Have you ever wondered how on earth plunging into the sea on a Winter’s Day or jumping into an ice bath could possibly be beneficial? Is it all a fad or does cold therapy help us become better, stronger and more resilient?
In this article, we will uncover the scientific evidence behind this treatment. Plus, we look at the benefits of cold therapy and how to incorporate this practice into your everyday routine.
Scientific Proof – The Wim Hof Method
Throughout history, cold water therapies have been used as a natural remedy. It can boost a person’s mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
From Hippocrates in Ancient Greece, to the baths of Ancient Rome, cold therapy involved heating the body to various temperatures, followed by cold water immersion. Even today, cold therapy remains a popular form of treatment in health spas all over the world.
In 2011, a scientific study into cold therapy proved successful when scientists tested Wim Hof, who is famously known as ‘The Iceman’.
Wim is famous for immersing himself in freezing waters after he developed his own method of deep breathing exercises. His unique technique help him to regulate his own body temperature and endure the cold, for up to two hours at a time.
Since then, Wim has gained much praise from the scientific world with his Wim Hof Method. It is a specialised method of breathing techniques and meditation that can help to control our body temperature.
Once thought scientifically impossible, Wim was able to do something that no human had ever done before.
This proven method teaches us that we can consciously control our own immune system to ward off illnesses and disease.
This groundbreaking finding, published in PNAS and Nature, established Hof’s credibility.
Since then, many researchers all over the world have taken an interest in the benefits of the Wim Hof Method. Wim and his team continue to work with research institutions to study how we can consciously control our own immune system to ward off illnesses and disease.
The Long Term Benefits Of Cold Therapy
When practiced on a regular basis, cold therapy can provide long-lasting benefits to the body. Let’s see how it can enhance our immune, circulatory and digestive systems.
Can Cold Therapy Help Our Immune System?
Studies have found that people who take cold showers are 29% less likely to call in sick for work or school. This is potentially because cold showers might make a person’s illness feel less severe and helps them to push through with their daily activities. Whether it be for 30, 60, or 90 seconds, cold water triggers the body’s immune system regardless of duration.
The moment you immerse yourself in a cold shower, it alerts your lymphatic system. This system is responsible for cleaning out bacteria from your body and keeping you healthy.
Cold therapy causes the body to jolt awake and contracts the muscles, allowing lymph fluid to pump easily throughout the vessels in your body. This can then boost the white cells in your immune system to activate and fight to eliminate this waste.
Cold Water Therapy Can Kickstart Your Weight Loss
It sounds too good to be true, right?! Does cold therapy help us lose weight?
When practiced routinely, cold therapy has been shown to boost a person’s metabolism.
Cold temperatures activate the brown fat in the body, the good fat that maintains and regulates our body’s internal temperature. The shock of cold water to the body increases our metabolic rate by producing heat to maintain our internal temperature. So, it also can result in long term weight loss.
Additionally, your energy and metabolism may increase which can help control your blood sugar levels. This can potentially help to reduce the occurrence of diabetes and obesity.
How Does Cold Therapy Help Reduce Stress Levels?
Taking cold showers will place a small amount of stress on your body, which encourages a process known as hardening. What this means, is that your nervous system gradually gets used to handling moderate levels of stress. Which in turn will help you stay level- headed in challenging situations.
Does Cold Therapy Help Improve Cardio-Vascular Health?
Cardiovascular circulation is one of the most critical components of our health.
Without optimum circulation to your heart, not only is your blood flow compromised, but your heart can also become stressed. This can lead to fatigue, high blood pressure, muscle cramping, or even heart attack and stroke.
A blast of cold can help stimulate blood flow.
When you plunge your body in cold water, your blood rushes to surround your vital organs. Your heart needs to work harder to pump blood to every part of your body. This can help improve circulation, boost the immune system and give us more energy to live our lives.
Can Cold Therapy Help with Alertness?
Cold therapy wakes your body up and can boost your energy.
It creates a sense of invigoration and alertness, which may prompt a person to feel more energetic.
Because the cold can make you to take deeper breaths, this can decrease the level of CO2 throughout the body, helping you to concentrate and be more focused during the day.
According to a meta-analysis of cold therapy research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “cold showers have many physiological effects on the body”. These include increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and an elevated respiratory rate.
Pain and Muscle Inflammation: How Does Cold Therapy Help Post-Workout?
Have you ever felt sore a couple of days after a high-intensity workout?
This happens because the muscles have been pushed into a state of microscopic tears and into inflammation and it is trying to heal. This phenomenon is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and can be so painful that sometimes people use anti-inflammatory medications.
Cold therapy has been scientifically proven to help counteract these side effects. This happens because the cold can help lower the damaged tissue’s temperature, plus help constrict the blood vessels around the muscles. This helps reduce the swelling and inflammation, numbs the nerve endings and even has anesthetic-like effects for pain relief.
Cold therapy can also slow the speed at which nerve signals conduct impulses. This results in a reduction in the rate at which nerves transmit pain signals to the brain. Which ultimately means a lowering of a person’s perception of pain.
Can Cold Therapy Help Make You Happier?
A 2007 research study found that if performed on a regular basis, cold showers can help treat symptoms of depression. They also found that it may be of more benefit than taking prescription medication.
Cold water activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases the availability of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and endorphins, which make you feel happy and more energetic.
A separate study showed that after four months of routine cold water swimming, compared to the control group, the swimmers felt more energetic, active and spritely.
Does Cold Therapy Help Increase Will Power and Resilience?
To endure the cold for extended periods of time will make you a stronger person. Why not challenge yourself each morning or night to get out of your comfort zone with a cold shower. It can also make your mind stronger, by challenging your body’s temperature threshold.
