COLD THERAPY 101
Is it just me, or does there seem to be an influx of information out there regarding ways to improve our physical and mental wellbeing? Don’t get me wrong, within the last few years, I have definitely grown more curious as to what I can be doing or using to feel my absolute best - mentally, physically and spiritually (as evidenced by the Leaning Tower of Pisa stack of self-improvement books on my bedside table).
It feels like everyday I stumble upon a new health fad — the latest cure-all for all my wellbeing afflictions.
One such day I opened up Instagram and it seemed as if I was the last person on Earth to try some form of cold exposure to harness my optimum level of health.
Cold exposure, or cold therapy (think cold showers, ice baths, cryotherapy chambers, etc.) seem to be all the rage these days. I did a quick search online to see what all the buzz was about and just as quickly decided it wasn’t for me. I am NOT someone who thrives in the cold; a cold shower to begin my day sounded like, well, hell.
Honestly, I assumed cold therapy would have its’ moment in the sun and then slowly retreat to the shadows along with its’ friends, celery juice and chlorophyll water. Alas, according to my studies, cold exposure has been around for ages, dating back to ancient Rome, with stans the likes of Hippocrates and Thomas Jefferson, and I believe it is here to stay.
If you’ve ever done a Google search on the topic, then you know it is impossible to delve into the waters of cold exposure without running into the name Wim Hof.
Who is Wim Hof? Many refer to him as “The Iceman”. Wikipedia states that he is a “Dutch extreme athlete” who “got his nickname 'The Iceman' by breaking a number of records related to cold exposure including: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes.”
WH has coined the popular Wim Hof Method (WHM) which “involves willpower, exposure to cold water, and breathing techniques. Hof states that his method can reduce symptoms of several diseases including: rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.”
In short, by practicing the WHM and regularly exposing ourselves to the cold while performing his specific breathing technique, we may experience the following health benefits: “increase in energy, ability to better manage stress, improvement in mental health, ability to control inflammation, strengthening your immune system, improving endurance and recovery, unlocking your creativity and more..”
A couple years ago, I was intrigued by this guy, so I read his book. While I thoroughly respected Wim and his story, it wasn’t enough for me to take up his seemingly bizarre rituals. I was too comfy wrapped up in my down blanket to begin contemplating exposing myself to the elements in the name of health. So, I tucked his book to the back of my bookshelf where it proceeded to collect dust.
Flash forward to New Year’s Day, 2023, and I was craving a new challenge. I had just finished David Goggins’ book, Can’t Hurt Me, and I was ramped up and ready to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to try something that I knew would be simultaneously challenging and uncomfortable for no other reason than to prove to myself that I could do hard things and that I wasn’t soft. I remembered Wim Hof and his cold showers and I thought to myself “why not?”.
The following is a breakdown of my experience going on a month-long quest to take a cold shower every single morning (excluding weekends). My goal was to challenge myself to push beyond my mental limits and maybe experience some of the many touted health benefits of cold therapy. I had no intention of proving any major scientific or medical phenomenas, rather, my goal was to simply make a commitment to myself and maybe have some fun in the process!
Here’s how it went.
No BS, starting out sucked. The first few mornings were brutal. I dreaded it. I would begin my showers on the hottest setting my lever would allow and then I would switch to the coldest setting at the very end. I started out at 30 seconds the first couple mornings and worked my way up to a minute by the end of the week.
My method was simple: hit the coldest setting, stare at the same bottle of shampoo in my shower, count up to 60, do some heavy breathing and return to the hot setting to end my shower. I only submerged my back, I never dunked my head and I never faced the water head-on.
** There are many different theories as to the “best way” to take cold showers, but in my opinion, do what works for you and forget the rest. Who cares if you end on hot or cold or if you last 2 minutes or 10?
To my utter shock, by Thursday, I was already craving the torturous exercise. The following weeks were much easier. Some mornings were more difficult than others, but overall, I didn’t dread showering the way I had in the beginning. Eventually, it became something I did out of habit, without much thought involved at all.
