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. 

Easy, right?  

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. 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Longevity

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

    5 replies to "The Benefits Of Cold Exposure"

    • Sharon

      If I only have access to a shower, how long should my head be directly under the shower head? Should I only do it when I turn the water on, then let it hit mostly my body, or is it okay to keep having the cold water run over my head?

      I know in tub forms, you are keeping your head above the water, but that’s also much colder.

    • Bruno

      I wouldn’t recommend putting you head under for that long just a quick little soak. After that i like to rotate like a rotisserie chicken as opposed to keeping it on my back 😀

    • Eric

      I’m in the cold exposure therapy market (primarily because it’s a hot item now) but honestly I’m still not convinced. To be completely honest, shocking your body can’t possibly be good for anyone, no?

    • Shawn

      There’s a pretty good interview with Dr. Susanna Søberg on the Huberman Lab podcast on the topic of cold (and heat exposure), and an overview here:

      Basically recent studies show around 11 mins per week of cold exposure is enough to make a difference for the body, and a few minutes per session (usually I do a 2-3m cold shower) to get the response from the body.

      Sharon, for a shower I don’t think it matters how long it is on your head per se (for real ice water, most people don’t put their head under). Personally I do face and head first, then rotating with arms up to get neck and upper chest and step away so it hits my lower half as I keep rotating, then back to face and head, etc. Just to keep some exposure on most of my body.

      Eric, if your shower gets decently cold, just try it for 2-3 mins once a day for say a week. The first couple of times will feel hard, but it is a lot easier after that as your body gets used to it. At the least, it releases dopamine and adrenaline, so it is like a runner’s high without doing a run. I find doing it in the morning helps improve my mood and energy level.

      To me, it makes sense that a little bit of shock on the body can be helpful. If you think about it, any kind of exercise is shocking your body in a sense. If you aren’t used to aerobic activity or lifting heavy weight, that is a new thing your body has to get used to. Humans didn’t always have perfect climate control as we do now, so our body has systems to help regulate temperature that we often just don’t use. We don’t have to go full Wim Hof and hike a snowy mountain in our shorts all the time, but doing a bit of training should help the body handle situations a bit better. Like feel less cold in winter (in the podcast, they recommend not bundling up too soon as it gets colder out, and in the spring not taking layers off too early, to help your body adjust to the coming seasons). It might even be safer, since having some training for the cold would make it more likely the body will adjust and keep its internal temp high enough, vs giving up and getting hypothermia faster.

    • peter

      i would like to know if cold air therapy is just as good. rather than going into the sea why not go for a walk in the cold for 15 minutes. would that be just as good?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.