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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 02 2018

The (Maybe Not So) Definitive Guide to Cold Therapy

By Mark Sisson
70 Comments

inline_Cold Water Therapy.jpegCold is really catching these days. Aubrey Marcus, whom I recently filmed a nice podcast with, was asked about his winning daily behaviors on another show. The very first thing he mentioned was “exposure to cold.” His practice is finishing his morning shower with a three-minute stint at full cold setting. He mentioned the hormonal benefits but also the mental edge he gets from psyching up and accepting the challenge instead of wimping out. He also cited research that people who engage in therapeutic cold exposure catch fewer upper respiratory infections. Hence, like many other elements of conventional wisdom, the old wives tale is backwards. Of course, we are talking about acute and optimal duration cold exposure, not prolonged exposure to elements that weaken your resistance and contribute to immune disturbances.

As with keto, there’s much more to be learned in this burgeoning field before we can operate in definitive (hence today’s title). Today, however, I’ll expose you (the first of more double entendrés to be on the lookout for) to important concepts and best practices so that you may enjoy the vaunted benefits and avoid some of the negative effects of going about cold exposure wrong.

Cold therapy has been around forever as in the athletic world—a central element of injury treatment and post-workout recovery. Ice packs wrapped on aching joints are a staple of every high school, college and professional team locker room. The iconic stainless steel cold whirlpool has been a post-workout destination of professional ballers for decades, and Olympic distance runners have inspired millions of recreational runners to dutifully wade into a cold stream, lake or pool after long runs to soothe and revitalize inflamed muscles. In recent years, whole body cryotherapy clinics have exploded in popularity, making grand promises in return for $45-$90 (the latter in NYC) for a three-minute session in a chamber blowing air at 190-255 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I haven’t tried cryo, but let’s just say I’ve heard it stings.

In writing Primal Endurance, my co-author Brad Kearns and I studied the cold therapy subject extensively to convey some best practices in the recovery chapter of the book. For this article, we also consulted with Dr. Kelly “K-Starr” Starrett—thought leader on all things mobility, rehab, prevention, and performance (check MobilityWOD.com or Becoming A Supple Leopard for cutting edge strategies that will keep you moving optimally and avoiding breakdown and injury) and reviewed numerous articles, which you will find linked or at the end of the post.

It appears that while cold therapy can offer some proven benefits for inflammation control, enhanced cellular, immune, and cognitive function, and recovery from exercise, numerous elements of cold therapy claims seem to be hype, notably the expensive cryochambers (cold water is better) and the potential of cold exposure to reduce body fat (cut grains and sugars instead!) Worse, the prominent cold therapy practice of post-exercise immersion into cold water or application of ice appears to be counterproductive, compromising potential fitness gains generated by hard workouts.

What NOT To Do…

The most emphatic suggestion made by K-Starr is that cold exposure should happen far away from the stimulus of workouts. While it feels soothing to wade into the icy river right after a run or to relax with an ice pack on your back after a pickup basketball game or CrossFit session, blunting post-exercise inflammation can compromise the adaptive response to workouts, of which inflammation is a critical component. Your muscles becoming inflamed during exercise—and remaining that way for hours afterward are part of how they become stronger and more resilient for future performances. In the hours after workouts, your muscles and other body systems are challenged to naturally repair exercise-induced damage, recalibrate to homeostasis, and replenish depleted cellular energy. Cold exposure also inhibits the function of the lymphatic system in clearing inflammatory toxins from the bloodstream. The takeaway: while cold feels great after workouts, don’t do it.

Furthering this concept about letting inflammation run its course, I know world ranked pro triathletes are experimenting with a complete avoidance of not just cold therapy, but also stretching, massage, and myofascial release (foam rolling.) The thinking here is that when those lower back muscles stiffen after 80 miles of hilly cycling, or hamstrings tighten up after a set of 800s on the track, loosening them up with massage strokes or foam rolling will weaken them and counteract the training stimulus. Again, these unwinding therapies might feel great, but you are teaching the central nervous system to relax the muscles that you just asked to contract with great force and duration for the workout. Andrew MacNaughton, former elite pro triathlete and current coach of both top professionals and recreational endurance athletes, says succinctly: “Don’t help your body, otherwise you lose some of the adaptation you’re seeking through your challenging workouts.”

The stuff is so counterintuitive that it becomes intuitive. Are you with me? Consider how it’s now widely understood that static stretching weakens muscles for up to 30 minutes and that you should not static stretch before workouts. This seems like a related principle applied to post workout. Keep in mind that we are isolating this “leave it be” concept to the topic of fitness adaptation. If you are trying to recover from (or prevent) injuries, massage, stretching, and foam rolling can make a valuable contribution—even in and around workouts as directed by an expert. Good old ice is still a recommended treatment in the immediate aftermath of an acute injury to help contain the swelling to the injured ankle (e.g., pickup basketball game) or eye (e.g., parking lot fight after pickup basketball game.)

However, the now dated RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) protocol for injury healing after the ~24-hour acute phase has been replaced by ECM (Elevate, Compress, and Move). Starrett is a leading advocate for ECM, with the emphasis on Move as the top priority for those sprained ankles or stiff calves. Look at some of K-Starr’s stuff on YouTube (like the amazing Voodoo Floss treatment), or read Becoming a Supple Leopard, and you’ll realize that many of today’s soothing therapies and gadgets can be bested by flexibility/mobility drills to help you move with more efficiency and less injury risk in the first place.