I was proud of myself for beginning my day accomplishing something really difficult. It made the actual tough stuff that I came to head with throughout my day seem trivial and I felt better equipped to handle whatever it was. There was something to be said for the sense of energy and alertness I felt immediately after my showers. You could honestly skip your morning cup of coffee in lieu of a cold shower — that’s how effective they are.
To take it up a notch, I implemented a cold plunge on Friday mornings. In full disclosure, I had no intention of personally taking the plunge; I was going to make my boyfriend do it and use him as my guinea pig. Just kidding…kind of.
The first Friday was a battle, but it was fun! We met a couple friends at the river in 35 degree weather with a water temperature of 44 degrees. I sat on the sidelines and watched as my loyal test subjects plunged into the arctic abyss. I was positively quaking in my boots and specifically remember thinking to myself “No way in hell am I ever doing that.”
Another week of successful cold showers had passed and I found myself at the river again, but this time, our test participants had grown in number. Word had gotten out in our small group of friends and family about this weird experiment I was conducting and it was catching on. I couldn’t stand the idea of missing out on the fun again, so I decided to join in this time. Let me TELLLLLL you, it was HARDDD! But damnit, I had to admit, it felt good.
Like the cold showers, we started at 30 seconds and worked our way up to a minute. Once you get past the point of pins and needles, your body begins to take on a numbness and you’re able to withstand the discomfort for longer periods of time. Sounds fun, right? After a few Fridays in the books, Mike and I realized we had accidentally started a weekly group plunge, something we all looked forward to after our busy work-weeks.
There is something about the shared experience of enduring a really hard thing together as a unit and It’s definitely a fun exercise if you’re looking to switch up your monotonous dinner-and-drinks-weekend routine.
We are still doing our plunges most Fridays and some of our friends are now doing them on their own sporadically throughout the week, swearing to the power of the plunge to jump-start their day!
There seems to be a plethora of information out there backing up cold therapy. Some fun facts I was able to find are noted below.
According to Sharon L. Hame, MD (Orthopedic Sports Medicine, UCLAHealth) in this article, taking cold showers may:
1. Bolster your immunity to common colds
The shock of cold water can stimulate the blood cells that fight off infection (leukocytes).
2. Combat symptoms of depression
In one clinical study, participants who took daily cold showers for several months reported decreased depression symptoms.
3. Improve circulation
Cold water strains your body — it goes into “survival mode,” working hard to maintain its core temperature. This stimulates your body to increase blood flow circulation.
4. Increase metabolism
Your body expends energy trying to stay warm in a cold shower. The result may be a small amount of calorie burn and increased metabolism.
5. Reduce inflammation and prevent muscle soreness
Cold temps make your blood vessels tighten up (vasoconstrict). When that happens, blood moves to your body’s core and vital organs. The blood naturally becomes oxygen- and nutrient-rich during the process. As your body heats up again, the blood vessels expand (vasodilate), bringing that oxygenated blood back to your tissues. As it flows back, it helps to flush out inflammation — a cause of delayed-onset muscle soreness, which can occur a couple of days after exercise.
6. Relieve localized pain
Cold therapy alleviates pain by reducing inflammation. But it also interferes with your brain’s perception of the pain.
Mark Harper, an Anesthesiology Consultant at Royal Sussex County Hospital, claims the following in this article:
"Some studies have also reported increases in brain chemicals that regulate mood, such as dopamine, following a cold soak, which may explain the post-swim “high” people feel. In addition, putting your face in cold water can activate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which prompts the body to relax after a stressful event. This may help people feel calm and tamp down inflammation. Several conditions, including depression, are tied to chronic inflammation.
Some researchers also hypothesize that adapting to the shock of cold water may improve a person’s ability to cope with other stresses.
Some scientists also suspect that a dip in frigid water might help treat mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression.”
