The Science Behind Cold Water Immersion Therapies

Can immersing yourself in cold be beneficial to your health?

Cold water therapy, or cold immersion, is what it sounds like: immersing yourself in cold water so that your body temperature drops.

Examples of cold immersion include:

  • Cold showers or baths
  • Ice baths (immersion in water between 50 and 60 °F)
  • Cold pools or lakes (for swimming)
  • Taking a walk outdoors in the cold

Let’s look at the health benefits of cold therapy or exposing your body to the cold.

Exposure to Cold Activates Your Immune System

Your immune system prevents you from catching cold viruses and other infections. Many people try to boost their immune systems with vitamins and supplements, but they don’t realize they could get better results by taking a walk in the cold or taking a cold bath. That’s because white blood cells, which fight infection, circulate in your body more quickly when you are exposed to cold temperatures. Exposure to cold may also help your immune system produce other infection-fighting warriors, including t-cells and antibodies.

Cold Exposure May Help Manage Stress and Depression

Stress is a natural response to any challenge. It’s our body’s way of telling us to pay attention and be prepared to deal with a situation. Stress is meant to spur action, whether that means getting out of the path of a speeding car or doing your best on an important project. Stress serves a purpose but only in small doses.

Cold Immersion Reduces Post-Workout Soreness

Who enjoys achy muscles after a workout? Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life when you first start working out or after an unusually tough exercises session. After you work your muscles in a way they’re unaccustomed to, it’s common to experience delayed onset muscle soreness. Research shows cold immersion reduces muscle soreness, which may help speed up your recovery time after a training session. The cooler temperature causes blood vessels to constrict (narrow), which reduces the swelling of tissue around the injury. The same thing happens when you apply a cold pack to an inflamed area. The cold reduces tissue swelling and pain. Cold is a natural anti-inflammatory without the side effects of anti-inflammatory medications.

Can Cold Therapy Help with Weight Loss?

Cold increases your metabolism and activates thermogenesis, in which brown fat burns calories to produce heat. This is one reason cold showers could be effective for weight loss. In addition, spending time in cold temperatures causes you to be more active because you move around more when you’re trying to warm up.
Some resources suggest that cold water therapy and cold therapy boost calorie burning. But is there any truth to this claim? Studies show that exposure to cold increases resting metabolic rate, which, in theory, could help with weight loss. However, few studies have looked at this issue, and there are other factors to consider. For example, does exposure to cold cause you to eat more and compensate for the calories you burned? It’s an intriguing area that needs more research.

How to Get Started with Cold Immersion

The best way to get started with cold therapy is to introduce yourself to cold showers. If you’re not used to cold showers, you’ll need to build up tolerance. Start by exposing your body to cold water for 10 seconds, followed by as much warm water as you want. Gradually increase the amount of time spent in the cold over a period of days or weeks, until you can commit to a full minute under an icy stream. Cold immersion is most effective when you maintain it for at least one minute, so shoot for that as your minimum target duration.
After a cold therapy session, cool down gradually. It’s never a good idea to start with extreme temperatures when first introducing your body to cold showers — this is especially true if you’re trying out an ice bath for the first time! Gradually cool the water down as your tolerance increases. This will help prevent shock and injury.

The Bottom Line

Cold water therapy and cold immersion might sound like counterintuitive advice, but it turns out that taking a dip in cold water could have unexpected health benefits. If you’ve never tried cold water therapy or cold immersion, you may want to consider it. The benefits are numerous, and the costs are low. So go ahead, get in the bathtub or shower and see what happens. Check with your healthcare provider first, though.

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