Outside of the athletic world, showering or bathing in freezing cold water is generally something that no sane person would consider. Why would we? When given the option of a warm or cold shower before or after a tough day at the office, which are you more likely to opt for? However, in recent years the popularity of taking ice cold baths to improve fitness levels have soared with the popularity of spa and sauna culture and the emergence of personalities such as ‘The Iceman’ Wim Hoff (See below). So what are the benefits of taking cold showers and baths? Read on…
A Brief History of Ice Cold Bathing
There are many cultures throughout history that have advocated the use of ice baths and showers. Although these have been for health benefits there are many instances of them being used as part of religious cleansing ceremonies. Many of these cultures have advocated ice cold dips that often go alongside the use of sauna or sweat lodge exposure. The combination of exposure to two very different extremes hot and cold producing a mental, physiological and spiritual purging effect on the body.
Historical examples include the Finns. In Finland, for centuries the natives have utilised saunas alongside jumping into freezing lakes. Similarly, several Native American tribes (such as the Cherokee) alternated between sitting in a sweat lodge and jumping into icy rivers or snow banks. Ancient Russians also took frequent plunges into ice cold rivers for health and spiritual cleansing. Indeed in modern-day Russian Banya use, the Siberian water dip is still considered an important part of promoting good health.
In Japan from ancient times right up into present day, practitioners of Shinto have stood under icy waterfalls during prayers and meditation as part of a ritual known as Misogi, which was believed to cleanse the spirit.
The mainstream popularity of cold water therapy blew up in the 1820s with the emergence of ‘Hydrotherapy’ as a treatment option. Hydrotherapy was developed by Vincenz Priessnitz, a German farmer who promoted the treatment as a radical new panacea for many afflictions and conditions. As Hydrotherapy’s popularity grew and business began to soar, Vincenz turned his family home into a sanatorium to deal with the growing number of clients.
Hydrotherapy would eventually become so popular that it would spread all over Europe and to the United States. Indeed its reputation as a treatment form was so popular that members of various royal families began to see the benefits of the treatment and were ranked amongst Vincenz’s clientele.
With healthcares shift to the medical model of treatment with its emphasis on pharmaceutical use in the 20th century, people began to move away from Hydrotherapy and other ‘radical’ treatment options. Although Hydrotherapy was no longer used as a way of treating illnesses, it was and still is used to treat orthopaedic injuries such as sprains and fractures.
The Wim Hoff Method
Fast forward to the 20th century and we have the emergence of the extreme athlete Wim Hoff. His extreme feats of endurance in the cold include climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle on his bare feet, and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes! Wim developed the Wim Hof Method (WHM) as a form of optimising health and treating a myriad of conditions ranging from arthritis to depression. His method consists of three fundamental pillars which are cold therapy, breathing and meditation. These methods have been much likened to Tibetan practices such as Tummo meditation and the Indian Yogic discipline of Pranayama.
Wim has stated that anyone can practice his method regardless of age or ability. He has thousands of followers worldwide and hosts many international seminars in which he regularly encourages his followers to take dips into cold water baths. For absolute beginners to his methods, Wim advises starting with cold showers and practising his breathing techniques before progressing.
The Reported Benefits of Cold Water Baths/Showers
Good blood circulation is vital for overall cardiovascular health and also speeds up the recovery time from strenuous exercises and work. Using cold showers stimulates the body to send more blood through the organs. In an attempt to keep ourselves warm, we start pumping blood in a more efficient manner. It lowers blood pressure, clear blocked arteries, and improves our immune system .
Circulation can be further improved by alternating between hot and cold water whilst showering. Cold water will cause the blood to move to the organs to keep them warm. Warm water reverses the effect by causing the blood to move towards the surface of the skin. Cold shower proponents argue that stimulating the circulatory system in this way keeps them healthier and younger.
Can help with a variety of conditions
Cold therapy is helped in reducing joint pain and inflammation from rheumatoid conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. It is also reported to have been beneficial to sufferers of pulmonary conditions such as asthma and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder).
Cold showers can combat depression symptoms due to the intense impact of cold receptors found within the skin. These receptors send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from the peripheral nerve endings to the brain. This result is an anti-depressive effect, that produces a great mental boost.
Taking cold showers before bedtime has been reported to increase the quality of a good nights sleep.
Healthier hair and skin
Cold water is one of the most natural ways to maintain hair and skin. Hot water has the tendency to dry out the skin, whereas cold water tightens the cuticles and pores, which will prevent them from getting clogged with dirt.
The immune system is an important defence mechanism that protects our bodies against viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens that cause disease. Individuals who partake in daily cold showers report a stronger immune response to pathogens than when they took hot showers. It is believed that the increased metabolic rate (which results from the body’s attempt to warm itself up) activates the immune system and releases more white blood cells in response.
Increased testosterone levels
Cold water showers reportedly increase testosterone production in men. Increased testosterone levels not only boost a man’s libido, but also his overall strength and energy level.
A man’s testes aren’t meant to get too hot. Sperm count decreases when the temperature of a man’s testes increases.
Increased energy and well-being
Showering with cold water can leave us feeling invigorated and energised. The heart has to work harder, and the rush of blood through the body helps shake off the lethargy from sleep. The energy rush can last till way into the afternoon.
