Cold plunges, ice baths, and everything Wim Hof has recently become very popular. But, is this just another random trend? Or can submerging your body in cold water can actually make you healthier? Is the hype well-deserved? Well, cold water immersion does actually provide a wide range of health benefits, from reducing inflammation to improving circulation. In this post, we'll look at the top 9 science-backed benefits of cold plunge therapy. By the end of this article, you'll understand the benefits of cold water immersion, why cold therapy works, and learn actionable tips to safely incorporate cold plunges into your daily routine.
Let's get into it!
After an intense workout, there's nothing quite like immersing yourself in cold water (I speak from experience).
You know that feeling when you can barely go up the stairs the day after an intense leg day?
That is delayed onset muscle soreness - or DOMS. It’s common after strenuous exercise, especially if your workout involves a lot of eccentric contractions like running or lifting.
The microscopic tears in your muscle fibers trigger inflammation and pain that can last for days. Cold water immersion helps constrict blood vessels, lowering swelling and tissue breakdown that contributes to DOMS. This process is also used in the flow cryotherapy process that alleviates pain and muscular spasms.
Studies show that sitting in cold water after your workout significantly decreases muscle soreness compared to active rest alone. Athletes who took cold baths rated their muscle soreness as much lower than those who didn't. The cold may help flush out lactic acid, reducing that burning feeling in your muscles.
That’s exactly why you always see forms of cold exposure used in sports medicine.
Could a simple cold plunge actually boost your fat-burning potential?
Research indicates that frequent exposure to cold water ramps up your metabolism, potentially helping you shed excess body fat.
Now, that doesn't mean you don't have to work out another day in your life.
When you get into this cold water, your body works hard to maintain its core temperature (homeostasis) through shivering and activating brown adipose tissue. This type of fat tissue burns calories to generate heat through thermogenesis, acting as a natural furnace.
One study found that cold water swimming for 6 weeks increased the activity of brown fat, which correlated with reductions in body fat percentage. In fact, it can even turn other types of fat into calorie-burning brown fat.
To achieve significant results, cold immersion should be paired with an overall healthy lifestyle and a calorie-controlled diet.
Taking a cold plunge provides a powerful shock to your cardiovascular system.
What exactly do I mean by "shock"?
Well, as soon as youtube into a cold plunge, your heart rate and blood pressure increase as your blood vessels constrict to preserve core body heat.
This causes blood to be redirected away from your extremities and towards vital organs like your brain, heart, and lungs. Once you come back out, your blood vessels dilate again, increasing circulation to the skin and muscles. This rapid cycle of constriction and dilation is like a "workout" for your blood vessels, strengthening them over time (similar to cardio).
Research shows that consistent cold water therapy boosts circulation and oxygen delivery while lowering resting heart rate and blood pressure. While a single plunge elicits a temporary spike in blood pressure, done regularly, cold water increases the resilience and function of your cardiovascular system.
Just be cautious if you have hypertension or heart issues, and consult your doctor before attempting intense cold immersion.
When the body is immersed in cold water, blood vessels constrict to maintain core body heat.
This causes blood to become oxygenated and nutrient-rich as it circulates to vital organs. As the body heats up again (once you get out), blood vessels dilate and flush this enriched blood back out to tissues and muscles.
This oxygenated blood flow helps carry away inflammatory biomarkers that can contribute to muscle soreness or chronic conditions related to inflammation.
Some research indicates cold plunging prompts an anti-inflammatory response, even when it comes to chronic inflammation. Evidence from outdoor swimmers using cold therapy for arthritis and other inflammatory illnesses is encouraging.
Research has proven that brief exposure to cold water may provide a boost to the immune system.
When your body plunges into cold water, receptors in your skin send signals to the hypothalamus, which controls immune function. This triggers a systemic response aimed at fighting off potential threats and maintaining homeostasis.
A study published in 2021 recently demonstrated that taking regular cold showers and baths leads to an increase in circulating white blood cells, allowing your body to better combat viruses and bacteria. Cold exposure also reduces inflammatory markers (such as specific monocytes) and suppresses the activation of T-cells.
In simpler terms, The research suggests that there's a link between temperature changes and inflammation in the nervous system. It hints that the way our body deals with cold and autoimmunity might actually help us handle diseases related to our immune system better.