Back to cold therapy—it appears the greatest benefits accrue to the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune system rather than the muscles. It’s difficult if not impossible for cold exposure to speed the healing of muscle damage incurred during training. Patience and increased general everyday movement are the big ticket items here.

In recent years, I’ve made a concerted effort to take frequent short walks or perform very light calisthenics or mobility sequences in the hours after a high intensity sprint workout or Ultimate Frisbee match, and it really seems to help me wake up the following day with less stiffness. My Primal Collagen Fuel regimen deserves tons of credit here too; it’s been an absolute game changer, particularly as I continue to insist on doing explosive jumps, burst and lateral movement against fit 20- and 30-somethings on the Ultimate field (yes, I’ve discovered that there are some big time gamers in Miami too!)

So, Should I Shell Out Like Cristiano Ronaldo For Cyrotherapy?

I was suspicious of the cryotherapy craze from the start, and Starrett concurs. Research is building that cryotherapy doesn’t deliver the same level of benefit that water exposure does. Starrett even observes that folks following a devoted cryo regimen don’t seem to tolerate cold water very well! Instead, for the price of only a handful of cryo sessions, I suggest you instead go to the cutting edge of cold therapy with an inexpensive and easily-accessible chest freezer regimen—details shortly.

When Is The Best Time For Cold Therapy?

Allow for a minimum of a couple hours, preferably more, after workouts before introducing cold exposure. Perhaps the best time for cold exposure is first thing in the morning for a cellular and central nervous system energizer, and also right before bed in order to help lower body temperature—a key element of transitioning into a good night’s sleep.

Chest Freezers: Not Just For Grass-Fed Beef Anymore

If you’re in Finland or in the Colorado rockies and have a year-round cold lake or river nearby (shout out to body hacking guru Ben Greenfield, author of Beyond Training and host of Ben Greenfield Podcast, who indeed has a cold river running through his property outside Spokane, WA), hey—you’re good to go! For the rest of us who don’t have a readily available natural source of cold water that’s reliably under 60 degrees (a good upper limit to observe for therapeutic practices, down to a lower limit of just above freezing), it’s time to talk about the wonder world of the chest freezer. Yep, the same item previously recommended on MDA for storing big orders of Internet-sourced grass-fed beef and other bulk-order treasures.

The idea here is to repurpose a chest freezer into a readily available, any time, any place cold plunge (even Miami, although I don’t think my high rise would allow me to sneak one into the first floor fitness center.). My Primal Endurance and Keto Reset Diet co-author Brad Kearns has plunged deep into the cold therapy scene (that’s #3 double-e if you’re keeping score) with a deluxe chest freezer setup and twice-a-day regimen of brief immersion into near-freezing water.

What you do here is take a 12-15 cubic foot, top opening chest freezer, fill it with water, and then run the motor on a timer for only around 1.5-4 hours per day—depending on the power of your unit, your ambient temperatures, and your desired exposure temperature. For a moderate investment of perhaps $200 on Craigslist or $400 for an ample-sized new unit (Brad grabbed this one with free home delivery), you are in the cold therapy business.

Brad’s preferred water temperature is 33 ºF (icicle alert!), maintained through continual tweaking of the 24-hour timer. Other enthusiasts like to keep water anywhere from 45-60 degrees, with exposure times ranging from 4 minutes at 44 degrees (easy to remember, per Dave Kobrine in Newport Coast, CA—Brad’s initial inspiration for cold therapy) to nearly 10 minutes at 60 degrees. Starrett, who keeps his water in the forties and has twice-weekly gatherings of friends for what he calls “church services” consisting of contrast therapy between chest freezer and hot sauna, confirms that there are no strict protocols to tout as superior to others, and surely significant individual variation in cold tolerance. “Get out before you start shivering!,” Starrett exclaims. “Never stay in to the extent that you suffer or experience pain or burning. Gabby and Laird suggest that if you’re in there long enough to shiver, you’re just showing off.”

Brad describes how he used to set a timer for three minutes at 33 ºF and tried to last that long but then realized that this could compromise the intended purpose of enjoying a Zenlike, mood-elevating start to the day. Instead, he prefers to start with a full submerging, then move hands and head out of water to complete a cycle of 20 slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths while otherwise fully immersed—which ends up taking around three minutes. As cold water master Wim Hof has popularized lately, pairing a breathing regimen with your cold water immersion will enhance the circulation and oxygen delivery benefits.

Check out Brad’s video (completed in only one take), in which he describes (coherently, while sitting in freezing water) the benefits and setup logistics—everything you need to get started:

Benefits of Cold Exposure

The shock of cold exposure stimulates assorted fight or flight hormonal processes, which deliver an adaptive benefit because the stressor is brief. Contrast the prolonged fight or flight stimulation of hectic modern life (or exposing yourself to cold for too long and catching a cold—duh), which leads to breakdown and burnout.

Optimally brief cold exposure is a hormetic stressor—a natural stressor that delivers a net positive effect. Your heart rate and respiration increase as a way to try and keep warm, increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery throughout the body. Norepinephrine floods your brain, boosting vigilance, focus, attention and mood, and reducing pain and inflammation. The norepinephrine spike from cold exposure delivers what we often call an endorphin rush—natural pain relief and an enhanced sense of well-being.

