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5 Potential Health Benefits of Cold Therapy

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When we think of stress, we usually think of it as a bad thing.

And you would be right most of the time!

Negative stress like emotional stress, nutritional deficiencies in diet, blood sugar issues, inadequate sleep, etc.. can all lead to chronic health conditions.

But stress can also be good. This type of stress is called eustress and includes things like exercise, fasting, sauna therapy, and even cold water therapy.

In the right dose, eustress can trigger cellular responses in the body to offset harmful impacts.

This stress can actually be beneficial.

Exercise is probably the easiest for us to see in action here. We know exercise is hugely beneficial but it also puts stress and causes a breakdown in our body. For example, if you’re doing weight-bearing exercises the act of building muscle requires a breakdown of tissue before it can rebuild. (This is assuming you’re not OVER exercising…over-exercising can backfire and become negative stress – does really does matter!).

Cold water therapy has been around for centuries dating back to the Roman and Greek times, but more and more its become a hot topic among athletes, influencers, and “bio-hackers”.

Mostly this has been popularized by the Dutch wellness leader, Wim Hof who is known for completing superhuman feats in sub-zero conditions like running a marathon barefoot…on ice and climbing Kilimanjaro…..in shorts.

But you don’t need to be this crazy to enjoy the benefits of cold therapy. Adaptations such as ice baths and brisk cold showers are also largely beneficial.

Several years ago when I was marathon training I diligently took ice baths after any training run that was over 18 miles. Now I’m dipping my toe back in the cold water for different reasons.

More research is needed here, but there is some preliminary data that shows some surprising health benefits. I’ll outline a few of them below and throw in my own personal experience.

5 Potential Health Benefits of Cold Therapy

Cold Therapy Boosts mood

Cold water makes you feel invigorated because anti-stress hormones like epinephrine/adrenaline and neurotransmitters like dopamine are released. In fact, the anti-stress response is so strong studies are now being done on using cold water therapy to help treat depression.

Cold Therapy Reduces Inflammation

A quick refresher on inflammation: The purpose of inflammation is to eliminate the initial cause of cell injury, clear out the dead cells and tissues damaged from the injury and initiate tissue repair. We know inflammation is the key driver of the aging process and is related to most age-related diseases. Of course, diet and lifestyle has almost EVERYTHING to do with the amount of chronic inflammation you carry around, but cold-shock therapy does have some anti-inflammatory properties through the release of norepinephrine.

Cold Therapy Supports Brain Health

Some pro-inflammatory prostaglandins (hormone-like substances your body makes – largely influenced by diet) can cross the blood-brain barrier activating the brain’s immune system and yes, this is as bad as it sounds. Strategies that increase anti-inflammatory hormones like norepinephrine by way of cold water therapy may be helpful in preventing aging in the brain.

(It’s also highly likely those inflammatory molecules are also contributing to depression and anxiety by inhibiting the release of serotonin.)

Immune Function with Cold Therapy

Having a large number of immune cells is a good thing, given they are not overactive. Cold shock therapy appears to potentially increase certain types of immune cells including T cells and white blood cells. The science is of course slowly emerging and more studies need to be done on the long-term effects.

Cold Exposure and Weight Loss

One of the ways our body responds to cold is to produce heat to warm the body. This process is called cold thermogenesis. When you’re exposed to colder environments your body works harder to maintain homeostasis and regulate its core temperature.  The body looks to brown fat to stay warm because it provides the body heat without causing it to shiver.

HOW TO START

If you’re ready to take the plunge here are a few tips to get started.

Take it slow

Start with a shot of cold water at the end of your showers. Start with 15 seconds and add on 15 more seconds every week. Soon you’ll be at 2:00. I started taking cold showers a couple of years ago and I hated every second of it while I was in it, but afterwards felt great. You will build up a tolerance to it if you stick with it.

In my experience, after my first plunge, it took my body a couple of hours for my core temperature to return to normal. And this was after I took a hot shower, and laid on the couch with several blankets and a heating pad while sipping on hot tea. Other women report they ran errands and didn’t experience that same effect. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. But with each plunge my body adjusted more efficiently each time. I remember my fourth plunge was not only much easier to adjust to but I couldn’t remember the last time I slept that deeply.

Tactical Preparations

I take my swimsuit off directly afterwards, no driving home in wet clothes. I bring warm and loose clothing (you don’t want to be fighting your clothes when your fingers are slightly numb) and always have a hot beverage waiting for me in the car for the drive home.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

I’m no stranger to putting my body in uncomfortable situations. In fact, I enjoy being uncomfortable and have always delighted in pushing my edge (5k’s, marathons, half-ironman’s, CrossFit, etc.). I find the body’s ability to adapt to its environment profoundly rewarding and exciting (take note: this adaptation can be for better or for worse which is the biggest factor in chronic illness).

You will be uncomfortable. But ultimately it can affirm you have courage and self-will. It is a way to reunite with yourself in a primal way.

Why not give it a try? Take the cold therapy plunge and let me know how it goes!

**Not everyone will benefit from cold therapy, so talk to your doctor before starting.

RESOURCES

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17993252/

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  1. Claudia Swanson-Young says:

    Thank yoy for sharing this info! I started plunging with guidance from Puget Sound Plungers and Renate Rain. It is a process and now after only 5 plunges looking forward to my next opportunity. My goal right now is once a week and thwn build from there. Can yoy say more about your plunging in the sound? How does it compare to the cold shower method? Personally I Iove the shared experience of co plunging in the velvet waters of the sound. There is something about being with others that amplifies the benefits!

    • Kristen Barrett says:

      That’s fantastic! I haven’t made it down to plunge with Renate’s group yet but we have a small (but rapidly growing!) group here in in my little town a little farther north. I started out doing the cold shower method but I MUCH prefer plunging in the sound. You can’t beat the soothing salt water and the views. It adds to the experience of helping support my nervous system in a whole new way. It’s the ultimate Earthing in every way. And I’m only half joking when I say this is the only activity I actually need countability for. I’m not sure I would love it as much if I were doing it solo, so I agree with you there! I did an evening plunge about a month ago and I had the deepest sleep I ever remembered. I never experienced that depth with a cold shower. I mostly use cold showers now if I’m doing a sauna hydrotherapy method (where I’m alternating in and out of the heat/cold).

      I feel so fortunate to live someplace I have access to the cold water. I mean, I much prefer warm salt water beaches – but it makes me happy I can work with this and appreciate the colder water in a new way. We should plunge together some time!!

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