Remember those kids at summer camp who seemed to enjoy nothing more than jumping into a freezing pool with reckless abandon?
That wasn’t me. I dipped my toe while praying for a thunderstorm to force us all back inside. As an adult, I continued to find the idea of subjecting myself to icy water about as appealing as walking in front of a moving car.
Yet I kept hearing wellness pundits rave about “cold immersion.” They made it sound fairly simple. You pop into a really cold lake, ice bath or shower; stay there for some extended period of time; reemerge, shivering and bluish; and magically reap a wide range of supposed health benefits, such as more energy, better metabolic health and happier moods. Cold showers seemed slightly better than submerging myself in ice, and the concept was intriguing, if not exactly tempting.
But I became more interested in trying it this past winter. I’d begun to feel vaguely depressed, with the sunless skies, the pandemic marching on like an evil Energizer Bunny, and my occasional overwhelm from adjusting to a new career path — all while trying to cut back on my coffee addiction. I needed a boost.
Before I tried to conquer my fear of chilly water, I spoke with experts to see if it was worth it. One of them was David Sinclair, a Harvard biologist and leading researcher of longevity whose “metabolic winter” hypothesis would explain why cold immersion supports long-term health. His hypothesis, he said, is based on the fact that, for tens of thousands of years “our status quo was being cold.” That was because our ancestors lived outdoors in seasonally cold temperatures, endured the ice age and migrated to colder climates. Human metabolism, therefore, was designed to adapt to uncomfortable weather (hot temperatures may have had the same effect). But these days we live almost entirely in climate-controlled luxury. The new status quo derails our health because it eliminates the biological challenges our bodies had adapted to.
Sinclair’s hypothesis draws from a principle, well accepted by biologists, called hormesis: Some amount of pain is good for us. In addition to cold-water immersion, other examples of hormesis include exercise and dietary fasts.
Another expert I spoke to, Anna Lembke, a Stanford professor and psychiatrist, prescribes various forms of hormesis including cold-water immersion instead of pills to some of her patients suffering from addictions. “It helps them tolerate withdrawal,” she told me. “The body responds to cold water by up-regulating feel-good molecules like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, as a way to compensate.”
These theories sounded plausible. Missing my usual caffeine bump and feeling especially lethargic one cloudy afternoon, I turned my shower handle to its coldest setting, took a deep breath, and stepped in.
I gasped. Then I screamed and quickly stepped out.
“Are you okay?” my 6-year-old asked from the hallway.
“I don’t know,” I said, before reassuring him — and myself — that it was just cold water.
Take two: I turned the handle to a saner, more inviting temperature, and got back in the shower. For about six minutes, I brought the pain gradually, turning the handle in increments, allowing my body to adjust. That is, until the handle would turn no longer, and the showerhead unleashed its deepest chill. I screamed again and reached out for the handle like a drowning man grabbing a rope, shutting off the water.
Never again, went the refrain in my head. But as I got dressed, cranked up the heat in my house and stood next to my space heater, a profound sense of relief spread through me, a rebound effect that lasted several hours.
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Even so, I remained skeptical. I’d just finished reading “Suggestible You,” Erik Vance’s book about the placebo effect. Beyond theoretical explanations and my own subjective take, what did scientific experiments actually reveal about the benefits of cold water?
I talked with Heather Massey, a physiologist in the Extreme Environments Research Group at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England. Research on cold immersion is “an emerging field,” she said. “There’s a desperate need for more studies” and funding to do them.
A handful of studies do show a link between cold exposure and upticks in various brain chemicals associated with well-being. For example, one study found that immersion in cold water — 57 degrees, to be exact — raised people’s blood levels of the neurotransmitters noradrenaline (by 530 percent) and dopamine (by 250 percent).
Some research suggests that noradrenaline helps counter anxiety and depression, and dopamine plays a key role in feelings of motivation and reward. Other research indicates that higher levels of noradrenaline could reduce inflammation.
Sinclair mentioned to me that enduring cold temperatures may also increase so-called “brown fat,” which is associated with lower body fat percentage. Notably, this research involved cold air, not water. Other studies suggest that cold water immersion can buffer the immune system.
