Cold Showers Can Boost Immunity, Improve Metabolism, and May Even Make You Happier

Taking a cold shower a few times a week is gaining in popularity as a way to improve health. According to some experts, a cold shower can improve your body and mind in several unexpected ways.
Cold Showers Can Boost Immunity, Improve Metabolism, and May Even Make You Happier
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Allison DeMajistre
Taking a cold shower a few times a week is gaining popularity as a way to improve health. According to some experts, a cold shower can improve your body and mind in several unexpected ways.

The History of Cold Therapy

Cold water therapy or cold water immersion (CWI) has been a source of health promotion in various cultures worldwide, and documentation of its beneficial effects dates back to 3500 B.C. when Edwin Smith Papyrus wrote about cold being used for therapeutic purposes. Ancient Greeks used cold water for relaxation and socialization. Hippocrates even made the statement that “the water can cure everything.”
In the 20th century, Edgar A. Hines Jr. helped to explain how CWI works in the body and how it affects blood pressure and the autonomic nervous system, which plays a significant role in heart rate variability. By the early 2000s, cold water was known to help athletes recover from exercise and reduce inflammation.

Current Cold Therapy

Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman,” earned his nickname by breaking world records related to cold exposure, including swimming underneath ice for 217 feet (66 meters) and submerging himself in ice cubes for over 112 minutes. According to his website, he’s learned to control his breathing, heart rate, and circulation by exposing himself to extreme conditions.
He developed the Wim Hof Method (WHM) and has subsequently started teaching people worldwide how to control their minds and bodies by mastering the cold through breathwork, cold therapy, and commitment.
His followers are the first to claim that the WHM can boost the immune system, improve sleep, increase energy, and help the body heal.

Health Benefits

You don’t need to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts to experience the benefits of cold therapy. A cold shower a few times a week could lead to positive and lasting physiological changes by producing a state of hormesis. This phenomenon creates a beneficial effect on the body with exposure to seemingly harmful or stressful agents. Forcing the body into thermogenesis, or heat production, under the stress of being cold produces hormesis and can ultimately lead to better health.

Strengthens Immunity

The shock from a hot to a cold shower for a minute or two could protect you from circulating viruses by stimulating white blood cell production. One study from the Netherlands called the "Cool Challenge" found that people who took regular cold showers for 90 days had a reduction in sick days from work. Another study indicated that a cold shower could create resistance to certain types of cancer. Researchers proposed that mice briefly exposed to cold each day increased T cells and natural killer cells and that some form of cold therapy could become a treatment option for some cancers as adjunctive immunotherapy.

Stimulates Metabolism 

There are two types of fat: brown fat, also called brown adipose tissue (BAT), and white fat. White fat is the type we associate with obesity and heart disease. However, everyone is born with brown fat, and since babies can’t shiver, brown fat helps keep them warm. Early research led to the idea that brown fat is completely gone in adulthood, and only white fat remains. However, recent research has found active brown fat in adults, typically after cold exposure.

Chiropractor Dr. Ben Carvosso says, “BAT is the superhero of fat tissue. Unlike its plain white counterpart that stores energy, BAT generates heat and helps burn calories.”

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that healthy young men exposed to cold for two hours a day over 20 days experienced a 45 percent increase in metabolically active brown fat volume, demonstrating that cold exposure can increase its oxidative capacity to improve metabolic health.
In another study of healthy men exposed to warm or cold temperatures for two hours, researchers identified cold-activated brown fat in about half of the participants. At a temperature of about 81 F, the two groups had little difference in energy expenditure. However, after two hours of cold exposure at 66 F, energy expenditure increased in both groups. Cold-induced thermogenesis, or heat production, was 252 calories daily in brown fat-positive men and only 78.4 calories daily in brown fat-negative men.
The continuous activation of brown fat may aid in fat loss. However, additional studies could help determine how much brown fat can be activated to achieve clinical improvements in weight loss.

Improves Insulin Sensitivity

Activating nonshivering thermogenesis by taking cold showers may be an effective therapeutic strategy to improve metabolic health for obese people with Type 2 diabetes. People with a higher percentage of body fat usually have less brown fat; cold exposure has been shown to increase brown fat volume and BAT activity in people with high white body fat.
A study published in Nature Medicine (pdf) found that men with Type 2 diabetes had improved insulin sensitivity after short-term cold exposure. The men's brown fat volume and metabolic activity increased, even though the levels were much lower than those typically seen in healthy people. The men's peripheral insulin sensitivity increased by approximately 43 percent, producing better skeletal muscle glucose uptake and reducing overall blood glucose levels.

Boosts Mood

One consistent physiological response to cold exposure is the release of norepinephrine and dopamine into the bloodstream and the locus coeruleus, the brain's main source of dopamine and norepinephrine production. These two chemicals play an integral role in the mood- and cognitive-enhancing effects of cold exposure.

Low levels of either norepinephrine or dopamine are generally associated with inattention, decreased cognitive ability, low energy, and poor mood. Pharmacological depletion of norepinephrine can lead to depression; both ADHD and depression are often treated with norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor medications.

A study with 92 medically stable adults diagnosed with depression who underwent 10 whole-body cryotherapy sessions showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms while reporting improved quality of life and mood. Researchers found that cold therapy reduces mental health deterioration in mood disorders, especially depression, and can improve mental well-being. It was also noted as a useful way to improve standard pharmacological treatment.
Findings from a case report suggest that a cold shower for two to three minutes at a temperature of 68 F, preceded by a five-minute gradual adaptation period to make the temperature change less shocking, may relieve depressive symptoms when performed once or twice daily for several weeks to months.

How to Take a Cold Shower

If you’re ready to start making cold showers part of your daily routine, Dr. Carvosso offers specific recommendations. “Start a cold shower with a water temperature of around 50 to 60 F for five to 10 minutes. If it’s too cold at the start, you can try short bursts of coolness and gradually level up.”
Additional suggestions from chiropractor and fitness expert Dr. Eric Berg include:
  1. Run cold water over different body parts to adjust to the temperature.
  2. Relax and take deep breaths.
  3. Put on relaxing music for distraction.
  4. Shower after exercise.
  5. Try starting with cold and ending with hot water.

Cold Shower Precautions

Cold showers are considered generally safe, yet speaking with a doctor before starting cold water therapy is important, particularly for those with known cardiovascular problems or Raynaud's phenomenon.

Dr. Carvosso told The Epoch Times: “If you’re doing anything more than a cold shower, such as a cold water plunge into a lake, beware of hypothermia—especially if you stay submerged for a long period.” He also suggests listening to your body. “If you start shivering like crazy, it’s time to start warming up.”

However, Dr. Helene Glassberg, an associate professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview with the Today show that people with known heart disease or a risk of heart disease should not risk the potential consequences. An abrupt submersion in cold water could put certain people at risk for heart complications such as heart attack or stroke.

Cold therapy for health purposes is an ancient practice and can be beneficial physiologically and mentally as long as it’s conducted safely with a health provider’s guidance. It may take time and practice to acclimate to a cold shower, but it is a promising lifestyle intervention that can improve health in various ways.

Allison DeMajistre, BSN, RN, CCRN is a freelance medical writer for The Epoch Times. She is a registered nurse who previously worked in critical care. She specializes in cardiology-related topics.