Looking to enhance your wellbeing and maintain optimal performance in all aspects of your life? Cold water immersion is the answer. Since the dawn of mankind, cold water therapy has been one of the best tools for achieving optimal health. It’s free, it’s accessible to nearly everyone, and it has countless health benefits that can totally transform your life.
Nowadays, you’ll often spot celebrities, bodybuilders, and professional athletes filming themselves in their ice baths and cold tubs. You may be asking yourself…what’s all the hype about? This article on the scientific benefits and safety practices behind cold immersion will answer all of your questions!
Cold water therapy at a glance
Though cold water therapy was widely practiced in ancient civilizations, it became less popular with the emergence of modern medicine. However, it has experienced a revival in recent years thanks to Wim Hof, a famous Dutch athlete with 21 Guinness World Records. Some of his feats include running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle and climbing Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro only wearing shorts. That’s why they call him the Iceman!
Recently, Wim Hof’s mysterious method of breathwork and cold immersion has faced the scrutiny of mainstream science with remarkable results. In this 2014 study by Radboud University, Wim and a selection of his practitioners were injected with a bacterial endotoxin. This group was successfully able to mobilize their immune response to defeat the pathogen. Since the study, many others have been performed around the globe to further understand the body’s natural healing powers through breathwork and cold immersion.
Personally, I’ve also experienced the power of cold exposure. It helped me overcome “Long Covid” and many fears and anxieties in my life. In addition, during several wellness retreats, I’ve witnessed others have spontaneous remissions in chronic health conditions. The power of the cold is real, and thankfully science is now able to explain these phenomena.
Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about cold water therapy, including the health benefits of cold water.
What is cold exposure?
Cold exposure (or cold immersion) is any form of exposure to the cold. This type of practice comes in many forms:
– Ice baths. In the world of cold water therapy, this is the gold standard. This form of cold exposure involves sitting in an icy water container for a short period. The typical temperature range for an ice bath is between 35°F and 60°F (2°C and 16°C).
– Cold showers. This is the simplest and quickest way to immerse yourself in cold temperatures. Though they are not typically as cold as ice baths, they can be just as challenging. In an ice bath, the water is calm so you can settle in and focus on your breath. Cold showers, on the other hand, make it difficult to get into a “flow” state with water unevenly striking different parts of the body.
– Cryotherapy. This cold therapy form is relatively new and requires you to go to a special gym, spa, or wellness center. Whole body cryotherapy entails stepping into a chamber with liquid nitrogen, nitrous oxide, or argon gas at extremely cold temperatures (typically around -200°F or -129°C). Just a couple of minutes is all it takes to retain the optimal health benefits.
– Outdoor swims in nature. Many people desire a more natural approach to wellness, and prefer to go swimming in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. This is a great solution for those who live in cold climates during the winter months.
How does cold immersion work?
The main idea behind cold therapy is as follows. By willingly exposing our bodies to the stress of the cold, we can regulate our nervous system and learn how to better manage stress.
The human body’s response to the cold is similar to how we respond to other stressors in life. This includes reactions such as an elevated heart rate, feelings of panic, body contractions, and shallow breathing. Intentionally subjecting ourselves to distress helps us cope with stress better, and that’s precisely what makes cold immersion so impactful.
Cold exposure leads to a range of health benefits for the body’s immune, digestive, and circulatory systems. It taps into the body’s natural healing powers, activating the nervous system and hormones which can significantly change our physiology.
There are many ways to gain benefits from cold water therapy. But just like any other therapeutic technique, the magic is in the dose. If you’ve never practiced cold immersion before, it makes sense to start low and slow.
My experience with cold exposure
When I started taking cold showers, I began with 30 seconds of exposure at 42°F (5.5°C) for a week before moving up to 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc. Once my body became familiar with cold immersion, I started jumping into ice baths and swimming in lakes. I’ve found that outdoor swimming in New England during the winter is the most impactful form of cold therapy.
For me, cold immersion has been all about increasing my willpower and confidence. So, it makes sense to subject myself to harder challenges, including colder water and longer durations. The “why” is more important than the “how.” Therefore, it’s important to be crystal clear about your intentions before starting cold water immersion (CWI).
Depending on your physical and mental abilities (and of course, your “why”) you can seek out experts who can train you on how to get the most of your hydrotherapy.
Whether you’re looking to enhance your mental and physical performance or overcome a health condition, this article has got you covered. Here are the top benefits of cold plunges, cold showers, and other forms of cold water immersion.
18 benefits of cold immersion: How cold water therapy really works
Looking to better understand the world of cold water therapy? Here are the top 24 benefits of cold immersion that affect the mind, body, and soul.