The anecdotal evidence, however, has been enough for some scientists to take the plunge themselves. Massey swims outdoors in cold-weather months. Before the pandemic, Sinclair dunked himself regularly in 39-degree water for five minutes at his gym. Kenneth Kishida, a Wake Forest neuroscientist and dopamine researcher, told me that he likes to take rugged camping trips in state parks, subjecting himself to frigid showers and other hormetic stressors. He returns from these trips in higher spirits.
Wendy Suzuki, an NYU neuroscientist, takes cold showers every morning. “I can tell the difference when I forget to do it,” she told me. “It’s just generally activating. I feel so alive.”
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I’ve gotten into a rhythm of taking cold showers two or three times per week, usually after lunch. At first, I couldn’t stand the shock of the coldest temperature — 48 degrees, according to my thermometer — for more than a few seconds. With more of these showers, though, my endurance has improved; I can now persist through the worst pain for several minutes.
“That tracks with the research,” Massey told me. “Cold shock” is the body’s natural response to sudden cooling of the skin, involving faster breathing and heartbeat, she said. But as you expose yourself more, these defense mechanisms start to relax, research suggests. “You can extend your time in the water because you have far less discomfort,” said Massey.
Recently, my thoughts have even drifted to random subjects, as they do during warm showers, rather than obsessing over the pain. But I last longest when focusing on the boost I’ll get afterward — a strategy backed by research. Plus, longer cold exposure seems to intensify the benefits.
I asked my wife if she’s noticed any changes in my mood lately. “Possibly,” she replied, very diplomatically. Hoping for a more definitive answer, I asked my 6-year-old the same question. “Not really,” he said. But then he added, “I have noticed, when I look over at you, sometimes you’re just smiling at me.”
I shouldn’t need cold showers to make that happen. But if they do the trick, the pain is worth it.
Matt Fuchs lives in Silver Spring, Md. In addition to writing about health and technology, he is editor in chief of Leaps.org, a journalistic platform that covers health innovations. Follow him on Twitter.
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Are ice cold showers good for you? ›
Cold showers can help reduce inflammation, relieve pain, improve circulation, lower stress levels, and reduce muscle soreness and fatigue. Hot showers, meanwhile, can improve cardiovascular health, soothe stiff joints, and improve sleep.How long should I take a cold shower for benefits? ›
Taking a cold shower for up to 5 minutes, 2 to 3 times per week, was shown to help relieve symptoms of depression in a clinical trial. For people with depression, cold showers can work as a kind of gentle electroshock therapy. The cold water sends many electrical impulses to your brain.
There are plenty, according to Dr Google: improved energy, alertness, concentration, better circulation, weight loss, improved immune system, better moods, reduced inflammation, glowing skin and hair, and reduced muscle soreness after exercise, to name a few.Is Taking a cold shower Everyday good for you? ›
Scientific studies have found that taking a cold shower increases the number of white blood cells in your body. These blood cells protect your body against diseases. Researchers believe that this process is related to an increased metabolic rate, which stimulates the immune response. Increased willpower.Is cold water bath good for high blood pressure? ›
Optimize your blood flow, improve circulation, lower blood pressure and potentially clear blocked arteries with cool showers. Cold showers increase metabolic speed as well as the number of white blood cells in your body.Is cold water good for your hair? ›
Dr. Enrizza P. Factor, a clinical dermatologist and researcher, said, "Cold water can help your hair to become stronger and healthier over time. Cold water not only helps the scalp retain its moisture, [but] it also seals down the hair cuticles and helps lock moisture into the strands themselves."When is the best time to take a cold shower? ›
After an intense workout, a cold shower helps the muscles to relax. This prevents soreness and improves the circulation of blood to the body parts that were worked upon. They are also known to reduce inflammation and numb pain.What are the side effects of cold showers? ›
Risks of taking a cold shower
Your body's reaction to cold water puts added stress on your heart and could lead to an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. “It's going to tax your heart in a way that could be dangerous,” says Carter.
Cold Showers Prevent Skin Aging
Poor skin blood flow results in dry, dull, and aged complexion. Given that cold water improves blood flow, you're essentially helping your skin prevent premature skin aging every time you shower using cold water.
Having a cold shower can be a bit of a shock. As mentioned above, it also stimulates the flight-or-fight response which increases heart rate and blood pressure. This can have a negative effect for those with heart disease as it could precipitate a heart attack or heart-rhythm irregularities.
