Immersing yourself in ice-cold water for prolonged periods may not sound like the most appealing of activities, but it has been shown to provide a variety of therapeutic benefits, chief among them enhanced muscle recovery and improved mood.
The History of Cold Water Plunges
Civilizations from all over the world have been practicing cold water therapy for millennia. For example, in ancient Greece, cold water immersion was used for relaxation and therapeutic purposes. According to a review published by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, cold water therapy was also promoted as a treatment for fever by the Roman physician Claudius Galen.
Today’s Cold Water Immersion
Cold water therapy, as it’s known today, involves immersing the body in water with a temperature of 4–10° Celsius (44–50° Fahrenheit). This can be achieved by taking a cold shower or ice bath or going wild swimming. Immersing the body in cold water stimulates cutaneous thermoreceptors, which in turn stimulate the thermoregulation center in the hypothalamus. During cold water therapy, heart rate decreases while blood pressure rises. When exposed to extreme cold, we feel the effect most severely in our extremities, which may be up to 10 degrees colder than our core temperature.
Benefits of Cold Water Therapy
Studies suggest that cold water therapy may be effective in treating several autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Autoimmune diseases are characterized by chronic inflammation. Research suggests that cold water therapy decreases cellular microinflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress. It is also believed to help reduce pain in individuals affected by autoimmune disease.
Studies have demonstrated cold water therapy’s effectiveness in sports such as basketball, swimming, kayaking, and volleyball. Research suggests that cold water therapy can help enhance performance compared with control groups, decreasing tiredness, improving sleep quality, lowering inflammation, and helping establish a circadian rhythm.
In terms of endocrinal effects, cold water therapy triggers an increase in the hormones norepinephrine, catecholamine, and adrenocorticotropin. Norepinephrine in particular has been shown to reduce pain perception.
A review published by the NIH explored the health implications of cold water immersion in humans. The review analyzed 104 studies, noting that many demonstrated significant effects of cold water immersion on various physiological and biochemical parameters. The review also acknowledged that cold water immersion could have a protective effect against metabolic disease, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
To many, cold water therapy does not sound like a particularly enjoyable activity. Nevertheless, since the emergence of ice-bath guru Wim Hof and tales of his incredible feats of endurance, the practice has become increasingly mainstream, so much so that many high-end hotels have begun incorporating cold water therapy attractions in their spas, from mineral pools of varying temperatures to the classic plunge pool.
Although most people who use cold water therapy today do so to aid post-exercise recovery, research suggests that immersing the body in cold water can have a significant impact on metabolic output. A 2014 study conducted in the Netherlands revealed that frequent exposure to extreme cold triggers something known as cold-induced thermogenesis, potentially providing a powerful kickstart to the metabolic system.
Many individuals cite cold water therapy as a means of becoming more mindful and in tune with their bodies. Some maintain that cold plunges help them lower their stress levels or ensure they get a better night’s sleep.
Risks of Cold Water Therapy
Of course, cold water therapy is not for everyone, and anyone considering taking up the practice would be wise to consult with their physician first, particularly if they have a pre-existing health condition. Swimming or immersing yourself in cold water can be dangerous, exposing you to the risk of hypothermia and a host of other serious medical conditions. Nevertheless, when practiced safely, studies suggest that cold water therapy can have a positive effect on mental and physical health.
In recent years, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting closures of public swimming pools, wild water swimming has enjoyed something of a renaissance. All around the world, people are increasingly braving the elements, taking regular dips in nature.
Laura Fullerton, the CEO and founder of Monk, the world’s first at-home cold water therapy app, explains that cold water swimming in particular can be an incredible tool to help people take control of their health.
As she points out, “[Cold water therapy’s] an incredible tool to help people take control of their mental, physical, and emotional health. Given what’s happened over the past few years, from the pandemic to the cost of living crisis, combined with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and stress, it’s no wonder that it’s rippling into the mainstream.”