John Hopkins Medicine states:
Experts believe that cryotherapy can reduce swelling, which is tied to pain. It may also reduce sensitivity to pain. Cryotherapy may be particularly effective when you are managing pain with swelling, especially around a joint or tendon.
This site even claimed: “The few studies available have shown that both acute and repeated exposures to the cold can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce fasting glycemia in individuals with type 2 diabetes.”
"Anna Lembke, a Stanford professor and psychiatrist, prescribes various forms of hormesis including cold-water immersion instead of pills to some of her patients suffering from addictions. “It helps them tolerate withdrawal,” “The body responds to cold water by up-regulating feel-good molecules like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, as a way to compensate.”
As with any wellness trend, there are some skeptics. I found the following remarks by doctors and the like that may be taken into consideration.
In this article Dr. Tracy Zaslow claims the following:
“The popularity of cold-water exposure has outpaced research into the subject. Of all the possible benefits of cold exposure, soothing sore muscles may be backed with the most evidence.”
Sophie Lazarus, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University stated the following: “Although cold water immersion clearly has some physiological effects, there have not been enough high-quality studies to recommend it as a mental health treatment.”
Dr. Van Dien remarked “However, even with these small and ongoing studies, “there is low-quality evidence to suggest that cold water immersion offers benefits in major depressive disorders or enhances relaxation,” says Dr. Van Dien. “This is similar for other purported benefits, including enhanced immune function and improved post-exercise recovery."
There are some risks to be taken into consideration before any form of cold therapy, including cold shock, disorientation, hypothermia, etc. So, do your homework and be prepared. The average, healthy individual will likely be completely fine to partake in these exercises. If you are going for a plunge, always go with a buddy!
Dr. Van Dien puts it best when he says the following in this article:
“Understanding your medical comorbidities and what risk they pose is extremely important before cold plunging. At a minimum, individuals with known cardiac or pulmonary disease should steer clear of cold water immersion, given the immense burden placed on these body systems.”
Overall, I eally enjoyed this experience and I have continued with my morning cold showers since the conclusion of my experiment.
Funnily enough, I found the showers to be a lot more difficult than the group plunges. Like I said, there is something special to be said about the shared experience of pain and discomfort as a group, if for no other reason than moral support. Plus, it’s cool to see your friends challenge themselves and feel better because of it! Our group still meets to plunge and we don’t have plans to stop anytime soon.
I am proud of myself for getting out of my comfort zone and proving that I can sit through discomfort. I believe that as a society, we have gotten too comfortable. Our lives are built around instant gratification and it is no wonder why so many of us spiral out of control when confronted with any kind of hardship. I believe that if we put ourselves in the position to be uncomfortable at least once a day and actually SIT and work through the discomfort, we are better preparing ourselves for difficult situations that we may face on a day-to-day basis. In a way, it is a form of meditation and a “callousing of the mind” as David Goggins would say.
I’ll wrap it up with the following quote by Matt Fuchs, where he interviews an expert in the field who reaffirms my thinking in this article:
“I spoke with experts to see if it was worth it. One of them was David Sinclair, a Harvard biologist and leading researcher of longevity whose “metabolic winter” hypothesis would explain why cold immersion supports long-term health. His hypothesis, he said, is based on the fact that, for tens of thousands of years “our status quo was being cold.” That was because our ancestors lived outdoors in seasonally cold temperatures, endured the ice age and migrated to colder climates. Human metabolism, therefore, was designed to adapt to uncomfortable weather (hot temperatures may have had the same effect). But these days we live almost entirely in climate-controlled luxury. The new status quo derails our health because it eliminates the biological challenges our bodies had adapted to. Sinclair’s hypothesis draws from a principle, well accepted by biologists, called hormesis: Some amount of pain is good for us. In addition to cold-water immersion, other examples of hormesis include exercise and dietary fasts.”
Hope you enjoyed this post!
Ps. When was the last time you did something for the first time?