Improves blood circulation
This is one of the top benefits of cold plunges, hands down.
Blood circulation is among the most important indicators of a person’s health and wellness. Proper blood flow leads to a healthy heart, strong immune system, solid mental health, and high levels of energy. Conversely, poor blood circulation in the cardiovascular system—including the heart—causes critical body systems to not work properly. This can lead to issues like headaches, fatigue, muscle cramping, and high blood pressure. In extreme cases, cardiovascular issues can contribute to heart attacks or strokes. Similar to exercise, cold immersion can help improve cardiovascular function.
Cold exposure enhances cardiovascular health, which promotes a healthy heart and a robust immune system. According to this PubMed study, cold immersion causes “peripheral vasoconstriction that results in central pooling of blood, followed by peripheral vasodilation after emerging from the cold water.” In other words, during a cold immersion, blood is initially pumped to the vital organs. When the cold exposure is over and the body begins to self-regulate, blood recirculates to the extremities. This process leads to enhanced blood flow throughout the body, oxygenating the cells, organs, and muscles.
With such profound impacts on the mind and body, this is among the greatest benefits of cold water.
This article on the benefits of cold plunges wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its effects on inflammation. So, forget the pain relief pills and instead give cold showers or ice baths a try.
In the same way that putting an ice pack on an injured muscle reduces swelling and inflammation, submerging in cold water has a similar effect on the entire body. It’s no surprise, then, that cold water therapy is popular among athletes who are looking to recover after intense workouts.
Researchers in Hong Kong performed a study to examine the impact of cold-water exposure on muscle oxygenation. It showed that cold immersion after regular exercise caused the blood vessels to constrict, thus supplying less blood to the affected area and reducing inflammation and pain for up to one day after the workout. In another study examining the outcomes of cold water immersion in a four-day soccer tournament, it resulted in reduced aches and muscle pains in the athletes.
While cold water therapy is helpful for athletes, it can also alleviate pain in people with other underlying conditions. Per the same study, it was shown that cold immersion can help with pain associated with fibromyalgia and rheumatism. As such, cold immersion therapy helps treat inflammation and pain while preventing the side effects of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers.
Leads to weight loss
For many, this is one of the more surprising benefits of cold exposure.
According to a study performed by Dr. Paul Lee at the National Institute of Health, taking a cold plunge can activate brown fat in your body. This, in turn, causes the hormones Irisin and FGF to be released, burning fat tissues and leading to weight loss. Another way cold immersion triggers weight loss is through shivering, which produces heat and burns calories in the body. Per this research study, cold-induced shivering resulted in energy expenditure that may aid the body against obesity and related conditions.
In addition, a research study in 2009 found that short-period cold water immersions (up to 5 minutes) increased the rate of metabolism. This is another way of achieving weight loss. Note that metabolism is the process where your body converts what you eat/drink into energy, so a higher metabolic rate means more energy burned. Furthermore, this scientific study by the European Journal of Applied Physiology evidenced that cold immersion at 57°F (14°C) increased metabolism by 350%.
Here is another practical example evidencing that cold water therapy leads to weight loss. The following study was performed on Korean women divers, who would dive into the cold waters around Jeju Island to find seafood. When researchers studied them, they discovered these women have significantly higher basal metabolic rates than other women in the area. Interestingly, their metabolic rate was higher during winter season dives than in summer dives. These findings raise an interesting point. In cold water, the heart must pump faster to maintain a stable body temperature. This means that more calories are burned while swimming in cold water versus warm water, thus contributing to weight loss.
Lessens muscle aches
In the same way cold immersion reduces inflammation, it also relieves aches and pains in the muscles. This occurs because cold water causes the blood vessel to constrict, thus leading to less swelling.
In a study conducted in 2020, researchers found that cold water immersion enhanced muscle recovery in volleyball players who practiced cold immersion over 16 days. Athletes who immersed their bodies in cold water reported less muscle soreness after exercising than those who did not.
Given that faster muscle recovery increases athletic performance, this cold exposure benefit is very important for athletes.
For anyone facing chronic stress, this among the best upsides of cold water therapy.
These days, high levels of stress are all too common amongst all ages. Thankfully, there are many techniques that can help us manage stress, and cold shock therapy is among them.
Cold immersions stimulate the Vagus nerve, which lowers the heart rate and reduces stress hormones in the body. In addition, hydrotherapy or cold exposure treatments such as ice baths increase the production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters, including beta endorphins and dopamine. This boosts the Central Nervous System’s capacity and functionality (CNS). A better functioning CNS can help a person to sleep better and prevent sleep disorders such as insomnia.