Dr. Rhonda Patrick, one of the absolute best communicators of cutting edge health and longevity science anywhere, cites research that norepinephrine can rise 200-300 percent with just a 20-second immersion into freezing water a couple times a week (imagine going three minutes, twice a day like Brad—no wonder he was such a big help with this article). Patrick explains that norepinephrine also helps reduce inflammation by inhibiting inflammatory cytokines like the noted bad guy TNF-alpha, a known accomplice in many modern disease patterns.

Quelling inflammatory cytokines is also believed to help battle anxiety and depression. A researcher named Nikolai Shevchuk was quoted in a Fast Company article by Chris Gayomali, speculating about the mechanisms by which cold exposure can boost mood: “probably the stimulation of the dopaminergic transmission in the mesocorticolimbic and nigrostriatal pathway. These dopaminergic pathways are known to be involved in the regulation of emotions. There is a lot of research linking these brain areas to depression.” Indeed, it’s been chronicled that VanGogh was treated in an asylum for depression with two-hour cold baths, twice a week, to combat his well-known condition of depression.

Further tidbits were offered in the Fast Company article from Australian cold water researcher Ned Brophy-Williams on the anti-inflammatory benefits of cold water immersion: “It moves blood from the peripheral to deep blood vessels, thereby limiting inflammation and swelling and improving venous return. Metabolites and waste products built up during exercise can be efficiently removed by the body and nutrients quickly replenished to fatigued muscles.”

Carrying on if you’re still not convinced… Your lymphatic system is activated by cold exposure, helping speed the clearance of toxins from tissues throughout the body. You also elicit an enhanced anti-oxidative defense with increased T cell activity to improve your immune function.

Finally, you may have heard Dr. Patrick promoting the hot topic of heat shock proteins, and how sauna/heat exposure can deliver assorted health benefits. Patrick also informs us that cold exposure releases so-called cold shock proteins such as RNA binding motif 3 (RBM3) that are linked to the regeneration of synapses in the same manner as heat shock proteins. As the Finns have known for centuries, it seems like temperature alterations—deliberate exposure to both cold and hot—deliver phenomenal health benefits.

Cold Exposure—The Right Way—To Boost Recovery

For fitness enthusiasts looking to speed recovery with cold therapy, it’s now clear that the immediate post-exercise inflammation reduction is potentially harmful, and that implementing a simple daily regimen of morning and/or evening exposure can deliver the aforementioned benefits without compromising fitness adaptations. In recent years during the winter months in Malibu, Carrie and I would end our evenings with some 104F spa time, interspersed by quick visits to the sub-60F pool and back to the spa. I’d always end with a few minutes in the pool, leaving me wonderfully relaxed, cool, and ready for sleep. Brad’s morning chest freezer ritual looks as good or better than a morning caffeine blast to get going on a busy, productive day.

Beyond the exciting emerging science, anecdotal evidence from enthusiasts also suggests that toughing out a cold shower or committing to a focused cold therapy regimen has profound mood elevating effects. Primal Blueprint’s own Brian McAndrew (yeah, check out what our guy behind the camera looks like!), who produces our podcasts and fabulous videos on both our YouTube Channel and our comprehensive online multimedia educational courses, has dabbled in cold exposure, using contrast therapy at his health club (going back and forth between the ~50F cold plunge and the sauna at his Portland, OR health club), or just lingering up to his torso in a wintertime cold swimming pool. Brian relates, “All I know is that the worse I made myself feel in the moment [by staying longer in the cold], the better I felt afterwards in regards to mood. This was true for both cold and hot. Having the cold plunge and sauna together lets you go to further extremes, because you know you can get immediate relief at any moment with contrasting cold or warmth.”

Cold Exposure Gives Meaning And Richness To Life—Really!

I believe there are other profound cold therapy benefits that are hard-to-quantify. Starrett contends that your cold exposure practice can serve as a good barometer for your state of recovery and desire to train. He asserts that sore, stiff, or poorly functioning muscles seem to be more sensitive to cold exposure, and that if you’re in a fatigue/overtraining rut, your tolerance to cold diminishes accordingly. K-Starr notices that when he’s fried from big workouts or stressful travel, the cold water stings and he wants out quickly. When he’s less stressed and more rested, he has no problem relaxing in there for up to eight minutes. Remember, he’s jumping right into a dry sauna. As Brian described, your exposure times can increase when you have access to a sweet contrast setup.

Starrett’s “desire to train” concept deserves further appreciation. In his set of exclusive video interviews in the Primal Endurance Mastery Course and the Keto Reset Mastery Course, he references studies with athletes suggesting that a subjective “desire to train” score is a more accurate indicator than any of the modern high tech biofeedback metrics like Heart Rate Variability, pulse oximeters, blood lactate meters, sleep cycle apps and all the rest. As an old timer whose endurance exploits predate even heart rate monitors, I strongly agree that your intuition, mood and motivation level should take center stage for making workout decisions, especially when it’s time to downsize grand ambitions. I know that when I take a few moments to sit quietly and reflect on my planned workout, sometimes profound insights occur, and I roll over and go back to sleep. Ditto for when I hesitate to jump into a routine cold shower or pool plunge (or get out earlier than usual)—it’s a reliable indicator that I’m overstressed or overtired.

