.