Cold Plunge was recently featured at the Crossfit Games 2022, and ice baths are becoming increasingly popular due to exposure on The Huberman Lab podcast, Instagram, and Tik Tok.
Even many public figures in health and fitness disciplines, including celebs, professional athletes, and fitness instructors, now endorse the practice of cold water immersion for its positive effects on one’s health.
But what exactly is cold water therapy, and is there any evidence to support the claims?
What is Coldwater Therapy?
Cold water therapy uses water around 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius or below) to alleviate symptoms or promote health. It is also referred to as cold hydrotherapy. To give you a general idea, the water from your home’s chilly faucet will be below 20°C (and typically between 10 and 20°C).
It has been used for over five thousand years, notably in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome in various forms. It was first mentioned in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a medical text that may date back to around 3,500 B.C.E. and describes treatments for various injuries and diseases. Its original intent was to address multiple medical conditions, including muscular fatigue and skin issues.
In recent years, however, it has experienced a revival due to Wim Hof, a famous Dutch athlete who holds 21 Guinness World Records.
How does it work?
The primary concept underlying cold therapy is as follows.
Immersion in cold water stimulates the Vagus nerve, which reduces heart rate and tension hormones in the body. Moreover, hydrotherapy or cold exposure therapies such as ice baths increase the production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters, such as beta-endorphins and dopamine. This enhances the capacity and efficiency of the Central Nervous System. (CNS). A properly functioning CNS can facilitate improved sleep and prevent sleep disorders such as insomnia.
Also, the response of the human body to temperature is analogous to how it reacts to other stresses in life. This includes a rapid heartbeat, sensations of anxiousness, muscle contractions, and shallow respiration. Intentionally exposing ourselves to unpleasant situations improves our ability to manage stress, which is precisely why cold immersion is so effective.
So by voluntarily exposing our bodies to the stress of the cold, we can learn to regulate our nervous system better and manage stress.
Benefits of Cold Water Therapy.
Although researchers still debate the specifics, studies indicate that athletes who soak in cold water briefly after exercise experience less muscle discomfort in the following days.
1. Reduces Muscle Soreness.
A small study conducted in 2011 found that cyclists who completed intense training sessions had decreased soreness after they were immersed in cold water for 10 minutes.
A similar result was found in a 2016 research with 20 participants. Compared to athletes who did not partake in hydrotherapy after their workout, those who soaked in cold water (12°C to 15°C) experienced significantly less muscular pain.
Medical professionals agree that one of the mechanisms by which cool water relieves discomfort is narrowing blood vessels. The localized drop in blood flow aids in the reduction of edema and irritation caused by, say, an injury to which ice has been applied.
When trying to speed up muscle recovery with cool water, it’s a good idea to pair that with other muscle recovery techniques like stretching and active exercise. Dont know how to perform? Learn from this detailed article on stretching HERE.
2. Faster Cold Down Period.
Studies show that calming down in cold water is more effective than simply relaxing in a cool environment.
According to a meta-analysis of 19 trials, cooling down in cold water (about 50°F or 10°C) accelerated healing from heat exhaustion by twice as much as without hydrotherapy.
In a study conducted in 2020, researchers discovered that 16 days of immersion in cold water improved muscle recovery in volleyball players. Athletes who submerged themselves in cold water after exercise reported less muscle discomfort than those who did not.
The trick is to submerge as much skin as possible. You must plunge your entire body into cold water, not just your wrists, to achieve this effect.
3. Reduces Depression.
Some research suggests that swimming in cold open water can assist those dealing with Depression and anxiety.
An example of such a case study involves a woman who has suffered from anxiety and Depression since she was 17. She began a trial regimen of weekly open-water swimming at 24.
Her symptoms diminished so strongly over time that she could discontinue taking medication to treat them. A year later, her physicians determined that swimming regularly continued to keep her depressive symptoms at ease.
In another study, researchers discovered that therapy of brief, twice-daily icy showers reduced symptoms of Depression, even in the participants who were not diagnosed with depressive disorder.
4. Boosts Metabolism.
While many people use cold water treatment to help them recover from exercise, some studies have shown exposure to cometabolism.
A phenomenon known as cold-induced thermogenesis was first identified in people in a 2014 research conducted in the Netherlands. This suggests that experiencing a severe cold may stimulate the body’s metabolic rate. Another research conducted in 2019 gave a proof of concept experiment showing that mixing cold contact and breathing exercises prompted an improved immune response from study subjects.
Further, this research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrated that cold exposure at 57°F (14°C) boosted metabolism by 350%.
