Does the thought of plunging yourself into cold water make you cringe? Once you learn about the benefits of cold water therapy, you may warm up to the idea.
Cold water therapy involves immersing yourself into very cold water to activate the body’s natural healing potential. Cold water therapy may relieve pain and inflammation and promote a sense of health and wellbeing. When practiced on a regular basis, cold water immersion can support beneficial changes to your body’s immune, lymphatic, circulatory, neuroendocrine, and digestive systems.
Cold water therapy is the ultimate bio-hack. It’s free, and results can be achieved in just minutes a day.
All About Cold Water Therapy
Cold therapy has been around forever, and recently you’ve probably seen athletes stoically lowering themselves into ice baths for injury and workout recovery. Cold water therapy, cold plunge, cold water immersion, cold thermogenesis, whatever you want to call it, involves intentionally plunging yourself into or exposing yourself to cold water for at least 2 minutes and up to several minutes a day.
There are several different ways you can do this:
- cold bath
- cold shower for 2-5 minutes
- ice soak, great for exercise recovery or injury
- cold plunge in lake, river, or ocean (my preferred method)
The water needs to 55 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for optimal results.
Cold therapy has been popularized by Wim Hof, holder of 20 Guinness World Records for withstanding extreme temperatures. He has climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro in only shorts and shoes stayed comfortably in ice baths for hours. He is able to accomplish these feats with ease via his Wim Hof method, a breathing technique that allows you to control the autonomous systems of the body. (source)
But why would anyone want to intentionally freeze? Cold plunging induces a positive stress response known as hormesis, a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, longevity) that results from a natural stress. It’s exposure to something in low doses that is otherwise toxic or lethal in higher doses. Exercise is a main example: When you work out, you intentionally stress your body and muscles which respond by repairing so you become stronger. Hormesis is basically beneficial stress that increases life span and makes you healthier. (source)
Cold Water Therapy Benefits
The shock of cold exposure stimulates assorted fight or flight hormonal processes, which deliver that hormetic benefit because the stressor is brief. Contrast this with the prolonged fight or flight response of chronic stress which breaks the body down. Cold therapy is a quick jolt of stress that increases blood flow and oxygen delivery throughout the body. Norepinephrine is released, boosting attention and mood and reducing pain and inflammation. The norepinephrine spike from cold exposure delivers an endorphin rush that results in natural pain relief and an enhanced sense of well-being. This is a main reason I indulge in cold therapy: It completely eliminates any lasting muscle soreness, pain, or inflammation from my workouts.
The benefits of cold water therapy are many and are quite compelling:
- significant increase in metabolism and fat burning: cold water therapy forces the your body to work harder to maintain homeostasis and regulate core temperature. It produces more energy to stay warm, burning calories to produce that heat. This stimulates metabolism. That’s why cold water therapy causes thermogenesis.
- increase insulin sensitivity for better blood sugar regulation
- reduce inflammation
- improve sleep and exercise recovery
- increase calorie burn via thermogenesis
- post workout recovery: reduction in soreness, which i have personally found to be true (source)
- increase immune cells and white blood cells
- elevate mood because of the endorphin rush, your body’s response to cold shock
- lymphatic system takes out the trash: cold therapy forces lymph vessels to contract and pump lymph fluids throughout your body, flushing the waste out of the area.
- reduces anxiety and depression because it reduces inflammation and increases feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters
Aside from the numerous physical benefits, cold therapy boosts your mental resilience as well. It takes practice and the sheer grit of discomfort to work up to the recommended 5 minutes in a cold plunge. This type of mental training and conditioning to reprogram self limiting beliefs builds resilience. Most of us spend all day feeling pretty comfortable–too comfortable, probably–and breaking out of this comfort zone boosts our confidence and resilience in all areas of our lives.
Mental benefits of cold therapy:
- reduce stress
- boost confidence
- develop resilience
- rewire brain to handle discomfort. This one is pretty profound, and is a bit different than grin and bear it. Making friends with discomfort is a benefit that strengthens resolve.
How to Get Started with Cold Water Therapy
Are you convinced? To get started, you could of course stand under your freezing cold shower (as low as it’ll go) for 2-5 minutes, but most of us want to work up to that point.
To work up: For the first 10 days or so, end your regular shower with a 60 second cold blast (cold as your shower goes). Then work up to 2 minutes and gradually to 5 minutes, You can also do this in a cold plunge outside (many people use an outside horse water trough), a cold bath or cold bath with some ice added, or cold body of water. I live on Lake Tahoe which is entirely snow melt and usually somewhere between 40-70 degrees, so that works for me during warmer months. We’re covered in snow 6 months out of the year, and I haven’t quite worked up to the polar bear plunge yet.
You could also do a hot/cold contrast. This is especially good for circulation and lymphatic health. Alternate between 20-30 seconds of cold and 10 seconds of hot.
You really want the water to be below 55 degrees for the best benefit. 38-44 degrees F seems to be the average, but you could just use your coldest water setting in your shower. You want to work up to 5 minutes at least 5 days a week for optimal results.
It’s ideal to start your day with a cold plunge or cold therapy, but you could really do it anytime except directly after a workout. While it seems tempting to cold plunge right after a tough workout, don’t. You actually want inflammation to run its course in the few hours after a hard workout. Your muscles becoming inflamed during exercise—and remaining that way for hours afterward–are part of how they become stronger and more resilient for future performances. In the hours after workouts, your muscles and other body systems are challenged to naturally repair exercise-induced damage, recalibrate to homeostasis, and replenish depleted cellular energy. Cold exposure also inhibits the function of the lymphatic system in clearing inflammatory toxins from the bloodstream. (source)
Have you tried cold water therapy? What have you noticed?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.