It used to be that taking a cold plunge was something to complain about when the boiler packed in. But, in 2018, icy showers have become the morning ritual de rigueur among wellness aficionados unafraid to start their day with a cold spell.
The movement – and be assured, it is a movement – began with Dutch “Ice Man” Wim Hof, known for scaling snowy mountain peaks in nothing but his swim shorts, and bathing in bathtubs brimming with blocks of ice. Far from being a fringe movement, Hof’s method is gaining ground among the biohacker community, and you can now pay to be immersed in the ‘Wim Hof Method’ by the man himself.
Hof believes that the average human is simply not exposed to the extreme environments which would allow us to adapt to certain levels of stress. Through a combination of breathing, meditation and cold exposure, he claims we can safeguard our bodies against sickness, environmental stress, and daily anxieties. For Hof, the process is nothing less than a spiritual journey. In his book Becoming The Ice Man, he writes:
“Fear does not go away by itself. You have to confront your fear, mould it, then learn to control it in its own irrational reality. Every human being has the power to do just that. To go deep within and confront your inner being is a powerful act. Going deep and developing the will power is the only way.”
But Hof isn’t the only biohacker to advocate a cold shower. In his own book, The 4-Hour Body, influencer Tim Ferriss also expounds the advantages of starting your day in this way, and takes three 10-minute ice baths per week. According to Ferriss, a cold shower first thing in the morning will supercharge your metabolism and boost your mood. The idea, of course, is that if you start the day with something unpleasant, whatever horrors the office holds for you, it’ll be a doddle in comparison.
However, if this is the point where you jump up from your chair, point at your computer screen and shout ‘Quackery!”, don’t be so hasty. A plethora of scientific studies give credence to the biohackers’ icy claims. A 2008 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that cold showers may serve as an antidepressant. Meanwhile, a 2014 study found it may benefit a whole host of bodily systems, from pain management to pulmonary diseases, asthma, fatigue, anxiety, and more.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that while the signs do look promising, not everyone is convinced. A 2016 study found that although people taking cold showers took fewer sick days from work, they didn’t necessarily experience fewer days of ill health. Nor, it should be noted, is immersing yourself in cold water suitable for everyone.
Those with heart conditions, or at genetic risk of stroke would do well to consult their GP before diving in. Likewise, it’s inadvisable to encourage a pregnant partner to start their day off in this way without seeking professional input first.
Right, that’s the health and safety boxes ticked. Now onto the bona-fide benefits.
7 Science-Backed Benefits Of Cold Showers
If you’re still not convinced that cold showers are the best way to start your day, this breakdown of science-backed advantages may help change your mind. And if it doesn’t, give it a go anyway. It’s best to face your fears head on, after all. Just have a towel handy.
1. It May Help Fight Long-Term Depression
There’s a difference between feeling down, and being depressed. But, with one in four of us likely to suffer from some form of mental health condition in our lives, it pays to be open minded when it comes to treatments. A 2014 study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses predicted that 2-3 minutes of exposure to 20 degree celsius water over several months would “send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect.”
The theory here works by using the same system that causes us to get frostbite. If our body thinks we’re in danger of freezing, it re-routes blood from the extremities to the vital areas: the head and heart. By doing so, we increase levels of noradrenaline and beta-endorphin in the blood, which help boost good moods.
The study found that the therapy had a “a significant analgesic [pain-relieving] effect and it does not appear to have noticeable side effects or cause dependence.”
2. You’ll Lose Weight
Tired of salads and HIIT sessions for breakfast? Wim Hof believes that cold water exposure promotes the production of ‘brown fat’ cells in our body. As opposed to the ‘white fat’ most of us carry, brown fat historically keeps us warm, and boosts the metabolism. But we carry much less of it than we used to when we lived as hunter gatherers.
By exposing ourselves to extreme conditions, we can force our body to adapt, and re-grow this beneficial brown fat. In fact, one study found that three hours’ exposure to cold burned an extra 250 calories through brown fat activation, meaning that just six minutes per day over the course of a month will help you trim down any unwanted weight.
3. You’ll Banish DOMS
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is the bane of the amateur athlete’s existence. For those who aren’t fluent in alpha male bro-lingo, it essentially means that you’ll ache like there’s no tomorrow two days after a heavy gym session. Luckily, cold water exposure can help reduce the pain-giving inflammation those dumbbell exercises left you with.