5. Cleanses Skin and Shines Hair.
It is widely believed that taking cold showers or applying ice is one of the most all-natural methods to keep your face and hair looking great.
Cold water is said to prevent dirt from becoming stuck under nail beds or clogging pores because it briefly tightens your cuticles and pores by restricting blood flow to capillaries, thereby opposing the drying effects of hot water. Swelling and puffiness in the face can be reduced by the sudden relaxing impact, giving you a refreshed appearance right away.
It could also have beneficial effects on hair. The cold water assists in relaxing the hair follicles and enhancing their ability to adhere to the scalp, resulting in shinier, smoother, and healthier hair.
6. Build Mental Fortitude.
Last but not least, cold water treatment can help you develop emotional and psychological resilience to deal with the stresses of daily living.
This is due to the mild shock caused by exposure to cold, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. The activation of the “fight or flight” nervous system stimulates cognitive abilities in the brain. This improves concentration, focus, and alertness.
You can prepare yourself for any challenge by making ice showers a normal part of your regimen.
7. Improves Blood Circulation.
Blood circulation is one of the most significant indicators of an individual’s health and well-being. Appropriate blood flow results in a healthy heart, robust immune system, sound mental health, and abundant vitality. Inversely, improper blood circulation in the cardiovascular system, including the heart, impairs the operation of vital body systems. This can result in migraines, fatigue, muscle cramps, and elevated blood pressure. I
Exposure to colds improves cardiovascular health, which promotes a healthy heart and a strong immune system.
When the exposure to cold is over, and the body starts to get back to normal, blood flows back to the extremities, which increases blood circulation throughout the body, thereby oxygenating cells, organs, and muscles.
8. Helps With Weight loss.
This is often cited as an unexpected benefit of being exposed to cold.
According to a study conducted at the National Institutes of Health by Dr. Paul Lee, taking a dip in cold water can activate brown fat in the body. This, in turn, causes the release of the hormones Irisin and FGF, which eradicate adipose tissues and result in weight loss. Shivering, which generates heat and utilizes calories, is an additional mechanism by which cold immersion causes weight loss. According to this study, cold-induced trembling resulted in an increase in energy expenditure, which may help the body combat obesity and related conditions.
9. Boosts Immune System
In another study, physicians discovered that those who bathed in cold water had higher white blood cell counts than those who did not. White blood cells, which combat infections, circulate more quickly in the body when exposed to lower temperatures, according to medical experts. This also improves the immune system’s antibody and T-cell response.
10. Enhances Energy Levels.
Several studies have found that ice baths and other forms of exposure to icy water can boost energy levels. Cold water triggers a response in the skin’s nerve receptors through a process called cold thermogenesis. As a result, the body’s oxygen supply improves, and its rate of heartbeat and breathing quickens.
11. Improves Sleep.
Cold water treatment—including cold showers—improves sleep. After 10 to 15 minutes of immersion in cold water, men who participated in the research experienced a decrease in basal body temperature and a reduction in nighttime awakenings.
Another study of Chinese distance runners found that cryotherapy, similar to icy showers, enhances the quality of sleep.
12. Enhances Fertility
Recent research indicates that cold therapy affects testosterone levels. The study published in PubMed demonstrated that cooling human testicles could significantly increase sperm concentration and total sperm count. In contrast, it is known that exposure to heat, including hot water baths, decreases sperm count, at least in the short term.
Types of Cold Water Treatment.
Cold water treatment may initially appear to be challenging. But if you have the proper equipment, you can easily incorporate ice baths and other chilly water immersion techniques into your routine.
As ice baths become a regular part of your routine, you can increase your resistance to the cold.
1. Cold Packs:
This cold therapy is predominantly used to treat post-injury localized pain and inflammation, as well as muscle discomfort. You can do it as,
- Grab a plastic freezer bag of the appropriate size, such as a ziplock.
- The package should be filled with ice.
- Ensure that there is sufficient ice to cover the entire affected area.
- Apply the ice pack to the afflicted area for 10 minutes unless otherwise directed by a physician or healthcare professional.
2. Contrast Cold Showers.
By far, the simplest method to incorporate cold exposure training into your routine is to take an icy shower.
While having a cold shower for two to three minutes can provide a number of health benefits, the majority of people use cold showers as part of contrast hydrotherapy.
Alternating between hot and cold water is the essence of contrast hydrotherapy. Try the following to use contrast hydrotherapy in the shower:
- 3 minutes of relaxation in lukewarm water
- 1 minute of standing in icy water
- Repeat the procedure at least three times.
- Complete your hydrotherapy treatment with chilly water.