In addition to cold exposure, another effective way to lessen the body’s stress response is through grounding or earthing.
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Boosts the immune system
Given everything else we’ve learned about cold therapy until now, this benefit of cold plunges shouldn’t come as a surprise. Cold exposure leads to a better immune system and the prevention of common diseases and fevers.
According to this study in the Netherlands, people who take cold showers call in sick for work or school 29% less than their peers. Similarly, cold exposure can help the body fight infections by producing a stronger anti-inflammatory response. A more robust anti-inflammatory response is crucial to reducing inflammation throughout the body.
Another study performed in the Netherlands found that individuals could activate their immune system to fight infection using meditation, cold immersion, and breathwork techniques. The study population was subjected to a bacterial infection to examine how their bodies would respond. As a result, the group given those techniques reported fewer symptoms than those who did not practice them. Their body systems generated lesser pro-inflammatory cytokines and more anti-inflammatory chemicals to respond to the bacterial infection.
In another study, doctors found that those who showered with cold water produced higher white blood cell counts than those who didn’t. Medical experts suggest that white blood cells, which fight infections, circulate in the body faster when one is exposed to colder temperatures. This also enhances the body’s antibody and t-cell response.
As these studies suggest, hydrotherapy—particularly cold water exposure—has a remarkable effect on the human body’s immune system.
Prevents (and improves) mental health conditions such as depression
Depression is a mental disorder that is the leading cause of disability worldwide. While there isn’t a one-size fits all solution to curing this illness, cold immersion can help. As this study suggests, cold showers are known to have a similar effect to antidepressants. Cold receptors send a jolt of electrical impulses to the brain’s nerve endings in cold water. This can trigger “happy” hormones and improve the mental state of the person.
In addition, several case studies propose that cold exposure helps alleviate anxiety and depression in some individuals. This case study involved a young woman who had experienced depression and anxiety since she was 17 years old. Seven years later, she started a weekly trial program that involved swimming in cold open water. Over time, the depression and anxiety symptoms reduced significantly, such that she stopped taking the medications designed to treat them. One year later, her healthcare providers found that frequent cold-water swimming continued to keep her depression and anxiety symptoms at bay.
Cold water exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases blood levels of noradrenaline and other endorphins such as beta-endorphins. This increases the synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain, reducing depression, anxiety, and OCD symptoms without the side effects of antidepressants. As such, this is definitely one of the best benefits of cold therapy.
Nourishes skin and hair
Curious how ice water therapy benefits skin and hair health? According to health experts, cold-water exposure reduces the size of skin pores and tightens the skin. Additionally, it discourages skin pores from “opening up” and releasing oils. This helps accumulate oils, which are crucial for keeping the skin and hair moisturized. In terms of hair, cold-water immersion benefits hair follicles, increasing hair length and thickness.
On the contrary, hot water leads to dry skin and greasy hair. According to dermatologist Lance Brown, MD, “hot water strips away some of the natural, protective oils that your skin makes, which can leave skin feeling dry and itchy.” This can also make skin conditions like eczema worse.
Beyond the scientific benefits of cold water therapy, it also leads to healthy-looking skin. Cold water gives a natural shine to the hair and ensures the skin is soft rather than itchy or dried out.
If you have dry skin or hair, give cold showers a try. It has worked wonders for me, and I’m sure it will for you, too!
When considering cold shower benefits, we rarely think about fertility. However, with recent studies showing that cold therapy influences testosterone levels, there is a direct link here.
According to Mayo Clinic, approximately one in seven couples struggle with fertility issues. Men are partially responsible for these fertility problems.
The PubMed study illustrates a correlation between taking cold baths and testosterone levels. When the body comes into contact with cold water, it produces higher levels of testosterone. Moreover, the following study evidenced that cooling human testicles can substantially increase total sperm count and sperm concentration. On the contrary, exposure to heat—including hot water baths— are known to decrease the sperm count, at least in the short term.
Though there isn’t widespread evidence that cold plunges benefit fertility, there is certainly a strong correlation.
According to several research studies, coldwater exposure and ice baths can increase energy levels in the human body. Through a process called cold thermogenesis, cold water stimulates the nerve endings in the skin. As a result, this increases oxygen levels, heart rate, and respiration rate. This leads to increased energy levels and alertness in the human body, as well as better overall cardiac function.
