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The Science and Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

The Science and Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

Cold therapy is defined as the act of using cold temperatures to deliberately cool the body’s tissue for therapeutic purposes. An easy way to do this is by exposing the body to chilled water, either in the form of cold showers, ice baths, or localized ice packs. 

Studies have shown that cold water therapy can provide numerous health benefits, including both mental and physical. And while there is still plenty of ongoing, worldwide research being done to look deeper into the benefits of cold water therapy, the current studies show promising results.

Here are some of the mental and physical health benefits of taking a cold shower or bath and deliberately exposing yourself to cold water.

Strengthen Your Immune System

When you shock your body with cold water, this can actually stimulate the blood cells that help fight off infections. A study conducted in the Netherlands found that people who regularly switched to cold showers called in sick from work 29 percent less than people who didn’t switch to cold showers. Other studies have suggested that daily exposure to cold water could, over a period of time, also boost antitumor immunity.

Increase Your Metabolism

Your body does expend energy trying to stay warm in cold water, which may result in excess calories being burned and increased metabolism. A 2009 research review found that brief immersions (five minutes) in water less than 59 degrees Fahrenheit did, in fact, increase metabolism.

Additionally, the act of shivering, which is common during cold exposure, releases a chemical called succinate. Succinate plays a key role in activating brown fat thermogenesis. Brown fat helps you burn calories, regulate glucose, and manage fat metabolism.

Boost Your Physical Performance

Recent studies have shown that cold exposure, including cold showers, have successfully helped reduce strength loss and soreness following exercise. Shorter durations of cold water exposure after training or working out have been shown to improve training efficacy, which may help give athletes a competitive advantage.

Cold temperatures make your blood vessels constrict, which results in more blood being moved to your body’s core and vital organs. This blood naturally becomes more nutrient-rich and oxygenated during the process. When your body heats back up and the blood vessels expand, the oxygenated blood flows back to your muscles and tissues. This helps reduce inflammation and brings nutrient-rich blood to areas of the body that need to recover. Over time, with continued cold exposure, your body may get more efficient at moving blood through the body more quickly. 

Improve Your Mental Health 

Deliberate cold exposure has been shown to decrease depression and improve mental performance, including resilience, grit, and the ability to move through challenges. Cold exposure also increases dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline in your brain, which are directly tied to increased attention and improved mood. One study found that cold water exposure led to a 250 percent increase in dopamine. The boosts in dopamine that come from deliberate cold exposure are similar to those of other stimulants, such as nicotine and caffeine, but they last longer. This means we continue to feel good long after we leave the cold shower.

Remember: Things Worth Doing In Life Are Hard

Despite the numerous health benefits around cold water therapy, it’s not uncommon to still feel hesitant to try it. Afterall, deliberately putting yourself in a stressful environment is hard and not something humans are naturally prone to do. But that deliberation, in and of itself, has substantial benefits.

As Andrew Huberman points out in his podcast on the “Use of Deliberate Cold Exposure for Health and Performance,” the mindset we have when experiencing cold water therapy is critical. If we are doing something deliberately, and we believe it’s going to be good for us, this can lead to an entirely different set of physiological effects as opposed to something happening to us outside of our control.

Huberman goes on to say that, when you “force yourself to embrace the stress of cold exposure as a meaningful self-directed challenge (i.e., stressor), you exert what is called ‘top-down control’ over deeper brain centers that regulate reflexive states.” The more you do this, the better you get a ‘top-down control.’ This type of control can then be carried over into situations outside of cold therapy, and ultimately help you cope better and feel calmer when confronted with real-world stressors.