An Ice-Cold Shower a Day, Keeps the Doctor Away
By Justin W. Cronk, D.C.
Have you ever taken a dip in REALLY cold water? I’m talking about a polar plunge, an ice bath, a chest freezer full of Epsom salt (yup, that’s a thing), or even an ice-cold shower? What about Lake Superior? If so, you may remember that it may not have seemed like the most pleasant experience ever – the sensation can be quite overwhelming at first. Plus the sudden increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate may seem a little scary if you don’t completely understand what’s going on with your body or if you’re not 100% certain that what you are doing is safe (it is safe, btw). But do you recall how invigorated and GOOD you felt afterward? Well, that’s because it is good for you in so many ways – mentally, physically, and maybe even spiritually.
I think my love of cold immersion was a direct result of taking so many cold swims in Lake Superior as a kid. I can probably credit my dad for that. He was always cannon-balling into Lake Superior whenever he had a chance, and I wasn’t too far behind him. It didn’t matter what time of year it was. Oh, so there’s a small layer of ice on the lake? We didn’t care. We were cannonballing through that too.
Nowadays, you’ll sometimes catch me swimming in the local lakes right up until the ice appears. These cold swims are always a source of instantaneous energy. My wife thinks I’m crazy (and I don’t rally blame her). But seriously, try it and see how you feel afterward. You’ll feel strong, alert, and nearly unstoppable. If you’ve done it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You can thank me later.
The cool part is, it’s much more than just raw sensory overload, goosebumps, and shrinkage – this feeling of vitality is actually a direct result of a biochemical/hormonal change in your body in response to exposure to the cold. Moreover, you could even make an argument that it can help you lose weight (bonus!). Which means you can feel a little less guilty about that 9.4% IPA you drank at Aegir Brewing…
The good news is, you don’t necessarily need Lake Superior, the Arctic Ocean, or a trough full of ice to get many of the benefits you will soon be learning about. You can actually do it right in your home, in your bathroom.
If the idea of taking a cold shower or bath sounds unbearable to you, remember that the first hot water heater wasn’t invented until 1868 (admittedly like 50 years earlier than I expected). Before that, we had already managed to survive several thousand years without hot water and bubble baths. However, that first water heater was dangerous and not very conducive to staying alive and it wasn’t until 1889 that a safer(ish) hot water heater was invented by Edwin Ruud. Fast forward a few decades later, and nearly every house had one. Heck. When I was in the Arctic Circle, I was 400 miles (give or take) from the nearest town, and we had hot water on demand. Thank you technology.
You might be thinking; this cold immersion stuff is just not for you and you have made a decision to refuse to accept this as a thing that people do. Okay fine. Be that way. But don’t be sad when you realize that you’re missing out on all the #gains. However, just so you know, you’re wired for it. You just don’t know it yet.
Now for some sciency(ish) stuff.
So sure it feels cold, and you feel great afterward, but what exactly is going on inside your body? Well? So many things…
For starters, cold immersion can decrease inflammation. As cold immersion therapy has become more popular, researchers are conducting more studies to demonstrate and measure the effects that cold immersion therapy can have on the body. Several studies were able to show that after exposure to cold, our body produces more anti-inflammatory cytokines (a cytokine is a type of cell involves in regulating immune function) and a decrease of pro-inflammatory cytokines. So if this sounds like gibberish to you, remember this, cold therapy does pretty much what ibuprofen does to mitigate inflammation in the body. Thousands of pages of cold immersion studies are devoted to talking about its effect on cytokines & interleukins ad nauseam. So take my word for it – it decreases inflammation.
Immune System – this piggybacks on the previous paragraph on inflammation, but yup, it boosts that too. Cold immersion can increase our resistance to sickness and disease (does it ever stop?). Our bodies use a diverse group of cells called white blood cells (WBCs) as a tool to fight infection and inflammation. The white blood cells are essentially the mercenaries of our immune systems sent to wipe out inflammation caused by viruses, pathogenic bacteria, fungal infections, etcetera that can exist within your body. You’ve seen white blood cells on your blood panels. They are leukocytes, monocytes, neutrophils, and whatnot. If you do a CBC and see high levels of these bad boys, you generally have good reason to be worried because it may be an indicator that some sort of inflammatory process or infection is taking place in your body. However, after exposure to cold thermogenesis, your levels of circulating WBCs ramp up pretty quickly striking out at areas where inflammation or infections exist. Therefore, you can consider your cold shower a preemptive strike against anything that is currently attempting to rain on your parade.
