#1 Improve your mental health
The first thing that most people don’t realize is that cold therapy can drastically improve your mood and your mental health. This could be to a point that it may help prevent and even treat depression. (1)
One of the ways that cold exposure can improve your mental state is thanks to norepinephrine.
When your body is exposed to cold temperatures, norepinephrine is rapidly released into the bloodstream.
This is a neurotransmitter that’s associated with things like vigilance, attention, focus, and mood. And the fact that cold exposure can increase norepinephrine is shown in multiple studies, both in mice and humans. (2)
Interestingly, when norepinephrine is depleted in the body, depression can manifest. We see this in a study published in the Journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. (3)
That’s why ice plunges and cold showers might help prevent and treat depression. Cold therapy drastically increases norepinephrine levels, which helps support a better mood and cognitive function.
Now, of course, the question is – how cold should the temperature be to trigger a boost in norepinephrine?
Well, one study found that one hour of cold water immersion at a relatively regular temperature of 68°F did not activate norepinephrine release. Meanwhile, one hour at 57°F increased norepinephrine levels by a whopping 530%. (4)
Of course, one hour sounds painfully long. But fortunately, you can get similar benefits in a shorter time frame if you turn the temperature further down.
A long-term study found that immersing yourself in cold water at 40°F for 20 seconds for twelve weeks increased norepinephrine by 200 to 300%. (5)
And it could be possible that taking an ice bath in freezing cold water, would require even less time to reap the benefits.
Now you don’t want to go straight to freezing cold water, you do want to work up to it. I’ll go over that process in a bit.
First, you should know that another great benefit of cold exposure is a reduction in inflammation throughout your body.
You’ve probably heard that inflammation is the root cause of most modern diseases. And even though inflammation gets a bad wrap, inflammation itself isn’t entirely a bad thing.
In fact, it’s vital for your health and well-being. That’s because it’s the first step of the healing process to prevent further damage by eliminating the threat of injury.
Inflammation further helps clearing out the damaged tissues and dead cells. This is actually what starts the process of tissue repairing.
However, when the inflammation process goes into overdrive, that’s when it causes a lot of trouble. That’s the case of chronic inflammation (and related markers) for seemingly no reason.
As stated by the Harvard Medical School, “chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.” (6)
Research also identifies inflammation as the key driver of the aging process. (7) One specific study looked closely at elderly people, ranging from 85 to over 110 years old.
Researchers found that low inflammation was the only biomarker that accurately predicted survival and cognitive capabilities across all age groups. Cognitive decline is a hallmark of the rising rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Inflammation is also one of the most important variables that determine mortality, capability and cognition up to a very old age. (8)
So, according to the evidence, reducing inflammation might be a way to increase your lifespan and its quality. You might reduce the likelihood of suffering from chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis.
And this is where cold showers and ice plunges come into play, since they can help reduce inflammation.
We are still not sure of the exact mechanisms that lead to a reduction in inflammation. But the 5x increase in norepinephrine we mentioned earlier definitely has a role in these.
Research indicates that norepinephrine inhibits the inflammatory pathway by decreasing levels of TNF-α – a small protein of the immune system. (9)
TNF-α is a very potent molecule that increases inflammation. It is involved in many human diseases, ranging from cancer to diabetes to inflammatory bowel disease.
Research also shows that norepinephrine decreases other inflammatory chemicals like MIP-1α for example. (10)
Aside from norepinephrine, taking a cold shower can also reduce inflammation by simply lowering your body temperature and causing your blood vessels to constrict.
This may sound like it’ll feel horrible and potentially get you sick. But another benefit associated with cold exposure is improved immunity.
For example, one study looked at whether cold-water immersion at 57°F could impact the immune system in men. The participants spent 1 hour, three times a week, in moderately cold water. (11)
Ultimately, they found that this routine increased the number of lymphocytes in six weeks.
Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells in the immune system. They help attack harmful bacteria, viruses, and toxins. In other words, cold therapy benefits immunity.
This is likely why there’s lots of anecdotal evidence of people that take cold showers, or swim in cold water claiming to get sick less often.
Other scientific data supports this claim as well. For example, a study found that swimming during the winter months decreases the risk of respiratory tract infections by 40 percent. (12)
You would assume that you would be more likely to catch bronchitis from swimming in cold water. But it turns out that the opposite is true.
#4 Improved mental toughness
Of course, like many healthy things, exposing yourself to cold temperatures doesn’t feel all that great while you’re doing it. And it will definitely require some mental toughness.
Luckily cold showers themselves are a great way to improve mental toughness.
Most people simply don’t enjoy being exposed to very cold temperatures.
But if you can overcome those feelings and do it anyway, that will increase your tolerance to being uncomfortable.
By doing things that are outside of your comfort zone, you’ll become more in control of your own emotions. You’ll be more equipped to handle stressors that occur during everyday life.
One big believer in this is Wim Hoff. He’s an extreme athlete that has been nicknamed “the iceman”.
He has set multiple world records for the longest time in direct full-body contact with ice. One of his longest times being just under 2 hours.
He also has broken other records like longest distance swim under ice, and fastest barefoot half marathon.
Long story short, Hoff gives a ton of credit to cold exposure for increasing his mental toughness and believes that anybody can do the same.
Another big benefit for those that are trying to lose weight is that cold exposure may help you burn fat.
When you’re exposed to cold temperatures, brown fat gets activated.
Brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue, is a special type of body fat. It produces heat to help maintain body temperature in cold conditions.
This can cause a significant increase in metabolic rate because the process requires a lot of energy to generate heat.
By exposing yourself to cold, you can temporarily ramp up your metabolism and that can lead to additional fat loss.
An example of this can be seen in a study. One group of men stood in room temperature water at 68°F for an hour.
