Cold showers better than a caffeine hit to kickstart body and mind for day

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Participants in a Dutch study said taking a cold shower gave them an energy surge.

Stepping into a cold shower first thing on a chilly morning may not exactly appeal. But a bracing early-morning blast could be the route to better mental and physical health.

Taking a daily cold shower is said to help with everything from headaches, stress and skin to workout recovery and mental resilience, and is increasingly popular with a growing number of gym-goers and business executives.

Last year the cold-shower trend swept California’s Silicon Valley, with tech high-flyers attributing it to helping them to cope with stress. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, 42, says taking a cold shower is one of his daily health habits, calling it better than coffee.

Cold showering is promoted by several wellbeing manuals.

Most proponents claim that 30 to 90 seconds with the dial as low as it will go at the end of a warm shower will bring benefits. And the more often you do it (daily ideally) the greater your tolerance. Among the most recent advocates is Andreas Michalsen, professor of clinical complementary medicine at the Charite University Medical Centre Berlin and the author of the bestseller The Natural Prescription.

“I start by directing a jet of cold water at my outer right foot,” he writes. “Then I move upward to the groin, and back down again on the inside of the leg; after that I repeat the process with my left foot and left leg.”

He then sprays cold water on his arms, chest, face and back. It’s uncomfortable at first, he concedes, but soon you “look forward to the invigorating and refreshing effect”.

Katja Pantzar, the author of Finding Sisu — sisu being a Finnish word for a kind of everyday courage — takes freezing showers of 15 to 30 seconds every day.

“When I emerge from a cool shower my whole body tingles and then feels reinvigorated,” she says. “Shivering dissipates and a sense of calm follows, which is especially useful if I’m stressed and can’t sleep.”

There is some scientific basis to such claims. Cold receptors in the skin respond to a freezing shower by sending electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain.

According to researchers, it ­results in the sympathetic nervous system boosting levels in the blood of feel-good hormones such as endorphins and neurotransmitters, including noradrenaline.

Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of medicine reported that taking a 20C shower for two to three minutes — “preceded by a five-minute gradual adaptation to make the procedure less shocking” — once or twice daily seemed to have a mood-boosting and “antidepressive” effect on people who tried it for several months.

Cold receptors in the skin respond to a freezing shower by sending electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain.

And in a study last year involving more than 3000 volunteers, Dutch researchers reported that people who ended their showers with a 30-second hit of cold water were less likely to call in sick.

Participants also said taking a cold shower gave them an energy surge that felt similar to a caffeine hit each morning, with 64 per cent continuing the ritual after the trial had ended.

Many believe exposing the body to extremes of temperature creates a sort of “positive stress” that bolsters inner steel and relieves negative mental tension.

It’s a theory that has been popularised by Joel Runyon, the American ­ultrarunner and blogger who trademarked the term Cold Shower Therapy after making a TED talk in 2012 in which he extolled the virtues of shunning hot water.

Runyon says doing it regularly makes you feel invincible, which presumably is why taking cold showers has taken off in the business world.

His talk has since been viewed almost a million times, and you can download an official CST app.

Short, cool showers also are recommended for eczema by dermatologists. They also boost circulation by stimulating blood flow to maintain body temperature. Many top athletes take ice baths and cold showers as part of their recovery from intense training sessions.

Chilly water lowers muscle temperature, and the theory is that this enhances repair by reducing inflammation.

However, there is little convincing data to suggest the practice relieves aching muscles. Indeed, several studies, including one at the Queensland University of Technology in 2016, have found cold-water immersion to be no more effective at speeding up recovery than an old-fashioned cool-down.

“Research on markers of inflammation shows some positive and some neutral results towards cold-water immersion being beneficial,” says Robert Allan, a lecturer in human physiology at the University of Central Lancashire.

“So the consensus currently is that we don’t quite have enough information to suggest it can be helpful in exercise recovery, although there is also little evidence to suggest it has a negative impact.”

One way it may help is by tricking the mind into feeling less post-workout soreness.

“The key psychological boost is the analgesic properties of cold and the influence it has on perception of pain,” Allan says.

If you want to learn more about the mental and physical health benefits related to open water swimming and cold exposure, feel free to join our ICEWIM Facebook group.

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