Benefits that make cold water therapy worth it

By , K24 Digital
On Thu, 7 Mar, 2024 07:45 | 4 mins read
Representation of a man taking a cold shower. PHOTO/Pexels
Representation of a man taking a cold shower. PHOTO/Pexels

The idea of willingly immersing oneself in freezing cold water doesn’t sound particularly enticing.

So, why is taking this plunge becoming a trend? Well, it has been touted by experts to have a number of physical and mental benefits.

But before attempting this, it’s best to speak with a healthcare provider about unique individual risks that may arise

1. Soothes muscle soreness

Ice baths or cold plunges have long been used by athletes to recover after workouts. Reduced swelling, soreness and inflammation are all reasons that an athlete might incorporate cold water into their recovery routine.

A 2015 meta-analysis reviewed data from 27 previously published articles to examine the possible effect of different cold applications and other passive strategies after exercise.

The analysis concluded that cooling and, especially cold water immersions affected the symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) significantly.

There are three common types of cold water therapy. They include cold water immersion, which involves an individual submerging their entire body from the neck down in water no warmer than 15 degrees Celsius for up to 15 minutes.

The second is cold showers and finally contrast bath therapy, which involves switching limbs from cold water to warm water for varying amounts of time (30 minutes total).

2. Helps in burning fat

While weight loss hinges largely on a change in lifestyle, exercise, and eating better, the way you take a bath has also been scientifically proven to have an impact. Tim Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Body, wrote about his discovery of how ice baths can burn calories and keep you trim.

Making the body’s core temperature plummet forces the body to find alternative ways to keep warm. Think of your body as a very intelligent machine. When its temperature declines, it gets to a point where it starts burning up calories to stay warm.

Another study supports this theory as well as gives us another perspective on how effective cold water therapy can be for weight loss. A researcher from the University of Nottingham, UK, discovered evidence that shows that cold temperatures affect the fat tissue in our bodies.

Cold water therapy forces stem cells in the body to create brown fat cells instead of white. Brown fat cells are metabolically active and can burn or oxidise the white fat tissues in the body. Your body is also forced to burn up more of its energy reserve (white fat cells), causing you to lose weight.

Taking a cold plunge can activate the brown adipose and muscles in your body. Once activated, Irisin and Fibroblast Growth Factors (FGF) two hormones that burn up the white fat tissues resulting in weight loss

3. Reduces inflammation

Cold water immersion can cause blood vessels to constrict (vasoconstriction), which may help reduce blood flow to the affected area.

This constriction can potentially limit the extent of inflammation by decreasing the influx of immune cells and inflammatory mediators.

Cold water immersion has also been suggested to influence the production and release of certain inflammatory mediators, such as cytokines.

One 2008 study of 10 people with different inflammatory rheumatic diseases found a significant reduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines after five days of whole-body cryotherapy. 

4. Boosts immune system

While old wives’ tales purport that getting cold and wet can make you sick, researchers are discovering that the opposite may actually be true.  

A 2016 study found that people who took cold showers called out sick from work less than those who didn’t.

5. Reduces depression, anxiety and stress

Several studies indicate a connection between cold exposure and mental health.  A 2022 study led participants through a 10-day programme of deep-breathing exercises, coldwater exposure, and mindfulness meditation.

The study concluded that the programme improved “symptoms of stress, well-being, and depression” and called for more research into the psychophysiological mechanisms at work.

Another study, published in 2020, showed a statistically significant difference in depressive symptoms of participants with chronic health conditions who practiced whole-body cryotherapy for 10 sessions.

The researchers also reported significant improvement in quality of life, self-assessed mood and disease acceptance.

The study’s authors concluded that whole-body cryotherapy is a useful method to use alongside medication and reduces mental health deterioration, especially in mood disorders, such as depression, and can be beneficial for well-being and quality of life.

For those struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, it can boost mood by triggering the release of the body’s feel-good endorphins.

6. Increases energy

Exposing yourself to cold is a great way to jumpstart your senses and make you feel alert and energised.

In 2023, researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to identify the networks in the brain that lead to these positive effects.

The study noted that perceived changes after cold water immersion were feeling more active, alert, attentive, proud, and inspired, as well as reductions in distress and nervousness.

7. Manages pain

Cold water immersion can have analgesic (pain-relieving) effects, and it is often used as a form of pain management for various conditions.

While you are in cold water, you are likely to experience a numbing sensation, reducing the perception of pain.

This numbing effect is caused by slower nerve conduction and decreased sensitivity of nerve endings.

8. Increases grit and resilience

When you immerse yourself in cold water, you are forcing your body into a state of stress and activating the fight-or-flight response (caused by the sympathetic nervous system).  

For many, the cold plunge is also about building mental resilience and discipline: consistent exposure to cold temperatures allows the mind to get comfortable in a state of discomfort, which will improve its ability to deal with other types of stress.

Teaching the body how to handle extremes, especially within ice baths starts to teach the body and mind that you are in control. By experiencing small doses of stress, you are teaching your body to become more resilient over time.

Cold water immersion also requires mental toughness to endure. This practice can foster a mindset of perseverance and discipline that carries over to other pursuits. 

9. May help regulate the nervous system

Exposure to cold water—including splashing it on your face or plunging into a cold tub—stimulates the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the main nerve of the autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating breathing and heart rate. A cold bath helps one learn how to regulate intense emotion and essentially breathe through it.

10 Good for your skin

Cold exposure is also thought to have positive effects on the skin as cold water can constrict blood vessels and decrease inflammation, which can give the skin a temporarily more radiant appearance.

Related Topics