3. Icy Baths.
The concept behind cold baths is straightforward: You fill the tub with cold or icy water and then immerse for 3 to 10 minutes. To get used to your body to the cold, however, you may need to begin with brief 1- to 2-minute exposures. If you own a bathtub, you can frequently use it for cold immersion therapy. However, they aren’t considered a valid treatment, as a 2017 study suggested that icy baths may not be as beneficial as previously believed.
Cryotherapy is a new form of cold therapy. As a means of recovery from intense physical activity, it entails brief exposure to extreme cold.
It is usually fixed for extreme conditions and requires the participant to either recline or stand in a tiny, enclosed room (a cryo chamber) that has been cooled with liquid nitrogen. Temperatures of between negative 200 and minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit (FDA guidelines) are experienced by the complete body, including the head. The exposure period is usually between two and four minutes due to cold conditions.
It is not recommended for people with heart disease, diabetes and pregnant women due to extreme temperatures.
5. Cold Barrel.
The Ice Barrel is the last method of cold therapy you should consider.
The Ice Barrel is an interesting and innovative method to incorporate cold therapy into your daily regimen. As suggested by its name, the Ice Barrel is shaped like a barrel, allowing you to remain straight during cold therapy. Then, when it’s time to take the plunge, simply fill the Ice Barrel with ice and water for a few minutes before diving in.
To reap the benefits of cold water therapy, it is necessary to learn how to relax your mind while subjecting your body to extreme stress. The key is to concentrate on your breathing and take steady, controlled breaths. Concentrating on your respiration will lower your cortisol levels, allowing you to remain calm and avoid panic, which can be harmful. It will feel unpleasant for the first 20 seconds or so, but you rapidly adjust to the sensation of having chilly skin.
However, how long should one spend in a cold bath? Although there is currently no gold standard, a small case study did find that an 11-minute cold bath produced positive effects.
Dr. Huberman, in his podcasts on Cold therapy benefits, mentions the scientific literature and recommends 11 minutes per week of cold exposure, which can be broken up into three or four sessions of a couple of minutes each. Without clarifying the optimal temperature, although he does state that the colder, the better, he says that “the water temperature should be unbearably cold but safe for a few minutes of immersion.”
Risks of Cold Water Therapy and Safety Advice
Even though it is safe to have a dip in cold water. For certain individuals and health conditions, it may cause more injury than benefit. There are possible outcomes such as frostbite, hypothermia, cardiac arrhythmias, and even heart attacks due to extended contact with cold temperatures.
If you find yourself in any of the situations below, you should avoid cold therapy:
- Having sensory disorders, such as diabetes, that prevent you from experiencing certain sensations.
rigid muscles and joints
- Poor circulation or any conditions that contribute to it
- Having cardiovascular or cardiac disease as a lifestyle (you should consult your doctor first)
- If an injury or edema has not responded to cold therapy within 48 hours, consult a physician.
So it is essential to observe certain safety precautions. You can enjoy the benefits of cold water therapy while minimizing the risk of injury or illness if you follow these steps.
- Consult The Doctor: It is especially dangerous for those with preexisting health conditions. In addition, regardless of your health, it is always wise to consult your physician before engaging in any activity that poses a potential risk.
- Build up Slowly: To minimize the risk of injury, those interested in trying cold water treatment are advised to begin with shorter exposure periods and work their way up to extended durations.Also, you can begin at your feet and make your way up to the waist and the upper body.
- Have a Companion: Because dangerously cold water temperatures can impair your reasoning and emotions, ensure that someone is monitoring your condition when you swim, particularly in open water. It can be of great help indeed.
- Take Breaks: Feel free to get out of the pool and rest if you start to feel ill. Don’t ignore your body’s signals, and try not to overdo them.
- Wear Appropriate Clothing: It is essential to wear warm clothing if you will be swimming in the water for an extended period. There are numerous options, including wetsuits, thermal garments, and neoprene footwear.
- Warm Up Later: To remain safe, it is suggested to do some warm-up after coming out of the water. However, you should avoid taking hot showers, as the abrupt change in temperature and the consequent change in blood flow can cause you to faint. Have a warm beverage and a bite to eat. Sugary food and beverages also have the effect of raising your body temperature.
The health advantages of a cold shower are well worth the effort it takes to condition your brain and body to accept, endure, and enjoy cold water contact. Because your body’s natural healing abilities will be activated to support your physiology and psychology better, you’ll start to feel healthier and happy, and you may even see aesthetic improvements like longer, glossier hair and more radiant skin.
Slowly incorporating cold water therapy into your routine can yield dividends for your long-term health, whether you’re an experienced cold therapy practitioner searching for new techniques or a beginner just starting.