Whether it was the Goop Labs documentary on Wim Hof, a.k.a The Ice Man, or the constant wild swimming media coverage during lockdown - cold water therapy is most certainly on our radars these days! I’m always interested in the latest wellness trends, so I was keen to give cold showers a go and I have to say I’m feeling rather good! Even Jo Wicks, the Nation’s favourite P.E teacher, has installed an ice bath and sauna in his back garden and is getting into the movement. So today I thought I’d delve into the topic a little further and explore some of the benefits of cold water therapy.
As we know, stress is bad for us right? Wrong!
Chronic stress is bad for us, but one-off, stressful scenarios have been a part of human life and evolution since the beginning of time. That’s because there’s such a thing as ‘good stress’, otherwise known as hormesis.
What is Hormesis?
Hormesis refers to the beneficial effects of something that at a higher intensity would be harmful. For example, 4 minutes in some very cold water is beneficial, but an hour could be life threatening.
A hormetic stressor therefore, is a stress that is applied only for a short period of time and thereafter removed to allow the body to rest and recalibrate. The best bit about hormetic stressors is that they help train the body to deal with stress. Exercise, fasting and saunas are all examples of hormetic stressors too.
The human body only has one type of stress response. Basically what that means is that we can use something like cold water, which is a hormetic stressor, to train our bodies to deal better with all types of stress - work, relationships, illness etc. It’s the same with breathwork - the more stressful, Wim Hof style breathing that’s used in a session, coupled with the relaxing breath that follows, tells the body “okay you’re stressed you should secrete cortisol and adrenaline, oh no wait, everything’s fine. Okay good, I can just remember that everything will be fine again next time and I wont get so stressed.”
Does that make sense? It’s so clever - the human body is amazing!
So whilst you might like to get your hormetic stressors via exercise or saunas, there are actually some extra benefits to cold water that make this new wellness trend one to try! And you’d don’t just have to go all in and jump into the Hampstead Heath Ponds, you can start slowly with cold showers and work your way up.
The Benefits of Cold Water Immersion
Hormesis aside, let’s discuss the specific benefits of using cold water as your temporary stressor.
- Obviously the first major one is the ability to influence your adaptive stress response and feel calmer and more grounded throughout the day following a cold swim.
- Cold water immersion has the ability to boost our happiness. A 2007 research study found that cold water can help treat depression symptoms and if used regularly can be more beneficial than medications. The reason for this is that cold water triggers the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, like dopamine, which make us feel happy and upbeat. Even if you’ve never done seriously cold water you must have at least once jumped into a pool or the ocean and been shocked by the cold? That feeling of exhilaration is ten times better with cold water immersion.
- It’s well known that you burn more calories when you’re cold because your body works harder to warm you up, and it’s one of the reasons that Cryotherapy has become so popular (and so expensive). Cold water immersion is free, you can do it at home in your shower if you like, and given that routine cold water immersion has been shown to boost the body’s overall metabolic rate by 16%, that’s a pretty useful contribution to your overall weight loss goals.
- It also improves cardiovascular circulation. Sounds a bit dull to be honest, lots of things on the market claim to improve our circulation and as a consequence it’s a phrase that causes us to glaze over. However, improving circulation is one of the single most beneficial things you can do for your health. Imagine the cells inside your body housing the tiny mitochondria which convert nutrients and oxygen to ATP, for ease let’s just say ATP = energy. Increased circulation means increased blood flow to our cells, which in turn means better energy, better heart health, increased ability to concentrate and better immune function, amongst other things.
- It improves lymphatic circulation too. The lymph system is a network of vessels that run throughout the body, helping take away waste, bacteria and microbes from your cells – essentially helping the body to take out the trash. The more sedentary a life we lead the less the lymphatic system functions optimally as it’s regulated by muscle contraction. Cold water, however, causes your lymph vessels to contract, forcing your lymphatic system to pump lymph throughout your body, flushing the waste out of the area. The knock on effect from this is that the immune system’s white blood cells rise up to attack and destroy any unwanted substance contained within the lymph fluid. A strong lymphatic system equals better protection from a virus! (Not to mention any names in particular…!)
- And finally, my personal favourite, getting in the ocean, or a lake, or a London lido is a great way of connecting back to nature and grounding yourself in your surroundings.
So what do you think? Ready to take on some cold water swimming, a paddling pool in your back garden or a cold shower? It’s really easy to start cold therapy by simply turning your shower down to freezing for an icy blast at the end. Once you get used to that you can start taking exclusively cold showers, and then progress to a 2 minute swim in a lido or lake and keep building on from there!