Weight loss: Technically, yes it can do this. Is it significant? Not necessarily. However, health is all about small changes so here’s how this small change works. For starters, the body has to work pretty hard to keep the body temperature stable by forcing your brainstem to step up its game and go into “preserve and protect” mode. The brainstem is the part of your brain that regulates body temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. It affects levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine as well. So upon exposure to the cold, you are suddenly breathing faster to provide more oxygen to your bloodstream. Your blood pressure has increased along with your heart rate, and this oxygen-rich blood is being shunted into the periphery of your body as well as your organs to protect you from the potential damage – it’s essentially an adaptive stress response that makes our bodies much more resilient. Plus, when we talk about oxygenation of tissue, changes in heart rate, and blood pressure – we are also talking about the metabolism. Exposure to cold increases our metabolism, which causes us to burn more energy, which means potential weight loss. So instead of buying diet pills, you can turn the hot water off instead!
Another cool thing about cold immersion (also lumped into the potential weight loss/metabolic category) is that regular exposure increases the stores of “brown fat” in your body. Brown fat exists to enhance your ability to withstand cold and allow us to do stuff like “survive” in the cold (pretty important in MN), so it’s nice to have around in a pinch. It’s called brown fat because it’s more vascular and looks distinctly different from your regular boring old off-white adipose tissue. You’ll see high amounts of it in hibernating animals and babies. Do you ever wonder why babies are always so dang hot? It’s the brown fat. Do you ever wonder why bears don’t freeze solid and waste away? Brown fat for the win again. It’s a pretty good heater and produces more energy than it takes up so its exceptionally metabolically active. The sad part is as we age, the volume of brown fat decreases unless our bodies are subjected to regular intervals of cold. With daily exposure, we can increase the levels of brown fat by exposing ourselves to cold conditions. Our bodies are pretty intelligent, so when we present it to environmental conditions outside the norm, it does it’s best to meet the challenge of these conditions, which in this case, is to build up higher levels of brown fat to protect ourselves from the cold in response to more cold exposure. It’s a win-win; our body is more robust and protected, and we burn off that Aegir 9.4% IPA beer a little quicker.
Cold immersion can also enhance your mood. Have you ever seen how happy people look after a polar plunge? I mean yes, there is some obligatory screaming, panicking, and full on hamstring strain inducing sprints to shore, but most people are happy and laughing and have energy levels that make the energizer bunny look like that sad looking sloth that hangs out in that one tree at Como Zoo in St. Paul. Part of this “good mood stuff” is actually a result of the fact that some studies show up to a 530% increase in dopamine production (dopamine is a neurotransmitter whose sole purpose is to make us feel GOOD). Our body rewards us by dumping a whole bunch of it into our systems. Also, in case you were wondering? 530% is a lot. The significant boosts of norepinephrine and adrenaline and the subsequent decrease in cortisol (a stress hormone) are pretty beneficial to our bodies as well. I even came across some studies that demonstrated positive effects of utilizing cold immersion therapy for decreasing depression and anxiety after only 2-3 minute long cold showers – super cool stuff.
Interested in getting started? Here’s my suggestion to you. Although first, I must preface it with this: of all the claims I’ve made regarding the health benefits of cold immersion, not one of them was that it was going to be comfortable. However, that does change over time as you begin to acclimate and trust me, if you stick with it you will come to appreciate and possibly even enjoy it. However, don’t fret if that feeling doesn’t happen quickly.
So begin yourshower like you usually do. Once you’ve been in the shower for a few minutes, gradually start decreasing the temperature of the water a few clicks of the dial at a time. The key to successfully implementing cold immersion as a daily routine is merely to take your time so it’s not a shock. There’s no rule as to how fast you do this, so do what feels right. There is also no rule that says you have to get the water freezing cold right away. It probably took me nearly a week before I was able to turn the water all the way to cold for any more than a minute or so. Some people take a week or two or more to acclimate, where others are show-offs (jealousy) go from 0 to 100 (full on Wim Hoff) on day one.
There’s absolutely no rush. My suggestion to you is to be realistic about your expectations of how quickly you can implement this because you want sustainability. Your ultimate goal is to withstand 3-5 minutes. So even if you can only handle 30 seconds in the beginning, you’re already pretty close to your initial goal of 3 minutes. Just as an FYI, the world record was set by a guy named Wim Hoff who sat in an ice bath for 1 hour and 52 minutes. I suggest reading his book, Becoming the Iceman. Its a good read with a ton of useful and inspirational information. Plus Wim is the guy that has been making all this cold water stuff so darn trendy.
So what’s the simple version of all of this? Just hop in the shower, slowly turn off the hot water until it the water is as cold as it can get and be healthier. #gains. It’s not rocket science.
Stay tuned as I challenge other people in the area to take the plunge with me in large, ice-filled tanks. It’s coming soon.
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