On stepping into a cold shower there is an automatic response to the sudden change of temperature. Our nervous systems detect the sudden change and fire faster to quickly adapt to it. It is essentially a flight or flight response as the body adapts to maintain normal functional levels. Automatically our breathing rate and heart rate increases. We automatically take deeper breaths to take in more oxygen and our pulse rate increases. The response enables our hearts to pump faster and release blood, hormones, nutrients at a faster rate through our bodies. This entire response process happens instantaneous but the instant energy boost it provides can last for hours. Who needs coffee??
Reduced stress levels
Using cold showers regularly can train the nervous system to respond better to stress. Cold water exposure acts as stress on the nervous system which the body is forced to adapt to. Over time this promotes greater tolerance and overall resilience in trying situations. Alongside this adaptation, this exposure will also drastically lower uric acid levels and boost Glutathione in your blood (which keeps all other antioxidants performing at optimal levels.).
There are two types of fat tissue we can find in our bodies storage (white fat and brown fat). White fat is considered to be a bad kind of fat. It is accumulated through eating more calories than we need to function. Usually, we can see it piling up around those areas where it is difficult to lose fat such as our belly, love handles or hips/thighs. On the other hand, there is brown fat (good fat if you will). Brown fat is activated when our body needs to recover from stressors such as exercise. In the case of cold showers, brown fat is activated to help the body warm up after exposure. Regular use of cold showers can encourage your metabolism to use this fat for fuel.
Taking regular cold showers on waking up, can (initially) take a lot of discipline and will power. With time, this discipline will not only build your endurance tolerance levels but filter into our daily lives. Time to come off the whiners’ bench, take yourself out of your comfort zone and develop an iron will.
It is well known that athletes take ice baths after training to reduce muscle soreness. However, to the average person, a quick cold shower post-gym can be just as effective, especially in relieving DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) as the improved circulation will help remove lactic acid.
My own experiments…
So, those are the reported benefits, time to give this a whirl. I had previously read about Wim Hoff and his theories but had not given them much thought until I had (within the same year) been exposed to extremely cold water and experienced the after effects. Those experiences were two Siberian dips and a freezing cold shower whilst undertaking the Inca trail. After this, I began experimentation myself and Wim’s suggestions to try cold water showers first.
The very first time I went straight for the kill and turned the shower to its coldest level. Although I did not black out, I did become dizzy as my body adjusted to deal with this ‘cold shock response’. After the first time, I got smarter and began gradually introducing myself to the freezing temperatures. I would start off with a relatively warm setting and gradually reducing the temperature until finally hitting freezing. Over time this became much much easier.
The initial effects I noted were sensory. As I had experienced on the Inca trail (an absolutely freezing cold shower in the Andes mountains) following the shower my skin receptors tingling for hours. My alertness levels remained very high in the morning compared to my fellow workers who were struggling to keep awake on coffee. This effect carries over right into the afternoon and I am far more alert in comparison to my yawning colleagues (even though I have been awake since 4 am and they awake much later).
Out for the count
On the flip side of this, the effects I have experienced is with regards to pre-bedtime cold showers. I am an insomniac and quite used to periods of poor sleep. This manifests as broken sleep, being unable to sleep and poor REM sleep. This has resulted in many instances of me having had to engage the day mentally and physically drained. However, If I go straight from a cold shower to a warm bed I am out like a light within minutes. Additionally, I will usually experience unbroken sleep and feel well rested on awakening, which suggests improved periods of REM.
Other effects I experienced were with my pain tolerance and endurance, both of which improved exponentially. I can jump into a freezing shower easy enough most days with no problem and actually prefer them to hot water showers. On a cardiovascular level, I find it has helped my oxygen intake on runs significantly. I always seem to have plenty of gas left in the tank on longer distance runs and rarely get out of breath. However, this is just as likely to be c0-attributed to other factors also such as increased distances and HIIT training.
I shall continue with cold water experimentation and hope in time to attend one of Wim’s seminars. In my opinion for the level of alertness it provides alone it is worth it. I am a coffee fiend and for me, coffee does nothing compared to the energy levels that cold showers provide.
Taking the plunge – Starting with Cold Water Showers
Jumping straight into a freezing cold shower is not recommended, especially if you have been used to a lifetime of piping hot showers. The shock to the system can be great as the system gets used to the sudden dramatic change in temperature. A much better approach is to follow Wim’s recommendation of starting with a normal temperature shower and gradually decrease the water temperature so your body has time to adapt.
Which reminds me, some people with certain conditions should avoid cold showers because of the shock to the body’s system. So please note cold showers are not recommended if you have the following conditions…
- Heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Overheated or feverish.
Cold showers can appear to the uninitiated as a brutal way to start the day and indeed a hard habit to form. Like exercising, it’s always the beginning that hurts the most, so it is with cold water exposure. Start off slow, persevere, over time, you no longer dread the cold hit but actually enjoy it (trust me on this!). Cold showers are an experience which pushes you to be a better functioning human being. In time as your conditioning improves you will look, feel and perform better.
Now all that remains is to take the plunge, not afraid of a little cold water are you?