3 essential benefits of Cold Exposure
Do you know that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, regularly used cold water to relieve fatigue?
Cold water therapy (CWT) is another powerful health booster that we can adopt in our daily life to promote energy levels and live life to our full potential. It can activate the healing powers of our body, stimulate our body to repair itself, help us get rid of symptoms of various illnesses, and promote a greater sense of well-being.
I have to be honest here, I was pretty reluctant to dive into the cold, but learning about the benefits and taking one step at a time has really helped me level up my energy, resilience, and mood.
So if you’re also on the fence about this fast-growing trend, dive into the article to learn more about why and how it can boost your energy, metabolism, and mental well-being in efficient ways. I will also share the most effective ways to start CWT, even if you’re a beginner and fear the cold (just like I was).
Raise your energy levels with improved blood flow
When we expose ourselves to cold water, our body engages in its “survival mode” and starts working hard to maintain its core temperature. This results in the activation of a series of beneficial adaptive responses. One of these benefits is increased blood circulation and oxygen supply. In response to CWT, our peripheral blood vessels contract and narrow down which in turn increases the speed of blood flow (Espeland and Mercer, 2022). This forces our heart to pump blood more efficiently to our vital organs, replenishing them with plenty of oxygen. This increase in oxygen results in enhanced energy production by the mitochondria of our cells, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
A January 2023 study reported that 33 healthy adults who were new to cold-water swimming (age range 20–45, 16 females) felt more energised, active, alert, attentive, proud, and inspired, and less distressed and nervous immediately after having a 20 °C 5 min whole-body cold-water bath (Yankouskaya et al., 2023).
Boost your metabolism and burn fat with CWT
Do you know that body fat or adipose tissue is an organ?
Body fat contains fat cells, nerves, immune cells, and connective tissue, and is frequently the largest organ of our body. Depending on the body’s needs, its main job is to store and release energy.
Mainly two types of fat cells exist in our fat tissue: white fat cells and brown fat cells.
White fat cells store extra energy but too much of it can lead to obesity, a deadly health condition that raises the risk for heart problems, diabetes, and even cancer
However, brown fat cells not only store energy but also use their rich mitochondrial sites to burn this energy and produce heat through a process called thermogenesis. (Gaspar et al., 2021). Through the practice of CWT, brown fat gets activated and starts breaking down blood glucose and fat molecules to create heat and help maintain body temperature.
Basically, this means that CWT kick-starts your metabolism and burns calories (fat) to heat up the body. A sign that you are doing it right is to be sure that you get cold enough to activate the shiver that follows the cold exposure. This further adds to the metabolic boost induced by cold water therapy and shows the activation of brown fat thermogenesis (Søberg et al., 2021).
Now, guess what, the cold temperature not only activates the brown fat cells but also triggers the conversion of white fat cells to brown fat cells. The brown fat cells then trigger a further and more sustained increase in metabolism. Therefore, the “browning” of fat positively affects our long-term energy homeostasis and the body’s metabolism.
Raise your spirits with cold water therapy
By getting into the cold for a few minutes, you’ll be able to see an immediate shift in your mood. Not only will you come out more calm, focused, and happy, but you’ll find it easier to move through stressful situations with more resilience than before.
Well, let me tell you a bit more about our nervous system and how CWT regulates it.
CWT activates our autonomic nervous system (ANS). ANS is the network of neurons – nerve cells – which are responsible for receiving, processing, and responding to impulses automatically, without the involvement of our thinking brain.
ANS comprises two major, but oppositely acting subsystems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The PNS has a calming, relaxing effect on the body and supports the homeostasis of your organs: In contrast, the SNS is responsible for alertness, and preparing the body for handling emergencies by activating the flight, fight, or freeze response.
Just like physical exercise, we can use CWT transiently to activate SNS and trigger elevated levels of our feel-good hormones including dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline, and endorphins, boosting our energy, focus, creativity, productivity, and happiness (Sevchuk, 2007).
As our body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, and parasympathetic activity increases, teaching our body to be calmer after experiencing a flight, fight, or freeze response. (Mäkinen et al., 2008). This builds mental resilience and allows us to become more present and focused when we experience high levels of stress.
A novel study from Wayne State University studied the effect of combined practices of breathwork, cold water therapy, and mediation on Wim Hof‘s brain and body functions.
The scientists were startled to find heightened autonomic brain activity in the upper brainstem, an area associated with brain mechanisms for suppression of sensory pain, possibly leading to the spontaneous release of feel-good hormones. In addition, Wim could also engage his higher-order cortical areas which are known to be associated with self-reflection, and facilitate both internal focus and sustained attention in the presence of harsh external stimuli (Muzik et al., 2018).
How to get started today
Cold water therapy comes in many forms such as cold showers, dips in open-air swimming pools, ice baths, or even cold chambers. While the range of cold water temperature varies from 15°C to 2°C, we all have different levels of tolerance to cold, and we may have to find out the optimum temperature for ourselves to harness the benefits of CWT.
This therapy can shock the system even for people who have it regularly, so start slow, as a cold shock is possible due to the dramatic drop in temperature. Aim for a temperature that makes you feel really cold and make you want to get out of the water but you can still safely stay in.
Cold water therapy works best with the right combination of time and temperature. The colder the water, the shorter amount of time you need to expose yourself to the cold.
According to Dr. Susanna Søberg (Søberg et al., 2021), “Consider doing deliberate cold exposure for 11 minutes per week total”. Not per session, but rather, 2-4 sessions lasting 1-5 mins each distributed across the week. Again, the water temperature should be uncomfortably cold yet safe to stay in for a few minutes. You can do more, but this should be the minimum to achieve the benefits of cold exposure”
Important is that we prioritise safety and avoid dangerous bodies of water.
Also, avoid deliberate hyperventilation before or during cold water (or any water!) immersion.
Here’s how you can start practicing today:
1. Take cold showers
- The easiest way to start practicing cold water exposure is to take a cold shower
- Once you are done with the shower at normal temperature, reduce the temperature to make the water colder gradually in short intervals so that you feel uncomfortable but adapt to the temperature quickly.
- Aim for 30 sec for your first time and increase the time period by 15 sec each time. This will slowly adapt you to the cold. Your end goal to reap the benefits is to accomplish a total of 11 min per week. Remember to stay in long enough so that you get the shivering effect post-shower. Its also recommended to wait a moment before towel drying to activate the shivering (thermogenesis)
2. Take a cold plunge
- Another feasible and widely followed method is submerging your body up to your neck in cold water in a water body or bathtub.
- In addition, try immersing your face as well in the cold water at the beginning or while finishing your cold plunge.
- Start slow, with a higher temperature and lower duration. Slowly lower the temperature and increase the duration of your plunge to adapt to the cold.
- The threshold for cold water temperature is between 15°C to 2°C
3. Take an ice bath
- Take a big container filled with water and add ice to it until the temperature drops to 5°C to 2°C. It’s popular to use an ice freezer box for this if you want to develop a steady practice, just remember to unplug the electricity before jumping in.
- Enter the water and stay in for 1-5 minutes to start with and slowly increase your time period of exposure. The same principle of 11 min per week and the shivering effect applies here.
4. Try open water swimming, especially in winter with an organised group or session, supervised by experts.
The name says it all – immerse yourself in cold water and harness its therapeutic effects! Give yourself time with this practice, and stay dedicated and consistent. It will give great benefits over time. Yes, let’s get our cold on!
Article by Dr. Chanchal Chauhan – Biocellular Expert
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