The stress your body might endure momentarily, may also help you build more resilience to handle life’s everyday challenges.
This could have a positive, domino-like effect into all areas of your life.
Cold Therapy Can Be Used To Reset Your Temperature Regulating System
If you are someone that always feels the chill, cold showers can be a great way of rebooting your body temperature.
In the 21st century, many of us have lost the ability to keep ourselves warm. Over time our bodies can become dependant on external sources, such as central heating or warm clothing, rather than relying on our own heat producing mechanisms.
By dipping ourselves in cold water, it can make us shiver, creating an autonomous response to keep our body temperature up. It involves a neuroendocrine effect, triggering a fight-or-flight response, causing hormones like cortisol to increase, shortly before we shift to a relaxation response. So building your cold showers up over a long period of time, can make you feel warmer in the long run.
Modern Day Application of Cold Therapy And How To Do It Yourself
Cold showers can be super beneficial for both your mind and body. For the best benefits, let’s see how we can incorporate cold water immersion into our daily routine.
Contrast Water Therapy
Research suggests that water does not necessarily need to be cold for the entire duration of the shower for the person to experience positive effects.
Wim advises to ‘gradually build up the duration and intensity’.
This can be done with Contrast Water Therapy.
Start with a normal shower and finish the last 30 seconds by turning the temperature down to cold. This do-it-yourself method can help enhance recovery and reduce feelings of fatigue.
Alternatively, some are game enough to have a quick cold 5–10 minute shower. Several studies cite a target cold temperature of about 20°C, according to the journal, Medical Hypotheses. Eventually, you can start to build up your tolerance!
A Sydney icon, the Bondi Icebergs, is, the only licensed Winter swimming club in the world.
Since 1929, members have started off the winter season by jumping into the Bondi Iceberg’s Public Pool with blocks of ice for a freezing cold swim. It’s now become so popular, that the Bondi Icecubes Club was created, and has now become the largest junior Winter swimming club in Australia.
Believe it or not, ice swimming is slowly becoming a popular endurance sport. The Ice Swimming World Championships, last held in Germany, drew over 100 participants, who bravely swam for 1km in 2.5° temperatures, without a wetsuit!!
In New York, Coney Island’s Polar Bear Club, boasts a group of dedicated open-water swimmers, braving the icy ocean every Sunday in the cold winter months. Their New Year’s Day plunge is a long-standing New York tradition and is the club’s biggest event.
Cold Therapy For Athletes
Another method of quick recovery after high intensity exercise is Whole Body Cryotherapy, a method of immersing your entire body below the head, in an enclosed chamber of extremely cold air for 2-4 minutes.
It can be delivered to just one area, called localized therapy, or you can opt for whole-body cryotherapy.
Localized cryotherapy can be administered in a myriad of ways, by using ice packs, ice massage, coolant sprays, ice baths, and even via probes administered into tissue.
The theory behind whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) is that minutes of cold air immersion can give us many health benefits. The enclosure will drop to between -129 to -185°C and is surprisingly not as cold as I imagined it to be. But then, I was only in there for 2 minutes.
Cold therapy via ice baths or cold showers is also a common practice in many sports clubs.
Sports therapists suggest that cold temperatures can reduce inflammation, cool down your muscles and relieve the build up of lactic acid for quicker recovery.
In fact, a study in the Journal Of Athletic Training, found that “taking a cold shower can relieve exertional hyperthermia, compared with no treatment at all”. However, the researchers did note that cold showers were not as effective as cold therapy for the relief of exercise induced high body temperatures.
Can Cold Therapy Help Boost Your Immunity?
Could Contrast Water Therapy be used to combat COVID-19 and support our immune response?
To understand the benefits of using a sauna and then a cold shower to boost your immunity, perhaps we need to take a step back into history.
One hundred years ago, during the Spanish Flu Epidemic, ten sanitariums were collecting data of the flu treatments given to US army patients. This included a diet of a plant-based eating plan, plenty of rest and hydrotherapy – a method which boosted immunity through application of heat, to induce a fever.
They concluded fevers helped by “mobilizing macrophages, monocytes and natural killer cells, that defend our body against viruses.”
In addition, they found that when cold was applied following heat, early enough, it could potentially prevent the virus from developing further.
The flow of feverish hot water which precedes a contrast shower benefits immunity, by increasing the body’s temperature, then, in response to the blast of cool or cold water, blood vessels constrict, and heat is retained in the body, increasing white cell activity. This application of moist heat around the lungs, can help decongest the lungs and improve breathing.
This is because the sudden changes to body temperature and heart rate may overburden the body. Also, a person should NOT use cold showers as a replacement for prescribed medications, especially when treating depression. Cold water therapy should be used to enhance the effects of other treatment methods.
Special note: Please be cautious when trying cold therapy if unsupervised! In particular, if you suffer from a weak immune system and/or serious heart conditions, such as congestive heart failure. We also recommend that you learn the Wim Hof Method from a qualified and certified Wim Hof Method instructor.
What If I’m Afraid Of The Cold?
To appreciate the benefits of cold therapy, this may take strength and dedication.
If you’re a total newbie with cold showers, start with a regular shower and finish up with the last 30 seconds cold. After a week or so, you’ll be surprised to find yourself looking forward to the cold blast at the end to wake you up each morning!
Another method to try, is to go into a hot sauna or whirlpool followed by a cold water shower. Before long, you’ll quickly notice that you are able to tolerate the cold more and more. Eventually, cold showers and ice baths may even become part of your daily self- care regimen.
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