The History of Cold TherapyCold 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.”
Current Cold TherapyWim 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.
Health BenefitsYou 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 ImmunityThe 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 MetabolismThere 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.”
Improves Insulin SensitivityActivating 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.
Boosts MoodOne 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.
How to Take a Cold ShowerIf 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.”
- Run cold water over different body parts to adjust to the temperature.
- Relax and take deep breaths.
- Put on relaxing music for distraction.
- Shower after exercise.
- Try starting with cold and ending with hot water.
Cold Shower PrecautionsCold 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.”
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.