I don’t consider myself a biohacker, but I do intentionally engage in practices that I believe will extend my healthspan and lifespan. Cold plunges are one of them. Cold exposure goes into the bucket along with things like resistance training, intermittent fasting, sun on your skin, and sauna—all stimuli that stress the body and prompt it to become stronger and more resistant to chronic and acute health issues. I’m tempted to say that cold plunges are an easy way to challenge your system, but if you’ve ever stepped up to the edge of an icy stream or cold pool, you know there’s nothing easy about forcing yourself to get in, sink down to your neck, and make the intentional choice to stay there. Veteran cold plungers and winter swimmers will tell you that over time your body acclimates so it becomes easier to tolerate the cold. You’ll even come to eagerly anticipate your next plunge. That’s all true. But there will always be a part of your brain that tells you, “You don’t have to do this. C’mon, stay warm and dry.” Each plunge requires you to overcome that little voice. It’s not easy, but it’s simple in the sense that just about everyone can find a way to harness the power of cold. And everyone should because the benefits of cold exposure are pretty impressive: Reduces inflammation by lowering pro-inflammatory cytokines and increasing anti-inflammatory cytokines Triggers the release of immune cells that can ward off illness Converts white fat into more metabolically active brown or beige fat Ramps up metabolic rate and boosts weight loss Promotes mitochondrial biogenesis Improves insulin sensitivity More than these physical benefits, the fact that it’s not easy is arguably the biggest upside of all. The mental fortitude you build when you intentionally and repeatedly put yourself in uncomfortable situations is undeniable. One of the most profound disconnects between our modern world and the one our ancestors inhabited is just how comfortable we are most of the time. We now have to go out of our way to simulate the physical and mental challenges that for most of history were just a part of everyday life. I’ve been regularly immersing myself in cold water for years now, and I’m convinced that that’s one of the reasons why I still feel as good as ever mentally and physically. Here’s how to get started. How I Cold Plunge Early in the day, I like colder temperature for shorter duration. Generally that means water in the mid to low 40s for a minute or two. (That’s Fahrenheit; 4 to 7 degrees Celsius.) Get out, lightly towel off, dress. Don’t do anything special to warm up. Go about your day energized and refreshed. Later in the day, I like a little less cold (48 to 51 degrees F, 8 to 10 degrees C) but for a longer duration, anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. If it’s after 6 p.m. and my intention is to prepare myself for a better night’s … Continue reading “Cold Plunges: Benefits and Where to Start”
I’ve been around for long enough to see health trends come and go, but cold therapy is one that has staying power. Humans have probably been using cold water to treat injury and illness, wake up their senses, and challenge their physical fortitude for all of human history. The modern obsession with cold plunges, cryotherapy chambers, and sitting underclothed in the snow doing controlled hyperventilation (a la “The Iceman” Wim Hof and his eponymous method of breathwork paired with extreme cold endurance feats) is just the newest iteration. There is something fundamental about the relationship between humans and the cold.
Of course, Grok and kin weren’t taking cold showers to stimulate the immune system or revive senses dulled by hours and years of participating in corporate drudgery. They were washing in cold rivers and wading into the ocean to trap sea creatures out of necessity. But the effect was the same as when we modern humans do a polar bear plunge—a stronger, more robust body.
We’ve explored the health benefits of cold (water) exposure. What about heat?
I decided to explore the health benefits of acute heat exposure in the form of saunas, baths, and steam rooms for one main reason: the sauna is a near-universal human tradition, and I’m always curious about those. Indigenous peoples of North America had the sweat lodge, those of Central America the temazcal. The Romans had the thermae, which they picked up and refined from the Greeks. Other famous traditions include Finnish saunas, Russian banyas, Turkish hammams, Japanese sentó (or the natural spring-fed onsen), and the Korean jjimjilbang. Are all these many billions of people across time and space sitting in heated rooms for the heck of it?
I get a lot of questions about cheat meals. Are they allowed on the Primal Blueprint? Is there a reason someone should actively seek to eat unhealthy food from time to time? The allure of the cheat meal is obvious: you get to eat stuff that’s otherwise off-limits and extremely delicious. You get to throw caution to the wind for a night. It’s like vacation and you’re a food tourist. But are there actual benefits? Today, we’ll take a look.
As I see it, there are three arguments to be made for including periodic — that is, scheduled or preordained — cheat meals in your otherwise solid Primal eating plan.
For today’s edition of Dear Mark, we’ve got a three-parter that’s really closer to a five-parter. First are a couple of questions from Joe, who first wonders about the hormetic benefits of acute sleep deprivation (are there any?) and then asks how he can beat a sweet tooth he suspects is brought on by lack of exercise. The second pair of questions concern CrossFit (is it an example of Chronic Cardio and should I be recommending it?) and breadfruit (does it have a place on the Primal eating plan?). And finally, Andy asks for the origin of the popular “gut is 80% of our immune system” statement.
Why are certain things “good for us”? Why does lifting weights make us stronger? Why does running a mile on a regular basis improve our aerobic conditioning and allow us to improve our times? Why does skipping a meal every now and then increase insulin sensitivity, lower body fat, improve lipid numbers, and generally make us healthier? Why are plant polyphenols so consistently associated with health benefits?
The answer is hormesis. You see, back when Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” he may not have been talking about the positive and beneficial physiological effects of exposing yourself to various stressors and toxins, but he could have been. All those things – the exercise, the fasting, the plant phytochemicals, plus more – stress our systems and force us to adapt to the imposed stress. Organisms, after all, like to maintain homeostasis, stability, and balance, and hormesis is ultimately about the push to maintain homeostasis in a changing environment. If the environment changes – say, because of a weight lifting session – the body must become stronger, healthier, better in order to maintain homeostasis and handle the situation next time it occurs. Best of all, you don’t just compensate for the stressor. You supercompensate. You get stronger/faster/healthier/more resistant to disease than you were before. Think of hormesis as your body “hedging its bet” and going a little above and beyond just to be safe.