Furthering Brian’s comments about the mood elevating effects of cold therapy, I’d also suggest that cold exposure helps improve your focus, confidence, and mental resilience—particularly since you will improve your tolerance and appreciation over time—and that these benefits will carry over into all other areas of life. Lift heavy things, sprint once in a while, get adequate sun exposure, plunge into cold water—these are all hormetic stressors that help you bring your A-game to everything you do. I’m not saying sitting in a chest freezer every morning will help you muster the courage to ask for a promotion, commit to enter an adventure race, or ask for a date with that certain person in the office, but it might help….

If you’re content to spend almost all 24 daily hours in a climate controlled home, car, and office, enjoy the wholly modern luxury of a hot shower a couple times a day, and never voluntarily subject yourself to the beautiful moments of discomfort like a cold plunge, the final few reps of a tough set in the gym, or the final few miles of a tough session on the roads, that’s fine. We can still be friends. But as many of us living Primally can attest, there are benefits to challenging the perceived limits of mind and body in order to stimulate peak performance and happiness. Sir Roger Bannister, the legendary first sub-four minute miler who passed in March at age 88, offered up a memorable quote in his 1954 biography, The Four Minute Mile: “Struggle gives meaning and richness to life.” One thing’s for sure after you try it out: you will appreciate a warm shower or a warm bed like never before.

Does Cold Exposure Stimulate Fat Reduction? Mehhh…

You may have heard exciting news about something called Brown Adipose Tissue (aka BAT, or brown fat), a special type of adipose tissue that has a different role in the body than the fat that accumulates across the body when you store more calories than you burn; this stuff is known as white adipose tissue. Instead of just storing calories like white fat, brown fat is also able to generate heat to help maintain the body’s ideal core temperature. Infants have lots of brown fat for extra protection. Brown fat levels dwindle as we age, and interestingly, obese people have lower than normal levels of brown fat.

The excitement about brown fat emanates from research showing that cold exposure spurs a fifteen-fold increase in brown fat activation. It’s theorized that this increase in cellular activity in brown adipose tissue can help stimulate the burning of additional white fat, making cold exposure an effective weight loss catalyst. The idea here is that the caloric energy your brown fat generates for rewarming will be burned instead of otherwise stored as white fat.

Research is not conclusive in the brown fat area, and scientists assert that it’s very difficult to measure the effect of environmental temperature on metabolism. It’s virtually certain that getting cold and then forcing yourself to warm naturally (no saunas or hot showers allowed!) will boost metabolic rate. However, I’d hesitate to put this in the forefront of fat reduction techniques. Even as drug companies are spending millions to unlock the power of brown fat (via cold exposure or drug-related means) to burn white fat, I’ll argue that ditching grains, sugars and refined vegetable oils to minimize insulin and boost fat metabolism might be a much better area of focus. What’s more, there is a logical counterargument that cold exposure might stimulate a corresponding increase in appetite that would counteract any potential fat reduction benefits. This makes sense along the lines of the compensation theory of exercise, detailed in a recent post about Rest and Recovery.

Ray Cronise, a former NASA materials scientist who oversaw Space Shuttle experiments and has been a prominent voice in progressive health circles for the past decade, has performed some increasingly sophisticated experiments that suggest the potential of cold exposure to boost fat loss. Cronise lost a remarkable 27 pounds in six weeks with a regimen of cold showers, talking neighborhood walks while purposely way underdressed, and sleeping with open windows and/or little or no covering. Cronise’s experiment was inspired by that infamous viral news story about Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps eating 12,000 calorie per day that I discussed in the recent Sami Inkinen post. Doing some basic metabolic calculations, Cronise speculated that Phelps was eating vastly more calories than he burned during his intense workouts, and that hence a significant portion of his caloric expenditure must be going toward maintaining his core temperature while spending hours in the water.

Tim Ferriss brought more attention to Cronise’s work and the concept of burning off brown fat through cold exposure when he covered the matter in his bestseller, The Four Hour Body. Google brown fat and you will find assorted chatter jumping to the conclusion that brown fat stimulation promotes weight loss, but the hard science is just not there—yet anyway. For now, I wouldn’t put much emphasis on cold exposure for fat loss, and instead be content to enjoy the many other benefits of cold therapy.

Nothing left to say but get yourself a chest freezer (another chest freezer?) and get started! Let me know what you think, and thanks for stopping by today.

A Few More Links For Your Enjoyment:
Tapping the Power Of Cold To Lose Weight
Scientific Case For Cold Showers
Top 7 Reasons You Should Take Cold Showers
Brown Fat Burns White Fat Studies
Surprising Benefits Of Cold Showers
Dr. Rhonda Patrick on health benefits of cold and sauna

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70 thoughts on “The (Maybe Not So) Definitive Guide to Cold Therapy”

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  1. I ended my morning showers through all of 2017 with 1–2 minutes cold (depending on the time of year anywhere from 42-60F). Definitely invigorating, but I noticed no other benefits in fat loss, or getting less sick. I still do it occasionally, but when you stop doing it the mental effort of turning the dial to cold gets harder and harder. I currently can’t imagine dunking in a chest freezer!

