A Deep Dive Into The Many Benefits Of Cold Water Therapy
Cold water therapy is nothing new – in fact the purported therapeutic benefits of it were shouted about long before any science proved its benefits. It’s certainly having a real moment right now, but this is a trend that deserves some focus, because we are hearing all sorts about what it can do for our health and wellbeing… but are these lofty claims legit?
Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Cold Water Therapy?
Cold water therapy is the practice of immersing yourself in cold water, which is said to be extremely therapeutic. Man of the moment – Wim Hof (AKA The Ice Man) has been harnessing the powers of cold water exposure for years and more recently has been tempting celebrity recruits into frozen lakes in his latest BBC show ‘Freeze The Fear’. You’ll be pleased to know that you don’t have to plunge yourself into open icy waters to reap the rewards though. In fact, a minute or two in a cold shower may also do the trick. Experts dub ‘cold’ as anything below 15 degrees.
With so many swearing by this ritual for helping them to feel better, here are some common concerns that it is believed to help with…
Boosting Your Mood
Possibly one of our favourite benefits is that it can have a noticeably positive effect on your mood. This is because cold water helps to encourage the release of endorphins which are the happy hormones that make us feel good. This study even found that daily cold showers helped to treat symptoms of depression.
..And Even Stress & Anxiety Too
Cold water can help our bodies build up better resilience – both mentally and physically. This isn’t about pushing the body to do more more more, especially since it is our belief that far too many women are already living with quite high stress levels, especially at the moment. However, regularly exposing yourself to cold water imposes a small amount of stress on your body which, over time can help you to become more resistant to it. The theory is that your nervous system gets used to handling moderate levels of stress, which in the long-run can be really beneficial. This is especially the case if you focus on breathing deeply when being exposed to cold water, which helps you to keep your body calm. You can look into Wim Hof breathing techniques to learn more about his methods that have been shown in his research to reduce anxiety and improve mood... you can also check out his episode of Gwyneth Paltrow's The Goop Lab on Netflix to get an introduction to this.
The other way this can help with the nervous system is that breathing deeply triggers the Vagus nerve. This is our calming rest and digest nerve that travels from the gut to the brain and has a wide array of benefits to the body when activated. Singing also triggers the vagus nerve, which is another good reason to put a good song on when you jump in!
Supporting Your Metabolism & Mitochondria
Some studies have shown that your body’s reaction to cold water can temporarily fire up your metabolism. This is because your body is trying its best to keep you warm and is therefore expending energy. More research is needed here, but what it can do is trigger mitochondrial function. Our mitochondria are the little organs found in all our cells where we make energy – you can think of them like energy power stations, filling up the body with ATP. Healthy mitochondria = more energy (and slower ageing!). Cold water can help support mitochondrial biogenesis, which effectively help our mitochondria stay healthy and efficient.
Cold water can also trigger brown fat thermogenesis, in other words – shivering, which helps us to burn fat. This isn’t some overnight miracle weight loss trick, but it might help with weight management if you do it regularly whilst eating a balanced diet and supporting your body with the right nutrients to trigger fat loss (enter Lean Formula). Cold water also reduce fasting insulin, which might help with blood sugar balance and possibly even reduce long term risks of developing diabetes type 2.
Helping With Energy Levels And Concentration
Cold showers will also give you a wake-up call… literally and anecdotally, one of the most common benefits people describe after plunging into cold water is a greater sense of alertness and renewed energy. This is because cold water induces a higher state of alertness, more endorphins and improved mitochondria function. Breathing deeper, as we’ve already mentioned is essential here, because it oxygenates the body and brain better, which can then help you to concentrate and stay focused.
Strengthening Your Immune System
Post-Covid there’s no denying we’re all looking at ways in which we can improve our immunity, so you’ll be pleased to know that cold water has been known to increase your white blood cell and platelet count. The higher your count, the better your body is at being able to fight infection. Cold water can also reduce inflammation – a win-win for the immune system. Though there is little research here, if you are acutely unwell with a cold, infection, flu or Covid-19, a cold shower might not be the best way to nourish your body – wait until you’re back on full form.
Soothing Muscles And Helping Post-Workout Recovery
Often ache after your workouts or experience DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness)? Suffer with aches and pains? Yes, you’ve guessed it – cold water can help. Much like how you apply ice to injuries, cold water can help reduce inflammation by constricting your blood vessels. Sceptical? This study found cyclists who endured 10 minutes of cold water had decreased soreness after a gruelling session. Many athletes incorporate ice baths into their training programmes for this exact reason.
It’s not surprising that cold water can help get our circulation going. Coupled with breathing deeper, this can help to oxygenate the whole body (especially our organs and brain) which is beneficial to our health. It may, over time, normalise blood pressure, though those who experience high or low blood pressure should check with their doctor first. There are claims that taking regular cold showers can help to reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases, but more research is needed here.
Promoting Better Sleep
We know baths are great before bed, but so are cold showers. This is because it can help to lower your core body temperature which then makes drifting off easier. Slightly less appealing than a long soak in a warm bath we know, but worth giving it a shot for a good night’s sleep.
Top Tips For Getting Started
Everyone is different, and exactly what works for you will be different to others. Some people find they need to start gradually by having their usual warm shower, and then slowly reducing the temperature before ending your shower with a 30-60 second cold blast. They could then gradually build this up over the course of a few weeks to increase the amount of time they are able to withstand the cold, eventually aiming for 4-6 minutes (trust us, it gets easier!)
Others find faffing around like this is stressful and that they just need to put some good music on, put the shower on cold and get straight in. The first 30 seconds will be a shock but bear in mind that your skin will adjust quickly – you might be surprised just how quickly you manage to withstand colder temperatures. You need to expose all of your body - front and back to get all the benefits, though you don’t necessarily need to wash your hair or dunk your head under if this is too much for you (though go for it if up for it!).
If you’re feeling brave, you can try an ice bath or even head to your local lake or lido – see Joe Wick’s latest trend for these. Thankfully just a few minutes is enough to reap the rewards so keep your immersion brief and remember to breathe deeply!
Many find they need to warm up fast afterwards with a towel or robe but be mindful that there is some research to suggest that there are even more benefits if you let your body warm up naturally. You can dry off and then be naked for 5 minutes as you get ready for your day or put your make up on. Some people swear by doing a short meditation in these minutes after a cold shower, however this is really dependent on whether you have the luxury of time.
Disclaimer: Everyone is different and a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be adopted when it comes to your health and wellbeing. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on with a diagnosed health condition, or who is on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements, diet programme or when trying something new like cold water swimming. As with all articles on www.equilondon.com, this is no substitution for individual medical or nutritional advice.