Cold water therapy has been around for a long time. Various cultures throughout the ages have touted it as something of a miracle cure. Nowadays, the science is beginning to catch up with it and cold water immersion is seeing a renaissance in health and fitness circles.
The main selling point for cold water immersion is its ability to activate the body’s own healing powers and wellness mechanisms. No, this isn’t mumbo jumbo- as we said, the science is catching up. Cold water immersion’s benefits have begun to be framed in more objective terms of late.
There is an ever-expanding body of evidence collected both anecdotally and under lab conditions attesting to exactly what cold water immersion can do. Proponents use it as a treatment for many common medical conditions, including depression, anxiety, insomnia and joint inflammation. It is undertaken by many as a lifestyle-augmenting practice aimed at promoting overall health, wellbeing and longevity.
Interestingly enough, this puts cold water immersion’s goals on a parallel with those of intermittent living, another health concept that relies on some of our more ancient practices.
What is intermittent living?
Certain intermittent stress factors can combine to produce a hormetic early stress response with a compensatory improvement of multiple metabolic and immunological indices and wellbeing. This mirrors cold water immersion’s effects on the body’s stress mechanisms, as the shock of immersion elicits a stress response to which the body is forced to adapt.
However, where cold water immersion obviously uses cold water as a hormetic trigger, intermittent living uses the following triggers:
- Intermittent fasting
- Intermittent heat
- Intermittent cold (paralleling cold immersion therapy)
- Intermittent hypoxia
- Intermittent drinking
- The inclusion of large quantities of nutrients with hormetic effects
- Relaxation and mindfulness protocols
Using these triggers intermittently over a prolonged period can bring about an effect often labelled a vaccine against the harmful effects of modern life. It is named ‘intermittent living’ because it is typically employed for one week out of four. Doing this, spending seven days per month employing intermittent living practices with an eye to longevity, can bring about an improvement to many measures of wellbeing.
Some practitioners of intermittent living liken their practice to taking on the challenges of life faced by our ancestors- cold, hunger and so on. Ancient stimuli can thus be wielded in a modern setting, run through a spectrum of Pschyo-Neuro Immunology (PNI).
Essentially, our bodies are not well-suited to modern living. The technological, social and societal revolutions we have experienced over the past couple of millennia have far outpaced our own biological evolution.
Our bodies are adapted to acute stressors like cold, heat, hunger, thirst, hypoxia and hypercapnia. They adapted to these over a process of hundreds of thousands of years. What they have not adapted are modern chronic stimuli such as modern diets, sedentary living and the stress we all face every single day.
Our bodies’ immune systems are much more able to deal with ancient stimuli than modern.
Modern chronic stressors require our immune systems and related functions to keep constantly active, which in turn elicits a constant, low-grade inflammatory response. This leads to or exacerbates many modern-day health concerns.
Ancient stressors and the responses they elicit, on the other hand, make it possible to respond directly to changing circumstances. They allow us to be flexible.
How they combine
Practitioners of cold water immersion look for much the same list of benefits as offered by intermittent living, as they seek to decrease stress levels, halt the ageing process, boost the immune system, increase energy and perceptions of wellbeing and speed up recovery from strenuous physical work.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, cold immersion practitioners will usually experience an increase in their metabolic rates and energy output as regular cold exposure speeds up the metabolism. Regular practice also brings about a reduction in inflammation and swelling, a reduction in muscular, joint and soft-tissue soreness, and improved recovery from strenuous physical exercise. It has also been linked to improvements in sleep, improved cognitive processes, an elevated immune response and, crucially, a resistance to cortisol- the stress hormone that underpins a lot of modern-day angst and illness.
Many practitioners of both cold water immersion and intermittent living take part in breathing and meditative/mindfulness practice. Exercises include focussing on deep, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations (much like traditional pranayama practice in yoga). Wim Hof, a powerhouse figure in the world of cold immersion, describes it as ‘controlled hyperventilation or power breathing’. These long breaths are interspersed with retention periods, in which the practitioner holds their breath for a specified amount of time (kumbhaka, in yoga terms).
This influences the nervous system, slowing the heart rate, dropping blood pressure, and improving mindfulness and cognitive control. More energy will be released as more oxygen-saturated blood is pumped around the body. Muscles will relax, lightening tension, with the slow exhalations.
Resistance to stress in practitioners of either discipline will improve as the body adapts to the voluntarily induced stress response inherent to holding the breath for prolonged periods.
What this means
There are a couple of take-homes from this.
Firstly, practitioners of each should consider giving the other a go. If you have benefitted from cold water immersion, the chances are that you will find similar results from intermittent living, and vice versa. Stress levels, immune responses, anti-inflammatory benefits and metabolic rates, amongst other markers, will all benefit from either or both.
Secondly, if you want to get into intermittent living, which represents something of a leap and usually takes a lot of specialist tuition (as there are so many components to take into account all at once) and a fair degree of willpower (it is far harder to stick to than it may sound), try easing yourself in using cold water immersion. An intermittent living retreat can be preempted by a course of cold water immersion. Regular cold water immersion, conversely, will come a lot more naturally for those who have experienced intermittent living, as the willpower and extremes involved will be translated from one to the other.
Either way, it needs to be recognised that each method is a different path to the same place. They are complimentary and useful- why not try them in conjunction with one another?