One of the best benefits of cold water therapy: Improves lymphatic movement
Cold water immersion therapy also has profound effects on the body’s lymphatic system. This is a network of vessels in the body that helps the body cleanse itself. It does so by clearing out cellular waste and microbes to help your body fight and resist diseases. Key parts of the lymphatic system include lymph nodes, lymph vessels, lymphatic fluid, bone marrow, and the spleen.
Although the lymphatic system is distinct from the blood vessels, it moves around the body in a similar way. The system depends on muscle contraction to move the lymph fluid through the vessels. If the lymphatic system becomes sluggish or stagnant, a buildup of fluids and toxins can occur — leading to colds, joint pain, or even disease.
According to this study by the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, cold exposure has a positive effect on lymphatic circulation. As part of this study, bags of cold water were applied to participants’ ankles. Water measured at 34°F (1°C) significantly increased lymph flow. In addition, researchers found that applying pressure to cold had an even greater effect. The reason for this is simple: cold water makes your lymph vessels contract, thus moving lymph fluid through your system. This, in turn, flushes out the waste and stimulates the immune system.
As a result, cold water improves the lymphatic system and helps us achieve a healthy body. Is this one of the top cold therapy benefits? Absolutely!
Cold immersion improves the psyche
As highlighted above, cold immersion favorably affects the cognitive stream of humans and can even act as an antidepressant.
According to this study by the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, which reviewed winter swimming in Finland, regular winter swimming led to an improvement in general feelings of well-being. When cold water touches the body, norepinephrine (an anti-stress hormone/neurotransmitter) and adrenaline are released. This leads to positive feelings and emotions. Therefore, cold therapy is a helpful way to improve the psyche.
Cold exposure helps to improve sleep
Research has often linked cold showers and other forms of cold pool therapy to better sleep. In this study performed on male endurance runners, participants immersed in cold water for 10-15 minutes experienced a drop in body temperature and fewer nighttime arousals. The reason for this is simple: cold showers trigger the body’s sympathetic nervous system (“fight of flight” response). However, shortly after the cold-water “stressor” is no longer present, the Vagus nerve is stimulated. This leads to feelings of peace and calm in the body.
In addition to cold showers, this study performed on distance runners in China evidenced that cryotherapy also enhances sleep quality. Regardless of the type of cold water exposure therapy, it’s clear that whole-body cold immersion benefits sleep.
This is perhaps one of the best mental health benefits of cold immersion. From taking a cold swim to an ice bath, cold immersion techniques are proven to enhance mental alertness and focus. This is due to the nominal shock from cold exposure, which activates the sympathetic nervous system. As a result of this “fight or flight” nervous system activation, cognitive abilities are stimulated in the brain. This increases focus, concentration, and alertness.
Boosts physical performance in sports
As covered above, cold immersion offers many athletic advantages in terms of exercise recovery and reducing inflammation. With many profound hydrotherapy benefits, it’s no wonder so many famous athletes have ice baths in their homes. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that cold tubs are widely found in fitness centers and athletic facilities— particularly those catering to professional athletes.
In addition to cold water benefits on athletic recovery, it’s also great for cooling off after a workout. Cold exposure reduces the body temperature and inflammation, a recipe for success in athletic performance.
Cold water therapy improves lung function
Given the deep involuntary breathing resulting from exposure to the cold, this benefit of cold immersion isn’t too shocking. Lung function is remarkably improved when the body contacts cold water, as found in this PubMed research study.
As evidenced in the study, two main factors affecting oxygen transport in the lungs are hydrostatic pressure and temperature. Each are enhanced by cold water temperatures because of the boost in cardiac output from hydrostatic counter pressure and heating. Though the feeling of breathlessness— a common occurrence during those initial moments of a cold water immersion— can feel uncomfortable, it means the lungs are working harder to regulate the nervous system. This, in turn, leads to an improvement in lung function when we take a dip in the cold water.
Stabilizes blood sugar levels
Blood glucose (or sugar) distributes energy from food to the cells. Blood sugar levels need to be regulated to prevent health conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, vision loss, and heart diseases. Like these other benefits of cold water immersion, different kinds of cold exposure techniques can help.
Adiponectin is a protein that is responsible for blood glucose regulation. Low adiponectin levels are often discovered in people with insulin resistance. A study examining the effects of cold immersion on adiponectin levels in males showed that it causes a 70% increase. This leads to lower insulin resistance levels and improves the human body’s metabolism. Furthermore, cold immersion, especially swimming, helps the body burn fat. As such, there is significant research suggesting that cold exposure can address obesity and other health conditions noted above.