What are the benefits of taking a cold shower for 30 days? ›
- Stronger immune system.
- Boosting your energy levels.
- Better circulation and flexible healthy veins.
- No cold hands and feet anymore.
- Increased metabolism, more easy to loose weight.
- Natural health glow for your skin and hair.
- Increase mental resilience.
- Better physical performance and faster recovery.
Decreases Heart Rate
Studies have shown that drinking chilled water not only decreases the heart rate but also stimulates the vagus nerve. The nerve controls the involuntary functions of the body. The nerve is also an integral part of the nervous system.
Blood pressure has a daily pattern. Usually, blood pressure starts to rise a few hours before a person wakes up. It continues to rise during the day, peaking in midday. Blood pressure typically drops in the late afternoon and evening.Can drinking water lower your blood pressure? ›
Something as simple as keeping yourself hydrated by drinking six to eight glasses of water every day improves blood pressure. Water makes up 73% of the human heart,¹ so no other liquid is better at controlling blood pressure.Which water is good for face? ›
Lukewarm water is advisable to wash your face with, but cold water has its benefits, too. Cold water tightens the appearance of your skin, so it may make you look renewed and refreshed. It also helps boost your circulation, which can help give your skin a healthier appearance, albeit temporarily.How often should you wash your hair? ›
Rossi generally tells his patients they should wash their hair once or twice per week. But if you've had chemical treatments that can make your hair drier — such as bleach, perms or relaxers — you might want to wash it less than once weekly to avoid breaking or brittle hair or split ends, he said.Do you sleep better after cold shower? ›
Hot vs. Cold Showers: Which One Is Better for Sleep? More research demonstrates that warm or hot showers in the evening improve sleep. However, athletes may find that cold showers help reduce muscle stiffness, which may contribute to better sleep by reducing discomfort.Do cold showers help with immune system? ›
Stronger immune system
A study in the journal PLoS One found that people who take cold showers are 29% less likely to call in sick for work or school. The study enrolled 3,018 people who took a hot shower then used applications of cold water for 30–90 seconds based on their research group.
Cold water can make you prone to a plethora of health issues like cold, cough, pneumonia, irritation in the throat and fever. People with comorbidities should refrain from taking a cold shower.Does cold make you younger? ›
It can keep you looking younger.
Cold weather enhances the complexion and rejuvenates skin, Wong says. In a way, it slows down the aging process—think of cryotherapy spa treatments or splashing cold water on your face in the morning—and keeps skin tight, vibrant and radiant.
Do cold showers improve blood circulation? ›
Cold showers increase your circulation
As cold water hits your body and external limbs, it constricts circulation on the surface of your body. This causes blood in your deeper tissues to circulate at faster rates to maintain ideal body temperature.
Having a cold shower can be a bit of a shock. As mentioned above, it also stimulates the flight-or-fight response which increases heart rate and blood pressure. This can have a negative effect for those with heart disease as it could precipitate a heart attack or heart-rhythm irregularities.Do cold showers have disadvantages? ›
Disadvantages Of Cold Showers
Cold showers can make you feel worse if you are unwell as it can have an adverse effect on your immune system. If you already have a cold, cough or fever, you will feel colder and your body will take longer to warm up.
What Are The Disadvantages of Cold Showers. There are not many disadvantages of bathing with cold water. The only disadvantage cold showers can have is when you are already cold or sick. Taking a bath with cold water during such situations is not recommended for obvious reasons.Do ice showers burn fat? ›
Cold showers aren't going to help you lose fat faster, increase your testosterone levels, boost your post-workout recovery, strengthen your immune system, or give you prettier skin or hair. 10-minute ice baths can reduce post-workout muscle soreness, but they can also impair muscle growth and strength gains.Is an ice bath or ice shower better? ›
Ice Baths Are Better than Cold Showers for Workout Recovery
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is significantly improved after a workout when cold water immersion is used post-workout. A recent meta-analysis found that the most effective protocol is 11-15 degrees C (50-60 degrees F) for 11-15 minutes.
Benefits Of A Cold Shower Before Bed
When you sleep, your body temperature lowers. By taking a cool shower before bed, you're showing your body that bedtime is near by starting the temperature-lowering process. The cool water helps trick your whole system into sleep mode.