All over the world, people are hurling themselves into icy seas, climbing into giant chilled tanks, and standing for long stretches of time under a cold shower.
It sounds crazy, right? For most of history, humans have been trying to get away from the cold, not into it. But what our ancestors didn’t know is that the cold is one of our most powerful allies when it comes to building a healthy body.
What Is Cold Exposure Therapy?
Cold exposure therapy is any form of short exposure to cold — ending your shower in a cold water spray to your torso for a few minutes, taking an ice bath or cold plunge for 4-6 minutes, and getting a whole body cryotherapy treatment in a chemically chilled tank.
Whole Body Cryotherapy, on the other hand, is the therapeutic application of cold dry air at ultra-low temperatures (typically -200° to -256° F / -128° to -160° C) for 2-4 minutes.
Basically, you put your body into an extremely cold environment for just a couple of minutes.
You might be wondering right now why on earth anyone would do this. Well, it turns out that the benefits of cold exposure therapy are significant.
Cold therapy introduces a good stress, called ‘eustress’, to the body. Eustress helps your body to better adapt to bad stress, or ‘distress’ (caused by inadequate sleep, emotional stress, chronic disease, etc.). There is also a big cascade of hormone, immune, and neurotransmitter effects that can have a positive impact on the body over time.
Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Iceman’, became famous for the skill he has developed in handling extreme cold, and the array of benefits this has created in his autonomic nervous system and immune system.
What Are The Benefits of Cold Exposure?
There’s a surprisingly wide range of effects from shocking your body with some extreme cold for a few minutes.
- Reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise
Research has shown that cryotherapy can reduce the cramps and tension that often follow a tough workout or physical challenge, by extending the immune response. Exercise creates an inflammatory response that leads to muscle growth, so you don’t want to do cold therapy in the first-hour post-exercise, to avoid blunting this initial response. But you can trigger an immune response that reduces that discomfort if you do an ice bath or cryotherapy treatments 24 to 72 hours post-exercise.
- Brain function and mood
We are starting to see some small studies about the potential benefits of alleviating the symptoms of depression and anxiety, although this is still being established in the research.
Anecdotal evidence has suggested that cold showers can help to alleviate depression. The proposed mechanism for this is that cold exposure leads to a release of norepinephrine into the bloodstream. Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is involved in focus, attention, and mood — low norepinephrine can lead to ADHD and depression.
From personal experience and from clients’ experiences I can say that there is often a significant mood-enhancing effect from cold exposure treatments and it can be anything from just ending your shower in a cold water spray, doing a cold plunge, or cryotherapy.
- Immune enhancement
Some studies show cryotherapy reduces inflammation, by reducing blood flow to the area, but more research is needed to know if this is just an acute response or if it also reduces chronic inflammation in the body.
- Fat loss
Cold exposure activates brown adipose tissue (BAT). Brown fat is a special type of fat that helps to produce heat when your body is cold. The activation of BAT may help to increase energy expenditure (burned calories); therefore, it may be helpful with fat loss, insulin sensitivity, and metabolic syndrome (heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes). As a side note, cold exposure doesn’t increase BAT, it only activates it. You increase your brown adipose tissue through exercise.
We don’t have much research that supports cold stress and longevity yet. It doesn’t appear to have equivalent benefits at this stage than the more established therapies in longevity research, exercise and heat therapy (sauna). However, if you consider that there is research that supports cold stress and reduces inflammation and that inflammation is one key driver of aging, then there is likely more to be discovered in this area.
How long and how often should you do cold exposure therapy?
There is not a definitive answer for this in research, so I currently recommend that people do whatever works best with their lifestyle.
If all you can manage is a cold water spray at the end of your shower and this produces benefits, then just stick with it.
If you can manage to do a cold water plunge, ice, bath, or cryotherapy a couple of times a week, then great.
The most important thing is consistency and assessing what works best for you. I recommend a minimum of three times per week of any type of cold stress exposure if you are going to start experimenting.
If you’ve never done cold therapy it’s best to start small and slow. Just try turning the shower a bit colder every day for 2-5 minutes and work yourself up to tolerating colder and colder water.
How to get cold exposure if you can’t go to a cryo tank or frozen lake regularly
Start with ending your shower in a cold water spray. Although it’s not likely to reach the cold temperatures done in research, I still see a lot of benefit in terms of brain function, energy, and mood from this basic approach to cold stress.
And in fact, the origin of this practice certainly didn’t reach the extremes we can achieve today.
There is mention of the use of cold and hot water as therapeutic strategies all the way back to the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which is one of the oldest surviving medical texts (dating from1600 B.C from ancient Egypt).
The Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine” documented the use of hot and cold water (hydrotherapy) for curing human ailments. And ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations all used various hydrotherapy treatments, bathhouses, and hot springs for health purposes.
Cold exposure (and its twin, heat therapy), have been in use an extremely long time. They can have a powerful impact on your health, and I encourage you to investigate how you can incorporate these strategies into your health and wellbeing routines. To learn more about how I work and the therapies I recommend, click here.