    1. I think getting into a groove with the mental effort is one of the profound benefits. That’s what Aubrey Marcus was saying on Lewis Howes podcast: facing that mini-challenge with enthusiasm puts you into a winning state of mind. I like saying that I do this every day and keeping that commitment. Like I said in the video, I am super super wimpy about cold in general. When I swam in master’s swim workouts as a triathlete, I would start shivering if the coach talked too long between sets. If you already have cold shower pedigree I’m sure you would love the chest freezer!

  2. Interesting and enjoyed reading but no thanks. I live in a cold climate, work in a cold office, and spend three quarters of the year trying to get/stay warm, lol. I’ve tried the cold shower approach numerous times and just do not find it the least bit enjoyable …

    1. yes I’ll bet this would be much more fun in the summer months. I have been enjoying the plunge even on rainy days because again, the idea is to not get to the point of shivering and eventually rewarm nicely. However, the heat shock proteins from the hot sauna give you similar benefits so if you have cold happening in daily life, sauna might be the ticket

      1. Thanks for that! I live in the cold, work inside with my coat on (AC blasting) so the last thing I want to do is get colder! Plus, sometimes in a cold room listening to a class I’ll pass out, a hypothermia thing I guess, I’ll take a sauna!

  3. I was always spraining my ankles when I was a kid. My dad would wrap the injured ankle in strips of an old sheet to support it. After elevating it for an hour or two (without icing it), I would be up and walking on it. By the next day it was still a little sore and maybe a bit bruised but the swelling would be gone. By the second day I could barely tell I’d sprained it.

    In the case of injuries, inflammation exists for a reason. I learned a long time ago that interfering with that process can be counterproductive and slow the healing process. Newer information supports that theory. Icing one’s self just ‘cuz, when no injury is present, is probably a different story, but frankly, the idea is so unappealing to me that I’ll probably limit it to a cool (not cold) shower on hot days.

  4. Chest freezer ? Come on, that’s nonsense ! Can’t people just keep it simple and also think a bit more about the environment and sparing energy ? I’ve a hard time seeing this as “Primal”.

    1. Good point, we have lots of modern adaptations for primal living, and this is one of them. The word “nonsense” does not seem appropriate. The power use sticker on my freezer said $41 per year, so that’s not much energy in context of driving a car, taking airplane flights…

      Re: keeping it simple and environmentally friendly and energetically friendly: Going to a grocery store, a butcher, a health club, wearing a running shoe. None of these are simple or “primal” by your literal definition. Why draw some arbitrary line where a chest freezer is nonsense? And consequently, what IS primal approved in your eyes?

      1. Buying a Freezer and powering it several hours a day JUST to have cold plunges is what I see as a problem, and opposite to living a “simple” and environmental friendly life. Going to the store/market and wearing running shoes are a necessity, having a chest freezer not. Mark advocates living “simple” and going back to the basics, to the nature, but still according to what modern life and technology offers. But I’m suprised seeing him pushing such practice forward.
        If you don’t have a natural cold water source around where you live, then take cold showers.

    2. I was wondering if a cold bath with ice cubes might have the same effect with less energy consumption, but then you need to replace the water constantly. In my climate, even the rivers are around 75 degrees F in the summer though- it’s hard to think of a natural cold source for those months.

  5. I can see where it would be positive to be less cold averse in terms of going out side and exposing one to the sun in the morning hours, or to do other things, but the idea of immersing myself in very cold water for minutes of a time leaves me……you know. 🙂

  6. Chest freezer is an enticing idea, lots easier than lugging icecubes and blocks to the tub. But I worry about submerging myself in an electrical appliance which has been filled with water. Just be SURE to unplug the thing before getting into it! Also, ice chests can take some weight but water is very heavy (8 lb a gallon), and I do wonder how the poor freezer holds up under this stress for which it was not designed. I’d love to have replies from folks who have used a cheap deep freeze for a while. Thanks!

    1. Dallas – Thanks! total space. Had the comment in an earlier video. I will edit the video with the warning to unplug and be on GFI.

  7. Comfort is not good for the organism. Our early ancestors were regularly subjected to cold temperatures. In the modern world though, we are rarely subjected to cold for any real duration or intensity… Let’s face it, who likes that uncomfortable frigid feeling that comes with bone chilling, can’t breath, I’m gonna die, cold; especially when we have access to Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee and copious comfort controls 24/7. In modern times, we simply put on some clothes… turn up the heater… or we avoid the cold altogether by staying inside.

    Our potential for strength and health remains encoded in our DNA, and under certain conditions, we can genetically express the strongest, healthiest version of ourselves. Those “certain conditions” almost always have to do with ancestral living… lifestyle (sun, soil, sleep, movement and cold) nose-to-tail nutrition and behavior.

    Great article! Thanks Mark!

    1. Maybe YOUR ancestors were regularly subjected to cold temperatures, but much of the world’s population lives in hot places. Their ancestors may never have been cold. I am sure they were uncomfortable in other ways, of course. And there are still plenty of people who are regularly subjected to too much discomfort (lack of food, inadequate water, hot temperatures without shelter) and their health is not at its best. I think we sometimes need to remember that these articles are written for the US and Western European context for the most part, and there is a VERY big difference between dabbling in discomfort and actually living it.

