There are a number of different health and fitness benefits you can enjoy with frequent exposure to cold, also known as cold water immersion therapy. It has been shown to boost circulation, strengthen the immune system, decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and decrease inflammation, among others.
For athletes in particular, cold immersion therapy has been found to reduce inflammation, swelling and incidents of DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness), making it a perfect aid for recovery. It has additionally been linked with increased metabolic function, improved sleep quality and an improvement to immune function: all of these tend to suffer under an active lifestyle, and an improvement to each will represent an improvement to fitness and athleticism as a whole.
But what exactly is cold water immersion, how does it work, and what could it do for you?
Cold water immersion therapy: what does it do?
There’s nothing new about cold water therapy. In fact, many different cultures have used both hydrotherapy and cold therapy for hundreds of years. It is, however, seeing something of a resurgence, in no small part due to the championing of cold therapy luminaries like Wim Hoff.
Proponents of cold immersion therapy claim that it activates and invigorates the body’s own healing powers. Though this may sound a little New Age and fluffy, there is a growing body of evidence- both scientific and anecdotal- attesting to cold therapy’s efficacy through a variety of factors. It is currently used as a treatment for many medical conditions, including depression, anxiety, insomnia and joint inflammation, and is undertaken by many as a lifestyle-augmenting practice aimed at promoting overall health, wellbeing and longevity.
What are the benefits?
Practised regularly, cold water immersion therapy can provide beneficial, long-lasting changes to your body’s digestive, circulatory, immune and lymphatic systems, whilst leading to deeper sleep and improved energy levels, enhancing the overall quality of your life.
Benefits of cold immersion therapy can include:
Alleviated muscular soreness
Research and hard data into this can be conflicting- there is still a great deal of debate surrounding cold immersion therapy’s efficacy for alleviating muscle soreness, and the reasons behind it. However, most studies seem to agree that athletes who have immersed themselves in cold water for short durations post-exercise experience far fewer incidents of DOMS, including much-reduced intensities of muscular soreness.
One study, conducted in 2011, showed that 10 minutes of cold water immersion post-training resulted in athletes reporting far less muscular soreness. This was backed up by another study in 2016, with athletes benefiting from the use of water pools cooled to 12-15 degrees.
One of the leading theories seeking to explain cold water immersion’s effect on muscular soreness is the constriction of blood vessels that it causes. Reduced blood flow to sore areas helps to reduce swelling and inflammation, much like using an ice pack on an injury.
When circulation is impaired, blood flow is compromised, and the heart suffers from increased stress. Ramifications of this range from fatigue and headaches to muscle cramps and, often, heart attack and stroke.
On the flip side, improved circulation will lead to improved heart health, heightened energy levels and cognitive performance, improved immune and metabolic health and greater overall wellbeing.
Its ability to stimulate improved circulation is one of the main benefits to be gained from cold water immersion. When immersed in cold water, blood rushes to the vital organs. The heart is forced to beat more efficiently, supplying more oxygenated blood- and thus more nutrients- to blood vessels throughout the body. The digestive system will be improved as blood flow to digestive organs is increased.
Regular cold immersion can help to promote healthy circulation in this way, giving your body the lift it needs.
Boosted immune function
Cold water immersion therapy can also help to improve the functioning of the body’s immune system. This would make it far easier for your body to fight illness and infection, making you far less vulnerable to everything from the common cold to infected wounds.
Data from a study conducted in The Netherlands seem to concur with the efficacy of cold water immersion as an immune system booster, showing promising evidence that it does indeed help the body to keep itself healthy. Participants showed fewer symptoms when exposed to bacterial infection when they had undergone regular cold immersion therapy: their bodies produced fewer pro-inflammatory chemicals and more anti-inflammatory chemicals in response to the infection.
Eased symptoms of depression and anxiety
There is no one single cure for any mental health condition, and nobody is claiming that cold immersion therapy is a panacea. However, anecdotal evidence, case studies and recent data all suggest that swimming in cold, open water can help to drastically alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression in those prone to both.
In some instances, practitioners of cold swimming and immersion therapy have been able to reduce or even forego medical intervention and medication, treating depression and anxiety with cold water alone.
A study from 2007 seems to back this up. Researchers found that participants who underwent regular cold showers (at least twice-daily) exhibited decreased instances and severity of depressive behaviour.
Though the cause is not yet known, the correlation between cold immersion therapy and decreased signs of depression and anxiety seems to be very strong.
Faster cooldown if you’re overheated
This may sound obvious, but it bears running through, nonetheless. Your body will cool down faster when you expose yourself to cold immersion therapy than if you simply allow yourself to cool down in a cold climate or environment. In fact, cold immersion can cool you off twice as quickly.
This may matter a great deal, especially in certain circumstances. Though it may be comfortable and safe enough to conduct hard physical exercise in cooler climates, during colder months, hot summer training can be very dangerous. The risk of overheating is high and the ramifications quite profound, as anything from heart palpitations to serious drops or spikes in blood pressure can set in.
If you are a hard-working athlete or have a physically demanding job, consider cold therapy during the warmer weather as a way to bring yourself back to equilibrium.
Your body temperature should be at its lowest right before going to bed. It will then naturally rise as you come close to waking up. This is why it’s quite common for those who suffer from disturbed sleep patterns to wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat.
Cooling your body before bed can prevent this from happening. It can also help you to better regulate your temperature through the night and will keep you in a deeper sleep for longer. Melatonin production will also improve, meaning that you will wake up better rested and more fully rejuvenated. Whilst it’s always a good idea to sleep in a cold room because of this, cold immersion will go a long way to improving your sleep.
Wim Hof Therapy
Cold immersion therapy is core to the Wim Hof Method. Under the Wim Hof Method, the above benefits are elicited by the frequent use of cold showers and ice baths, both in day-to-day life and clustered around training. Athletes who undergo Wim Hof Therapy report faster recovery times, fewer incidents of DOMS (with much reduced severity when it does occur) and greater overall energy levels both during training and in everyday life.
Of course, it isn’t just athletes who stand to gain from the Wim Hof Method: participants, no matter their lifestyles or fitness levels, report health benefits ranging from improved immune response, to less inflammation around the joints, to improved energy levels and heightened moods.