Cold water immersion provides a unique opportunity to challenge yourself mentally.
When you voluntarily decide to take a cold plunge, you step into discomfort, demanding strong willpower.
When you subject yourself to extreme temperatures, your body is going to be pushed outside of its comfort zone, causing your brain to freak out and make you want to get out.
Studies show that practicing voluntary cold exposure activates areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with willpower and grit. It teaches your brain to regulate the stress response and maintain composure in the face of hardship.
The more you embrace the uncomfortable feeling, the more resilience you build, not only when it comes to cold plunging, but resilience in many other situations.
However, listening to your body and getting out of the water is crucial if you feel any chest tightness or pain. Start with shorter plunges and build mental and physical tenacity over time.
The experience of taking a cold plunge is quite exhilarating because it activates your sympathetic nervous system, essentially putting your body into a fight-or-flight mode.
However, once you get out of the cold water, your parasympathetic system takes over, leading to a profound sense of relaxation and inner calm.
It's similar to completing a challenging assignment or finishing a long run – a bit tough at the moment, but the result is a significant boost in your mood and a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Studies have shown that when you immerse yourself in cold water, it triggers the release of a cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, such as dopamine, endorphins, and norepinephrine. These chemical compounds work together to not only improve your mood but also help stabilize it.
All of these effects can also offer benefits to your mental health, potentially reducing feelings of anxiety and depression.
We've already explored how just a few minutes of cold exposure can effectively reduce inflammation in the body. However, the benefits don't stop there. A 2018 study revealed intriguing insights into the stress-relief potential of cold exposure.
In this study, participants underwent a simple but impactful experiment – cold stimulation applied to their neck area. The results were remarkable. Their heart rate variability increased, and their heart rate decreased. These physiological changes often indicate reduced stress levels and increased feelings of happiness. It's as if the cold effectively recalibrated their bodies, shifting them away from the stress response and toward a more relaxed state.
Moreover, subjecting yourself to cold temperatures can serve as a powerful distraction for your mind. It has the ability to pull your focus away from anxious and ruminating thoughts. The intensity of the cold shock provides a mental reset and distraction.
Let me tell you, taking a plunge into an ice-cold bath or shower can significantly increase your energy levels!
Well, Exposing your body to these cool temperatures, triggers your body’s release of norepinephrine and epinephrine (hormones in charge of your body's fight or flight response).
The science shows that just 20-30 seconds in cold water around 40 degrees F is enough to increase your norepinephrine levels by 530%.
Some athletes even say that taking a quick ice bath before an intense workout helps them feel extra alert and sustain their energy levels. This increase in norepinephrine can also help improve mental clarity and focus!
In summary, the scientific research presents compelling evidence for the wide-ranging health and performance benefits of cold water immersion therapy. It's not just another trend!
From decreasing inflammation to boosting mental clarity, frequent short-duration cold exposure can enhance your physical health, mental resilience, and emotional well-being.
Start by taking brief cold showers or baths, then gradually increase your cold tolerance over time. Listen to your body, take safety precautions, and consult your doctor before attempting intense cold plunges.
With consistent, moderate cold therapy, you may notice improved energy levels, workout recovery, stress management, and more.
Give it a try and you may be surprised with the health benefits you start to feel!
The water temperature for a cold plunge is usually around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Everyone has different types of cold tolerance. Start with a temperature that feels uncomfortably cold, but not painful.
The cold shock response is the body's immediate physiological reaction to being exposed to the colder water. When your body is rapidly exposed to cold temperatures, your blood vessels constrict, your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes rapid. This response is part of the "fight or flight" instinct of the body.
While cold water therapy can have many benefits, it is important to avoid cold exposure if you have certain medical conditions, such as asthma or high blood pressure. Always consult with a healthcare professional before trying any new therapy.
It is recommended to start with shorter durations, such as 1-2 minutes, and gradually increase the time as your body becomes more accustomed to the cold. The ideal time to stay is 11 minutes total a week divided into 3 to 4 sessions.
Yes, alternating between cold and hot water can have additional benefits for circulation and muscle recovery. This contrast therapy can help improve blood flow and reduce muscle soreness.