      1. I believe that we are all of one peoples… originating from Homo Erectus and continuing on today with us modern day Sapiens. I believe that we, and our animal brethren, breathe from the same air… that we drink from the same body of water… that we share the same life giving sun and forces that nourish our strikingly similar DNA. I believe that my fellow man is my brother and that my fellow woman is my sister. I believe that it’s in our ability to love, nurture and share the success of the hunt that we have become the very humans that we are.

        This is what I believe… this is my compass. Do we have some genetic variance (based on relatively recent ancestral divergence), of course we do, but not much. If our ancestors weren’t selected to survive the ice ages… if our ancestors didn’t develop survival mechanisms to endure true cold (and heat)… if our ancestors didn’t do these things, they probably wouldn’t be our ancestors… but they did do these things.

      2. I think it’s very important not to misinterpret what people mean by “discomfort” in the ancestral context, the same thing with “fasting”.

        Social inequality and true starvation (and especially malnutrition) in hunter-gatherer tribes were NOT issues (or at least, starvation was rarer than post-agricultural societies).

        The discomfort people who are not in the modern world live in is just as unnatural as the comfort our world lives in. They’re all out of balance, but in different directions. In the context of an ancestral context, discomfort is intermingled with community, feasts, comradeship and support, and a life full of wild adventures and exploration. You can’t have only discomfort; you also can’t do without it. You must simply try to find homeostasis by understanding what you’re lacking. That most of the world is forced in such unnatural patterns as malnutrition, diseases and war is… heartbreaking, to say the least.

        But we can’t very well neglect OUR needs (and discomfort is a need) – – we can’t help other people without helping ourselves first.

    1. Well the hormonal benefits and hormetic stressor effect mentioned in the article probably entails a bit more of a shock experience you know?

  8. If I accidentally get cold water in the shower I literally cannot breathe. I can tolerate quite a lot of cold, and muttering Win Hof’s name while breathing deeply helps, but choosing to have cold showers, plunges, or whatever is off my list. It’s painful. And cold viruses (the kind that cause the common cold) like cold conditions, so I’m wary. How did Grok manage in Africa?

    1. Hey Kate, yes that initial shock is what you want to aspire to breathe thru. I don’t understand you mentioning cold viruses in the message? What does that have to do with cold water?

      Momentary discomfort = good. Pain = not good. I encourage you to try again and know you can get out any time!!

      1. Hi, Brad. I mentioned the viruses just because they take advantage of cold temperatures in the nasal passages, so a low body temperature might suit them. But I believe you when you say cold can be good, it’s just that that initial shock seems to paralyse me – getting out may not be an option!

        1. Kate,
          The way I’ve been trying this out is to take a warm (not hot) shower. Then at the end, turn the warm off a little. Each day, strive for a little more cold water. Kind of baby-stepping my way to full cold for the last minute or two. I haven’t made it too all cold water at the end, but getting closer.

  9. I’ve often wondered, how cold is “enough?” For instance, if I fill my bathtub up with only cold water, is that OK. Also, is it really necessary to “plunge” into the water all at once? I’ve found sitting in an empty tub and letting the cold water fill around me much more pleasant and invigorating vs the shock (and hesitation) of trying to submerge in a filled tub.

    1. Hey Chris, let’s say want to expose yourself to cold till just before shivering…If you are in 75 degree water, you are going to eventually start getting cold. Might take an hour for a good swimmer, 30 min for an inexperienced. The colder the water the shorter the exposure time to stimulate hormonal benefits. That’s why I settled upon 33F after playing around in 40F and even 56F at first. I had a harder time spending 6 min at 56F than I do three min at 33F.

  10. I loathe cold. I moved to get away from cold permanently. If chilling my body extends my life then no. I will live a short life. I ^%$#@ hate being cold…. but I love the sauna.

    1. Hi Tube, I loathe being cold also. I do not like to be in an uncomfortable cold state. I will stop skiing when I get cold even if I popped for an expensive lift ticket. Hopefully this post conveyed the idea that this is about a hormetic stressor and not a suffering example.

  11. No mention of Dr Jack Kruse who was saying CT and it’s benifits a long while back.

    1. Sorry – he deserves some credit as an early pioneer for sure. As I recall he was going for very long stints in the ice, like Wim Hof, right?

  12. Very “cool”, most of us could do better about autophagy AND hormesis. I’ve been wimping out on cold exposure lately, this is a great reminder to get back to doing the the cold showers (I’ve been rationalizing kinda cold showers as being good enough) before and after sitting in the sauna, which I’m fortunate to have easy access to in a facility in our neighborhood. Totally immersing yourself in cold water is ideal though for sure. Happy Hormesis everyone! 😉

    1. I think jumping into a 33F tub is EASIER than a cold shower in some ways. we are so used to taking hot showers for comfort you know?

  13. Interesting but ignores the fact that people with certain medical conditions, especially heart conditions such as aortic stenosis, should not engage in any kind of cold therapy due to constriction.

    1. Good point. Hopefully the people with conditions don’t ignore those facts you know? Ill see about adding a PS for the long-term blog archive thanks

  14. This is my all time favorite MDA post. Love it. Been doing cold showers for years. They’re a simple effective way to exercise the brain, lymph and vascular system.