Safety tips for cold immersion
Just like anything else in life, there are risks associated with cold water immersion. Here are some safety tips that you should be aware of:
Seek professional advice from your doctor
Exposure to cold water puts stress on the body and affects circulation, heart rate, and blood pressure. If you have an underlying health condition in any of these areas, consider seeking medical advice to ensure safety while exposing your body to cold water.
According to Mayo Clinic, people with underlying conditions like cold urticaria may experience mild-to-severe reactions when swimming in cold water. For instance, it can lead to extremely low blood pressure, shock, fainting, and itchy welts.
Though there are risks associated with cold water therapy, cold immersion is good for pretty much anyone. It’s just a matter of finding the right dose.
Doing cold immersions out in nature? Consider having a spotter or observer with you
Extremely cold water temperatures can significantly alter your judgment and reasoning. Some people tend to push themselves too far, in which case, it’s a good idea to have a spotter. This is particularly important if you are doing open water swimming. However, even at home in a cold tub, having a spotter will give you peace of mind. Better safe than sorry!
Keep your cold immersions short
A few minutes of cold exposure per day is all you need to enjoy the full health benefits. Staying in longer than 3-5 minutes can be helpful for willpower and mental toughness, but there’s no scientific research evidencing any benefits beyond that.
Help your body warm up after the cold exposure
Depending on the length and intensity of the cold exposure, your body temperature may continue dropping after getting out of the water. This could lead to hypothermia, a health condition where one has a dangerously low temperature. According to Outdoor Swimming Community, the following steps can help you warm up safely after cold open-water swimming.
- Remove wet clothes and dry yourself off
- Walk around and do gentle movements/stretches to raise your body temperature
- Do not take a hot shower immediately after exposure. This sudden temperature change can make you pass out
- Put on gloves and a hat
- Drink a warm beverage
- Eat something sweet because sugar increases the body temperature
- Dress in dry, warm layers. Start by covering the upper body.
For me, the most effective way to warm up naturally is through gentle movements and slow, deep breathing. To unlock the full benefits of cold immersion, it’s better to let the body warm up naturally rather than rely on external influences. Brown fat activation is another great way to generate heat in the body. It’s a healthier way to warm up than a sauna or hot shower.
After my cold exposures, I always stand in the horse stance. This is a posture in Asian martial arts that stimulates blood flow to various parts of the body. Below is a video that shows you how to do this position:
FAQs about cold water immersion
Here are some frequently asked questions about cold water therapy.
Who can practice cold exposure?
Most people can exercise cold immersion therapy. However, people with underlying conditions should be cautious and seek medical advice before participating in cold therapy. This is because it increases the risk of stroke or cardiac arrest.
In the western world, doctors are reluctant to say that children can safely practice cold exposure. However, in places like Siberia and Scandinavia where cold immersion is deeply rooted in the culture, kids from a young age practice it without any apparent issues. I encourage you to do your own independent research to determine if cold immersion is right for you (and your family).
How long should cold immersions last?
The answer to this question depends on the type of cold exposure and any personal considerations. In ice baths or cold showers, 3-5 minutes is generally considered to be the optimal exposure time. During cryotherapy, 2 minutes is typically deemed sufficient. But again, it really depends on your physiology, level of experience, and “why” behind doing the cold water therapy.
Health and wellness practitioners encourage beginners to start low and slow before advancing to the recommended range. This helps the body adjust to the cold water temperatures over time.
Is cold immersion safe?
Yes, cold exposure is safe. However, it’s important to follow the aforementioned steps to practice it safely.
When exposing the body to the cold, spikes in heart rate and blood pressure are normal. The human body has a remarkable ability to self-regulate, even when exposed to extreme temperatures. The issue isn’t around these physical sensations, but rather our reaction to them. For example: a state of panic can result from the shock of sudden immersion, which could cause drowning. It’s important to note that this is extremely rare. By gradually exposing your body to the cold, you shouldn’t experience any issues.
Cold water immersion therapy benefits
Whether you’re looking to boost performance or heal a chronic health condition, cold water therapy can be an effective part of the toolkit. Physical benefits include reducing muscle inflammation, improving blood circulation, improving skin and hair, increasing fertility, and enhanced metabolism. Along with the physical health benefits of cold immersion, the physiological advantages include enhancing mental activity and releasing anti-stress hormones that can help you achieve inner peace and joy.
Regular cold immersion, such as ice baths and cold showers, can improve our physical and mental well-being. So, instead of thinking about it as something reserved only for athletes and top performers, think of it as a natural remedy or medicine for people of all ages.
Have I missed any cold water therapy benefits? Let me know in the comments below!
Happy Travels in your inner and outer journeys!