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You may have seen me on Instagram
enjoying surviving a soak in my cold plunge tub, and sharing about my trip to Finland where we literally jumped into a freezing river. I thought I should explain about the benefits of ice baths in a bit more detail, and the compelling reasons that convinced me to start working cold therapy into my health routine.
While it doesn’t seem natural that anyone would ever voluntarily choose to get extremely cold, at this point I’m hooked! Here’s why.
What Is Cold Therapy?
If music can change the brain and body, it shouldn’t be surprising that temperature can do the same thing.
Cold therapy is essentially the process of using cold temperatures for the health benefits. Many have used in many different ways since the 1700s to improve health and provide pain relief. Cold therapy can be as simple as using an ice pack on an injury, or as extreme as using a cryotank (which I talk about here).
Ice bath therapy is something athletes have used for years to reduce pain and speed up recovery between games or workouts. But it seems the benefits of cold therapy go far beyond the locker room. This old tool for improved health is getting more buzz as new research comes out.
Ice Bath Benefits: Why I Traded in My Hot Tub
The general idea with ice bath therapy is that cooling the skin in water makes the body work harder to maintain internal temperatures. This increases blood flow to the entire body. The following are some more specific ice bath benefits.
Faster Recovery from Exercise and Injury
Athletes have known for a long time that cold therapy can help recovery from exercise. The idea is that cold reduces swelling and lactic acid that causes muscle soreness after a workout. It works by constricting blood vessels, according to a 2010 study.
Research seems to support what athletes have known for a while. One sports medicine study found that submerging in an ice bath after a strenuous run helped raise tissue oxygenation, which can help muscle repair.
Cold therapy also helps reduce pain from an injury. A 2014 meta-analysis showed that cold therapy can reduce pain, even after the body warms back up.
While pain reduction is a great thing, there are some reasons to use caution when icing for muscle recovery. Some researchers wonder if the inflammatory process could actually hinder muscle adaptation. According to this 2015 study, muscles learn to adapt to the kind of activity we’re doing based on the inflammatory response. If there is a lot of inflammation, the body learns that the muscles need to be able to do the level of activity that caused the inflammation. Essentially, that’s how we get stronger. Removing that inflammation may mean slower improvement.
Bottom Line: Cold therapy is fine for reducing pain occasionally, but should be used with caution for frequent muscle or injury recovery.
Immune System Boost
Because winter is often the time we get sick, it’s hard to believe that cold can improve the immune system, but it just might! A clinical trial in the Netherlands found that people who took cold showers called out of work 29% less often.
But fighting colds isn’t the only way cold therapy can help the immune system. Cold exposure increases leukocytes in the body which protect against disease.
Ice baths may even have an effect on cancer cells. Daily brief cold stress (like from a cold bath or shower) has been shown to increase the numbers and activity of cytotoxic T-cells and NK cells. These cells are the major players in preventing and attacking tumor cells.
Additionally, sudden ice-cold water immersion can increase blood-brain barrier permeability, which may help defend against some infections.
Improves Brain Function and Mood
Cold therapy may increase mental focus as well. This is likely due to the catecholamine release cold therapy provides. Exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases endorphins (feel-good neurotransmitters). It also increases the release of noradrenaline in the brain, which prepares the body for action and sharpens focus.
Cold therapy can also improve mood for similar reasons. Because of a large number of cold receptors in the skin, cold showers are expected to send electrical impulses to the brain, which could result in an antidepressant effect (like a milder, non-harmful electroshock therapy). In fact, it’s thought that cold therapy may have antipsychotic effects for the same reason. The electrical impulses from cold therapy may also “crowd out” the psychotic neurotransmissions.
Increases Energy, Metabolism, and Weight Loss
If you’ve ever jumped into cold water you know that the shock of the temperature can make you feel energized (and a bit giddy!). This is likely from the release of catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) and endorphins in reaction to the cold. It’s basically an adrenaline rush. Researchers even found that submerging in 57 degree water increased catecholamines by 530 percent!
Ice baths can also improve metabolism and accelerate weight loss. A study on the human metabolism found that cold exposure helps white fat act more like brown fat. Brown fat is the “good fat” that helps the body create heat (newborns have lots of brown fat). That means cold therapy helps white fat begin to burn more readily. Additionally, brown fat gain is associated with better insulin sensitivity.
Precautions When Taking a Plunge into the Ice
It’s not hard to imagine that there may be some risks involved in ice bath therapy. It is submerging yourself in ice cold water after all! According to Dr. Corbett in a CNN article, cold therapy may have some of these side effects and risks:
- Hyperventilation leading to metabolic alkalosis (a tissue pH above normal range)
- Impaired consciousness (rare)
- Reduction in cerebral artery blood flow which could cause fainting
- Fast or abnormal heartbeat
- Allergic and anaphylactic shock as well as the
- Development of non-freezing cold injury (similar to frostbite but not as severe)
However, proponents of cold therapy argue that there are some safety precautions that can help avoid these risks.
Wim Hof of the Wim Hof Method recommends certain guidelines in his program to increase benefits and decrease risk (the 2nd video in his training is a safety video). However, safety in the cold tub varies according to individual tolerance.
Keep in mind too that many of the studies done on cold therapy and ice bath benefits were on healthy people. If you have any medical conditions, ice baths are probably not for you. (And certainly not if you are pregnant.) Always check with your doctor before trying a new therapy, especially one that involves exposure to extreme cold.
How to Do an Ice Bath for Health
If you’re willing to try an icy plunge for the promise of improved immunity and increased energy, here’s how to do it:
- Work your way into it – Submerging in ice cold water is a definite shock to the system. Start by taking just a cold bath. Practice breathing normally and relaxing. You can increase the amount of ice you add to the bath as you get used to the water. You can also add more ice each time you try an ice bath. Even a bath at about 60 degrees has some benefits.
- Move up to a cold plunge tub – For the full effect, you need a tub that allows you to submerge your whole body. You can make your own ice bath tub with a galvanized tub like this one (for additional DIY instructions see this post from Ben Greenfield). If you don’t like the idea of having to get ice whenever you want an ice bath, you might consider investing in a cold plunge tub. I use my cold plunge tub (use code wellnessmama for a discount) several times a week and alternate it with our barrel sauna. It really does take some slow, deep breathing and concentration (see what I mean on my Instagram) but your body adapts over time and it gets easier!
- Follow safety guidelines – If you’re following any specific program (like Wim Hof) always follow the safety guidelines. In general, breathe normally and listen to your body.
Final Thoughts on This (Crazy?) Cold Therapy
It may take some stoicism each time, but the benefits of ice bathing and the way you feel after is so worth it. An improved immune system, better mental clarity and healthy, and improved metabolism are pretty enticing benefits and the reason I keep taking the plunge.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried an ice bath? What was your experience?