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19 Jun

Cold Water Therapy

WaterfallYou’re in the middle of a nice, hot shower, feeling your muscles relax, the day’s tension (or night’s sleepiness) melt away. As you bask in the quiet moment of repose, suddenly your body gets a startling jolt. After a second of disoriented shock, you realize something has happened to the hot water. Did someone start the washer? Is the water heater going berserk? Your hopes of relaxation now dashed, your stress level through the roof, you finish only the most obligatory rinsing and step out of the shower cursing, muttering and shivering as you reach for your towel.

But does a cold shower need to ruin the day? Can they actually be more than a nuisance, but a legitimate health therapy as some say? We thought we’d do some digging to explore the notion MDA reader Alex recently put forth: “The way Grok kept himself clean sure wasn’t with sustained periods of temperature controlled hot water. Maybe we shouldn’t either.” The results we found were very intriguing (and encouraging) indeed.

The underlying premise of cold water therapy is that briefly and somewhat regularly exposing the body to certain kinds of natural stresses (like cold water) can enhance health. Promoters of cold water therapy say that it can boost immune function, decrease inflammation and pain, and increase blood flow. Some argue that a shower setting is suitable, while others say some level of immersion is necessary for real benefit. What does the research say? Here’s what we found.

The benefits of cold water therapy appear to depend on the subject’s adaptation over time. In other words, regular polar dips seem to enhance long term health, but a single cold burst in the shower won’t offer much beyond a good wake-up jolt. The power of cold water therapy, it seems, is in the habituation itself.

In studies comparing regular winter swimmers with subjects not adapted to cold immersion, winter swimmers showed an ability “to survive a significantly greater temperature gradient between body and environment than non-cold-adapted subjects.” Their advantage over the non-adapted subjects was a modification of the “sensory functions of hypothalamic thermoregulatory centres to lower heat loss and produce less heat during cold exposure.” The researchers concluded that regular winter swimmers show “metabolic, hypothermic and insulative” kinds of adaptation to cold temperatures.

Shower

Cold showers, research shows, can help this habituation process, but only water at 10 degrees Celsius (as opposed to 15 degrees C) made a difference. Habituation also seems to be somewhat long-term. In a British study, subjects’ responses showed that habituation to cold water lasted 7-14 months as measured by respiration and heart rate.

Some of the specific benefits? A German study examined oxidative stress associated with ice-bathing in regular winter swimmers and found these swimmers showed an “adaptive response” through enhanced “antioxidative defense” as measured by several blood markers.

Other research highlighting cold water’s effect on immunity shows an increase in both the number and activity of peripheral cytotoxic T lymphocytes in those regularly exposed to cold therapies.

Full body cold water immersion and cryotherapy (cold air chamber) also resulted in a sustained increase in norepinephrine, which substantiates the long-term pain relief touted by cold therapy promoters. Exposure to cold also increases metabolic rate.

Finally, the benefits of cold water therapy show promise for those with chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic heart failure, and some (non-lymphoid) types of cancers.

Ice Plunge

So, are you intrigued yet? Though the jury may still be out on some of the findings related to specific medical conditions, healthy individuals seem to have much to gain from the cold. It’s all about upregulating our systems, taxing them in a healthy, natural way like intermittent fasting. While the findings don’t suggest people should, in the name of health, give up hot showers altogether (who would give them up even if they did!) Alex may have a legitimate point after all. We will be keeping our eyes and ears open for new research around cold water therapy for future posts.

Some specific suggestions based on the findings? Very cold showers appear to be beneficial for the purpose of habituation, but we’d recommend alternating them occasionally with immersion when you can. Those of you in Northern climates might have more fun and social occasions (e.g. New Year’s polar dips) for such an exercise, but we can all spare the water heater for a day now and then for a nice cold dip in the old tub.

Thoughts? Questions? Fun stories of your own polar hydro-adventures? We’d love to hear your take.

GoGap, Mario Sepulveda, freezelight Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy?

Hot To: Intermittent Fasting

What is The Primal Blueprint?

Drink Less Water?

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. while I don’t “go primal” I do engage in in short, high intensity workouts 1-2x per week and the cold pool at my gym is amazing the night of my workouts for relieving soreness. I’m 42 yrs old so muscle and joint stiffness come more frequently but the cold pool (up to the neck for 15 min) is a big treat for me.

    herb jones wrote on April 30th, 2012
  2. <>

    It will do nothing but improve their gemital health actually.. cold water, is not ice, it is cold water! Usually water at depth rarely dips below 4 degrees C (the anomalous expanion of water, it is denser at 4C than above or below that temp)

    Harry Mann wrote on May 2nd, 2012
  3. I do two sessions of 10-15 min. per day when I’m home or shower in cold water for 3-5 min. when on the road.
    The water temp. at home is about 54 deg. F. I use a 100 gal. horse tub from Rubbermaid, $100 and added a drain. I’m 56 and trying to get in top shape for the rest of my life which I expect to be around 90. My plan is to live long and die short. All the best.

    jeff wrote on June 24th, 2012
  4. There is a well knwon fact in Northern India that up to 50% of modern disease can be prevented with cold water baths and showers however they must never be undertaken straight after excercise and you should always wait until sweat has dried

    Natural Healer wrote on July 30th, 2012
  5. Good read, as someone who plunges into cold pool after a sauna several times a week I found it interesting. Ive always wondered what the shock effect is now I know, it’s feels even more shocking coming out of a sauna and diving into a cold plunge 15C. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and do so as it makes me feel good. I’d like to learn more about the science behind what is going on, especially the sauna. Ironically I have a teenage child with CFS and am going to try hard to get her to take the plunge from now on!!
    Geoff in SW Oz

    Geoff Holt wrote on July 9th, 2013
  6. Back in 2009 I got hot and sweaty whilst out on my bike, then the eve got cold and I had to cycle back home 8 miles in a soaked top and it was hell. This gave me major shivers as it seemed to upset my skin somehow and felt shivery and chilly but sweaty for 3 years after and could not work out if I was hot or cold. Docs couldnt find anything wrong with me, all blood tests ok but I felt at a loss what to do. I then went on hol (Oct 2012) to a spa hotel where they had a steam room and plunge pool which I did both all week, and I think it kind of helped with my symptoms and felt quite ok end of last year and up to about a month ago where I got a chill and the cold sweats and feeling cold but sweaty have returned with a vengeance. Any form of cold makes me wrap up (nine layers), so I am wondering if cold bath treatment might work for me again or make things even worse for me this time. I have started taking steam rooms again this week at the gym but they dont have a plunge pool only a drench shower in the spa area which is too much of a shock. I am desperate to be “normal” again and be able to go out on my bike or walking without having to take multiple tops to change into due having to wrap up as I feel cold and shivery, but sweating underneath.

    Constructive comments welcome.

    Nine Layer Nige wrote on September 2nd, 2013
  7. How long is it best to stay immersed in 10 degree Celsius water?

    Lily wrote on January 17th, 2014
  8. Thank you for the good article.
    The most important aspect in my
    opinion is the activation of brown fat,
    though….

    Hauke wrote on February 13th, 2014
  9. I have also heard that immersing your face in a bowl of ice cold water for 30 seconds several times helps to reduce stress and improve sleep. Does anyone have experience with this technique?

    Greg wrote on July 8th, 2014

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