Paula Radcliffe is said to bathe in cold water following a particularly gruelling run, while a 360-person study published by the Cochrane Library found that cold water exposure did indeed reduce inflammation after cycling and swimming. The idea is that the cold causes arteries to constrict, which reduces the amount of waste tissue and swelling able to build up around an injured spot, saving you from reaching for the Ibuprofen.
4. You’ll Get Less Sick
We’ve already mentioned the 2006 study that found those regularly exposing themselves to cold water took fewer sick days. But evidence that the subjects’ health actually improved was still sparse. However, research published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine, challenges that.
Ten cold water swimmers were monitored over the course of the experiment and observers noticed an “adaption to repeated oxidative stress”. This, of course, chimes with Hof’s theories. But what actually happened on a genetic level was an increase in the subjects’ levels of the antioxidant glutathione. This in turn helps regulate the process of all other antioxidants in the body, thereby helping to reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and other genetic illnesses. It’s reasonable, then, to assume that repeated cold showers may have a similar benefit.
5. You’ll Boost Your Libido
The idea that a cold water will get sex off your mind might not be true after all. Evidence shows that, in men at least, cold showers can boost your sex drive. This study dates back to 1993 and the UK’s Thrombosis Research Institute, where researchers found that cold water exposure increases testosterone production in men, presumably as part of our “flight or fight” response to perceived danger. Not only is your testosterone level responsible for your virility, it’s also a vital component of muscle synthesis. So a cold shower after a heavy gym session should help you grow.
6. You’ll Boost Your Focus
A wide-ranging 2014 study delved into the possible applications of cold water exposure across the body. We’ve touched on some of these benefits above, but the one most likely to benefit you is cold water’s ability to reduce fatigue. This works on two levels. First of all, jumping out of bed and into a cold shower is likely to shock you awake (of course).
Secondly, the study found that cold water exposure boosted blood flow to the heart, increasing heart rate, and boosted lung function and oxygen transportation around the body as well as amping up alterness-boosting hormones. All of which adds up to a more focused individual.
7. You’ll Be Able To Deal With Stress More Efficiently
Another study looking at cold water swimmers found cold water exposure boosts glutathione levels in the blood, as well as concluding that the cold helps decrease levels of harmful biological by-products superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and catalase. What these mean in English is that you’ll be better able to adapt to environmental stresses on a basic level. Or, as the study authors have it:
“We interpret this as an adaptative response to repeated oxidative stress, and postulate it as a new basic molecular mechanism of increased tolerance to environmental stress.” And if trying to make sense of how that has stressed you out, don’t worry, just head for a cold shower and all will become clear.
How To Get The Most From A Cold Shower
Before you put a hammer through your thermostat, it’s worth noting that cold water exposure isn’t as simple as filling the bath with ice cubes, or forcing yourself to stand under a freezing shower-head for a quarter of an hour each morning. Follow these guidelines if you want to win the cold war.
Test The Water
Don’t just turn the shower to the coldest setting; use your hand to gauge just how cold the water is first. This should hopefully (maybe) reduce the shock when you step in, and prevent any damage – you wouldn’t force yourself into a scalding bath, either, right?
Use Your Instincts
We’re not expecting you to take a thermometer into the shower, and the coldest temperature will depend on climate and season, so it is in many ways a moveable feast. The best way to find the right temperature is to use your hand, as suggested above. If it’s so cold it burns, it’s probably too cold. If it’s so cold you find yourself swearing through gritted teeth, that’s probably right.
Don’t Mess About
In other words, go for it. Remind yourself that this is a beneficial experience, and step under the water. Get your head, front and back wet in one go. Like cold water swimming, it’s best to just dive in, rather than exposing yourself gradually. Focus on the cold, and try to see it a beneficial, healing energy, instead of freezing water.
Naturally, you’ll need to breath. Start with rapid, shallow breaths before you step into the water. This will help psyche you up, and ensure a good oxygen supply. Most importantly, it’ll likely prevent you from hyperventilating when you do step into the water. After a few minutes of cold, you should find your heart rate slowing to a more comfortable pace.
It’s fine to alternate between hot and cold, or to start warm and ease yourself down to cold. But for best results, go in cold and aim for 30 seconds. It’s harder than it sounds. Try this for a week, and when you’re ready, up it to one minute at the end of your shower. You’ll feel the benefits, and any more is just showing off. You aren’t Wim Hof, after all.