Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Cold showers and ice baths have been linked to reduced inflammation and better moods.
Will Ahmed, CEO of next-level fitness tracker Whoop, is in the business of leveling up his life. And aside from regular meditation and exercise, he says the most critical part of his morning routine involves getting comfortable with discomfort in an ice-cold shower.
“The colder the better. In Boston, where I live, a cold shower is quite cold,” he says. “I’ve found it helps me focus and improves my mood—there's something to be said for doing things that naturally make you happier.”
Ahmed isn’t the only person who looks forward to getting frigid. There’s this increasingly common idea that taking a cold shower (or dunking yourself in a cold tub) doesn’t just look totally rad, but it’ll help your muscles—and your mind—feel better. But what does science say, and who can actually benefit? The experts gave us the rundown.
What Does Cold Water Really Do?
It’s important to say off the bat that the science is a little all over the place. But are a few specific benefits to cold water immersion that have fairly good support in the research.
One of the most-often touted benefits to the practice is its ability to help with pain relief. Exposure causes blood vessels to constrict, which can help to numb and reduce pain, says Dan Giordano, DPT, CSCS, and co-founder of Bespoke Treatments. It can also help the body thermoregulate after activity on warm days—prevent overheating and help you get back to a safe, normal temp, in layman’s terms.
Research shows that the cold water can also help boost your mood by activating the sympathetic nervous system, increasing the availability of endorphins and norepinephrine — a neurotransmitter that’s typically secreted by the body in response to stress. In other words, aside from being extra awake, getting really cold can make you a little happier. “Because there are so many cold receptors in the skin, the experience sends electrical impulses to the brain which increases norepinephrine, which increases brain focus and release of endorphins and makes you happy. And who doesn’t want that?” asks Giordano.
What's the Catch?
First of all, it’s important that you’re willing to keep your cool when getting cool. Exposing yourself to cold while working to control your breath will help unlock some of the benefits mentioned above. But without that critical sense of control, your body might panic, with an increased heart rate, potentially a fluctuating heart rhythm. This is not what you want. One famous approach to staying calm is the Wim Hof Method, named after the Dutch advocate of cold exposure.
And then some studies suggest that ice baths may actually hinder muscle growth you’re aiming for, because they interrupt (or delay) the inflammation process. When you shock your system with a cool blast, the blood vessels constrict. While that sounds like a good thing, inflammation is an integral part to muscle adaptation, says Corinne Croce, DPT, co-founder of Body Evolved.
“The body does a great job of recovering after normal amounts of stress, like a regular workout or run,” she says. “When you’re breaking into the body's natural way of healing, you actually slow down the whole process. You're messing with mother nature's organic system.”
Is Cryotherapy the Same Thing?
Not at all. Whole-body cryotherapy, sometimes called WBC, is entirely different. This process uses gasified liquid nitrogen to cool the air around a willing participant in an enclosed chamber with temperatures under 212 degrees below zero. (If you’ve seen someone on Instagram in an expensive gym, wincing while surrounded by clouds of fog, that’s likely what’s going on.) According to MarketWatch, the cryotherapy industry is expected to grow to $4.29 billion in the United States by 2023, something that frightens Giordano. “The research just isn’t there,” he says. “Nitrogen doesn’t conduct the same as water, and a lot of these popular cryotherapy destinations are citing research around cold water immersion, suggesting that their chambers and techniques provide the same results.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) concurs with Giordano. There is no WBC device that is cleared by the administration to support the range of claims that popular cryotherapy centers offer—everything from weight loss to reduced risk of depression.
“You may think they’re making a difference,” says Giordano. “But why spend all of your money on something that has not been proven when you could simply get into a cold shower for free?”
So When Should You Be Doing It?
Cold water immersion is safe to do for all types of people, and you don’t need to be an elite athlete to try to reap the feel-good benefits. It’s safe to do regularly, and Croce recommends trying least once weekly. Giordano suggests building up to five minutes in a tub or shower, and starting at three. “Just make sure never to exceed 10 minutes," he says—frostbite is a sure sign you've had too much of a good thing.
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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This article was first published on https://www.gq.com/story/cold-showers-and-ice-baths-to-be-fitter-and-happier?