During that time in far-from-freezing water, they were able to raise their metabolic rate by almost 100 percent.
And when the researchers lowered the temperature to 57°F, the men were able to boost their metabolic rate by 350 percent. (13)
This probably makes you wonder how high you can boost your metabolism in a much colder temperature, like an ice bath.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that cold exposure can increase hunger in some people.
So, if you use ice baths or cold showers for weight loss, make sure you don’t eat more. This could raise your caloric intake after starting to expose yourself to colder temperatures.
Now the last benefit, before I give you a step-by-step action plan. And that is – cold therapy can also improve your endurance by boosting mitochondrial biogenesis.
Basically, cold exposure can increase the number of mitochondria in your cells.
Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells. They provide energy by carrying out biochemical reactions, which is why they’re crucial for endurance capacity.
Mitochondria are what give us the ability to use oxygen for energy production. This is why increasing the number of mitochondria benefits aerobic capacity, or endurance.
For example, a study had male runners immersed in cold water at 50°F for 15 minutes, 3 times a week. After 4 weeks, the men had greater mitochondrial biogenesis in their muscle tissue. (14)
Another study found that cold water exposure at 50°F after high-intensity running increased PGC1α activation. This is a gene that increases the number of mitochondria within muscle tissue. (15)
As promised, I’ll go over what you can do to start experiencing the benefits of cold exposure for yourself.
Keep in mind there is no one “best” way to approach cold therapy. Some people will also require slower, more progressive, steps to adapt to this new stressor.
With that said, it’s important to also mention that more isn’t necessarily better. If you’re new to cold exposure, don’t aim to take an ice bath for twenty minutes right away.
Take it slow instead. Start with a slightly cold shower, then make it a little colder next time. And just like lifting weights, you can make it progressively challenging to withstand over time.
Alternatively, you can also start by turning the shower dial to the coldest temperature. Then stay in there for a short 5-15 seconds.
That’s totally fine for your first time. Then over time you can work up towards staying in that cold temperature for longer.
Another route you can take is to alternate between a warm and cold shower. This is especially relevant if you don’t want to go straight into a cold shower. This is known as “contrast therapy“.
Contrast therapy gives you the benefits of regular cold exposure, and it can also help you recover from your workouts. (16)
There’s a large 2017 meta-analysis that found that contrasting therapy helped sports athletes recover faster from fatigue after their games. (17)
You can switch between hot to cold, doing each for 60 seconds at a time. Or to work up to that, you can start by alternating between 2 minutes under a warm shower, followed by a minute in the cold.
You can do this for five to eight rounds and you’ll probably feel great when you’re done.
The last and favorite way is to use a sauna in combination with a cold shower, or ice bath.
This gives you the option to do something like 10-minute rounds in the sauna, combined with a cold plunge or a cold shower between each round.
The theory behind alternating between extreme temperatures is that it causes your body’s blood vessels to open and close quickly. The warmth causes them to open and the cold causes them to close.
This rapid opening and closing of the blood vessels creates a pumping action. This can decrease swelling and inflammation.
But it can also stimulate the removal of waste products (such as lactate) and improve nutrients delivery to your muscles.
Once you become more accustomed to the cold showers, you can try an ice bath instead. This is obviously much colder and more intense.
Regardless of what option you start with, the recommendation from people like Wim Hoff is to focus on your breathing.
Try your best to calm your body down as much as possible almost like you’re meditating. That’s the best way to cope.
So that about wraps it up. I hope you guys enjoyed this article.
Many benefits that you get out of taking cold showers are all also possible by following a healthy diet and solid workout plan.
These similar benefits particularly include improving mental toughness, immunity, and mood while reducing inflammation and body fat.
And combining cold therapy, along with a healthy diet and workout regimen can only benefit you even further.
So if you’d like help setting up the ideal diet and workout plan for your body, click the link below.
- Anecdotal evidence suggests that cold exposure improves mood and cold showers may even be used to prevent and treat depression.
- The fact that cold exposure can increase norepinephrine is shown in multiple studies, both in mice and humans.
- When norepinephrine is depleted in people via a pharmacological intervention, they become depressed. Study published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.
- One hour of cold-water immersion at 68°F did not activate norepinephrine release. Meanwhile, one hour at 57°F increased norepinephrine levels by a whopping 530%.
- Immersing yourself in cold water at 40°F (4.4°C) for 20 seconds for twelve weeks increased norepinephrine by 200 to 300%.
- “Chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.”
- Besides, research also identifies inflammation as the key driver of the aging process.
- “Inflammation is the prime candidate amongst potential determinants of mortality, capability and cognition up to extreme old age.”
- Research indicates that norepinephrine inhibits the inflammatory pathway by decreasing levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α).
- Research shows that norepinephrine decreases other inflammatory chemicals like macrophage inflammatory protein-1α.
- A 1996 study looked at whether cold water immersion (14°C for 1h) impacts immune system biomarkers in young, healthy men.
- One study found that winter swimming decreased the incidence of respiratory tract infections by 40%.
- Cold water immersion (head out) in 68°F (20°C) for one hour raised metabolic rate by 93% in young men. And one hour at 57°F (14°C) raised metabolic rate by 350%.
- Men that were immersed in cold water at 50°F (10°C) for 15 minutes, were able to increase muscular mitochondrial biogenesis. The exposure to cold water occurred 3 times a week for four weeks after running.
- Cold water exposure (50°F or 10°C) following high-intensity running increased PGC1α, a gene that increases the number of muscle mitochondria.
- Contrast bath therapy reduced muscle soreness and weakness better than passive resting alone.
- Meta-analysis (2017) – contrasting between hot and cold baths helped sports players recover faster from fatigue after their games.