  15. I never wear a jacket unless it’s 20 degrees or lower. I train brutal but brief in the gym. But to be honest I have no desire to cold plunge zero. I also feel the same way about putting my head in a vice

    1. Hmm… Is CT why people run around in flipflops, shorts, and no jacket here in Colorado when it’s below freezing outside? The kids think it looks cool to freeze their butts off. (It doesn’t; it looks ridiculous.) But that didn’t explain why some adults do likewise. I always thought they were from the southern tier of the country and just hadn’t figured out that it gets cold here.

  16. I grew up in Sweden where it was completely normal to have school trips to a lake in the winter where there would be a wooden sauna and a frozen lake with a big hole in the ice. No one was forced to do any of this but all of us children loved it. For the heart fainted, sauna then rolling in the snow was enough. Rest of us would go at it for an hour ( into the sauna, then lake, then sauna, lake etc ). I think I was 8 years old first time we did it.
    Also it is very common for nurseries to take the trolleys with babies outside for an afternoon nap regardless of weather and let them nap outside for an hour or so ( shielded from the elements and wrapped up obviously ) The lower limit for this is set to minus 20 Celsius I think (-4 F ) ( don’t think they dip babies is ice cold water though )

    1. Wow! That’s amazing! Here, they won’t send the kids out for a measly barely 20 min. recess when it’s raining or under 32!!!! I started questioning this practice on FB and had a lot of parents thinking I was crazy to want my kid out in colder temps.

  17. Mark, could you please write the temperatures in Celsius as well.
    You have many non-American followers too.

    1. C to F: Multiply the temperature by 2 and then add 30
      F to C: Now just work it backwards, subtract 30 from the temp. and then divide by 2

      This formula isn’t exact but it’s easy to do in your head, and the result is close enough for most purposes.

  18. I am not in full-blown menopause but I am getting there. I discovered several years ago that subjecting myself to the coldest rinse I could stand in the shower each morning (bumping the temperature down each time I acclimated to it) helped me avoid being hot and unable to sleep at night. Especially in the Texas summers I live in it’s been a great discovery. I pay special attention to letting the water hit the crown of my head and the back of my neck.

  19. I lived on a lake in CT and started every day from Mid-April to Thanksgiving (depending on ice cover) with a plunge into the lake. I am a pretty bad swimmer but just the act of knowing it was going to be cold and jumping in was a victory and I felt great for the rest if the day.

    Being submerged and then controlling my breathing and allowing my body to accept the cold (rather than trying to fight it) was a magical experience every morning.

    Moving through nature and the different conditions each day (wind, rain, fog, the budding and greening of the trees in the spring, the fall foliage, the pair of blue jays that yelled at me from the pine tree) really connected me to the world also.

    As a bonus, walking down the the dock in my bathrobe with my cup of coffee really made my wife cringe and is probably something thst my children will be talking to a therapist about at some point later in life. 🙂

  20. I’ve been on a ketogenic diet for four months, and my nose and feet are pretty much always ice cold. Is this giving me the same benefits as those from cold water?

  21. This whole concept is pretty fascinating. I like the idea of stimulating the lymphatic system, and the increased focus. But as someone who lives in PA I spend most of my life trying to get warm. And don’t get me wrong…I enjoy the challenge of walking my dog when it’s 11 degrees out and windy…makes me totally appreciate how cozy my house is. Don’t think I’ll ever be joining in with Brad and buying a chest freezer, but this has me thinking about trying some hot/cold exposure in the shower. At least it’s a start!

  22. How does working out in the cold apply to this? Thanks to Mark’s suggestion of beach sprints, I’ve moved all my workouts (except mtn. biking) to the beach, which has been amazing. I make a point to not let the cold keep me away. I do bundle up, to prevent frostbite and extreme cold, but I’m not sweating or totally warm. So, cold exposure? And it’s during a workout? Muscle benefits lost? The benefits of being at the beach in the morning and seeing it in all seasons are certainly high, I know.

  23. Back in the day when I was following Jack Kruse’s writing on cold therapy, before he totally went off the deep end (yes, I can get in my own double entendre), I found that dunking my face in cold water before doing full-body cold water immersion made it much more tolerable. He called it the “mammalian dive reflex.” Also, keeping my hands out of the water was much better for me as they tend to get too cold. Thanks for the thorough write-up.

  24. I have poor health and also poor tolerance to cold. I hate it. I have found Cold Therapy useful. I started it about a year ago and prior to that really struggled to get and keep warm. I needed hot water bottles year round at night just to warm up enough to get to sleep. Even then it often took over an hour to feel warm and for my feet not to feel like ice cubes. I often needed hot water bottles during the day. I live in the UK not in an extremely cold climate. I would often feel cold right through and could only warm up by having a long hot bath. Basically my body was incapable of warming me up. I have pretty severe chronic fatigue and cannot use physical activity to generate heat.
    I started cold therapy very gradually with a cold shower just for 10 – 20 seconds following a hot bath so that I could have cold exposure whilst feeling really warm and not risk chilling myself. I now have a cold shower with no pre-heating measures for about 50 seconds most mornings and although the water feels cold, I am not cold afterwards.
    Long story short. I got through this past winter with out a single hot water bottle. I am now able to generate enough body heat to warm myself up. It is a wonderful feeling snuggled up in bed feeling myself get toasty warm all by myself!
    For me cold therapy has really improved my quality of life. I still hate cold and it takes discipline to stick with it but for me 50 seconds of grit once a day means that I am much warmer for the rest of the 24 hrs. It’s not perfect but it is much better.

  25. I’ve been rinsing cold for years! Didn’t know about all of these fabulous benefits but as a licensed esthetician/makeup artist, know it’s great for the skin & hair!! Perhaps, a bit more of an incentive for those considering it?!! 🙂

    1. Man! I need all the hair i can get or keep!:) Thanks for the input.

  26. Sounds! Like! My! Next! Adrenaline! Rush! To! Me! With benefits!:)

  27. Yes! Love all the extra information and links here! I plunge into a glacier-fed lake in Nelson, BC, year round (early morning first thing…with extra dips during the day and evening in summer – when the water’s still glacially cold). If I can’t get there because I’m snowed in, I take a 3-minute freezing shower. It’s a mindfulness practice for me…and has a definite impact on my emotional state and focus.

  28. Instead of a timer you can purchase external temperature controllers that will control the temperature directly. I live in the cold north so all water sources stay close to 5 degrees Celsius

  29. I tried cold showers for about a month last April, making the last 5 minutes of my shower cold. I liked the mental benefit of it but I found I was colder throughout the day and HUNGRY. I wanted to shovel food in. Since weight loss was the goal I decided it was counterproductive and stopped. I did try a few minutes in a cold shower before bed and found that to be beneficial for sleep. Might have to experiment with that and see if it still stimulates my appetite.

  30. Great article. I’ve been doing cold showers for the past year, although I probably only stay in them for a couple of minutes (just long enough for a quick wash – I do a more thorough wash including my hair in a warm shower after my workout). In general I feel like it does wake me up, and my immune system has been stronger (although it’s only one of a number of changes I’ve made, so it’s hard to prove causation). However, on the odd occasion that I do get sick, I haven’t been able to work out whether I should temporarily stop the practice, or if it will help my immune system fight the bug. My instinct is that heat is better for fighting off a virus (that’s the point of a fever, right?) but am I wrong? What if I have a cold but not a fever? Are there any studies out there that show benefit or harm from cold exposure while sick?

  31. I have been doing contrast therapy about 5 days a week for the last 10 months. 20 min hot hot Sauna following workout or yoga then ice cold shower then repeat sauna/cold shower. Anecdotal but I feel my immune system is stronger, my brain is functioning better, i recover from minor injuries faster. I agree with Wim Hof that its important to embrace the cold mentally dont fear it. While the comfort of knowing you can cool off or heat up is reassuring, I do believe that there are benefits from allowing the body to find it’s own way back to neutral at least some of the time. Making our genes activate seems to be a big part of this process.

  32. Interesting read for sure. The stance against cold showers post workout is strong and I am inclined to disbelieve it because of the extensive research done proving it to be worth your while. Regardless, I wonder what OP would think about sauna/cold shower cycles post workout. End on heat instead of cold?

  33. I’m curious about two things related to cold therapy. How does it effect the skin biome? How does it effect vitamin D absorption after sun exposure?

  34. I regularly visit your site and find a lot of interesting information. Not only good posts but also great comments. Thank you and look forward to your page growing stronger.

  35. “Cold exposure also inhibits the function of the lymphatic system in clearing inflammatory toxins from the bloodstream.”

    Then later,
    “Your lymphatic system is activated by cold exposure, helping speed the clearance of toxins from tissues throughout the body. ”

    Explain please

  36. Great setup Brad. Just wondering how safe from the electrical point of view do feel keeping the freezer outside (rain, humidity, etc)

  37. Brad,

    You mention that there are several studies that tout the benefits of Cold water immersion (CWI). Do yoya by any chance have any the names or can you point me towards the studies?

    Fellow Sacramentan here and I love listening to your podcast while riding my bike around town.

    Thanks again!

  38. Be sure to unplug the freezer for safety before touching, or getting the water. And I’d put some stickers on that freezer to that effect also, i.e. electric shock hazard. And lock it too, of course. Safety first. 🙂

  39. Under the heading of “what *not* to do” the article lists not taking part in cold exposure immediately after a workout. Despite my tendency to take you at your word, this struck me as incorrect. I mean, most of the professional athletes in the world enter a cold tub (or ice bath, if you will) immediately after hard workouts. Why the difference? Well, I came across this citation from PubMed today (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23246445) and the answer is this. This advice appears to be *exactly* counter to the science. I think I understand the idea of not short-circuiting the beneficial effects of purposeful inflammation, which is part-and-parcel with the benefits of exercise, but maybe it’s not quite so “clear that the immediate post-exercise inflammation reduction is potentially harmful”? Looking forward to feedback on this!

    1. With apologies for replying to myself, I think I have the answer…

      Exercise-induced inflammation is a primary raison d’être for exercising. It is from this inflammation that the subsequent and expected benefits from exercise arise. Ergo, reducing that inflammation is *exactly* the wrong thing to do. Ice baths immediately after exercise do that! (They may also have other deleterious effects.) Conversely, cold water immersion, to reduce core body temperature, is beneficial, but not because of any ability to reduce exercise-induced inflammation. As such, even that should not be done immediately after exercise, but instead, at some other time.

  40. Such type of posts is very useful for many people. This definitive guide seems good for the cold sufferers. Thanks for writing and sharing this valuable tips to cure cold.