For years, professional athletes have submerged themselves in ice baths after strenuous workouts to reduce muscle damage and speed up recovery. Now the practice has become a popular wellness trend with celebrities like Chris Hemsworth jumping into cold water to raise money for charity.
Cold water immersion is a simple strategy that can boost your immune system, improve mental health and boost your energy levels. Here are four reasons to try it.
1. Soothe Sore Muscles
While hot showers and cold plunges have been used for centuries, the practice of submerging your body in icy water after intense exercise has become popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Also known as cold water immersion or cryotherapy, it is believed to improve muscle recovery, boost the immune system, and reduce soreness.
One study found that cold water immersion triggers an automatic pain response called stress-induced analgesia, which can help ease the aches and pains of sore muscles. The cold shock effect also appears to improve blood flow, as shown by a study in 2014 that found people who swam in frigid water for 15 minutes experienced improved arterial flexibility.
Another way cold water therapy helps sore muscles is by reducing inflammation and swelling. After intense exercise, your muscles may experience microscopic tears that can cause soreness and swelling. The anti-inflammatory effects of cold water help reduce these symptoms by tightening blood vessels, causing the muscles to shiver.
A study in 2009 found that athletes who swam in cold water after sports reported less soreness and lower levels of inflammation than those who swam in tepid water. The researchers theorized that this was due to a reduction in inflammation and a faster rate of muscle tissue repair.
Using contrasting heat and cold therapy can further decrease muscle soreness by first constricting blood flow to the area, then promoting it with warm or hot water. This is a technique called contrast therapy, and it has been found effective for treating delayed-onset muscle soreness after exercise (Cochrane). Contrasting water therapies include ice massage, cold water immersion, ice baths, whirlpools, or infrared light wraps. You can try contrasting therapy at home by running a cold shower for about 30 seconds followed by a warm one.
2. Relieve Pain
Although not a cure-all, cold water immersion can relieve a wide range of aches and pains. This is because the shock of cold water elicits “hermetic stress” in the body, which actually serves to increase the brain’s sensitivity to endorphins and increases the production of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine (focus, attention, vigilance, mood).
Jumping into icy-cold waters for a polar bear plunge or hopping under a waterfall at your favorite swim spot might seem crazy but the health benefits are real. These benefits include a stronger immune system and boosted energy. The reason it works is that cold water can cause your blood vessels to constrict, which can help reduce inflammation and swelling after an intense workout.
It’s also been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, which can lower your heart rate and improve your heart rhythm variability, all of which can help reduce stress — a major trigger of migraine headaches. In addition, it has been found to be as effective as ibuprofen in alleviating the symptoms of headaches and migraines.
A physical therapist will probably have you start with warm water and then move into the cold to avoid too much of a shock to your system, but it should only be for about a minute. They may even have you switch back and forth from warm to cold, which can be a great way to relieve your injury in the most efficient manner possible.
3. Boost Your Immune System
Getting in cold water on a regular basis might help strengthen your immune system. Cold showers cause the body to release adrenaline, which reduces inflammation and helps the immune system fight off infections. It may also decrease your risk of anxiety. This is why celebrities like Chris Hemsworth jump into icy cold water in the winter for the Polar Bear Plunge, a fundraiser that promotes the health benefits of regular cold exposure.
Another way to get cold exposure is to take an ice bath. This involves filling a tub with cold water and adding one to three bags of ice. The temperature of the ice water should be between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, you soak in the ice bath for about 15 minutes. Extreme athlete Wim Hof, known as ‘The Iceman’, takes ice baths three times a week to support his recovery and performance.
People who immerse themselves in cold water regularly have fewer colds and higher levels of infection-fighting white blood cells than those who don’t. And anecdotal evidence suggests that a blast of cold water can help ease the pain of phantom limbs caused by nerve damage. The cold water also encourages the lymphatic system to move fluid throughout the body, removing toxins and increasing circulation.
4. Boost Your Mood
Cold shock triggers the body’s natural production of hermetic stress (good stress), increases the production of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine that helps with focus, attention, and mood and increases stress tolerance. This can help mitigate and even eliminate mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Several studies have shown that cold water therapy can improve mood and boost energy levels. The physiology behind these effects is not completely understood, but it may be related to the production of endorphins (the body’s feel-good hormones), the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline during the initial shock, the stress-buffering mechanism of hormesis, or an adaptive response that develops over time from regular immersion in cold water.
The fact that cold water immersion produces hermetic stress and activates genetic pathways that help regulate life stressors, can make it an effective coping strategy for anxiety and depression. In addition, it has been reported that daily cold exposure can reduce the need for antidepressants.
To experience the full range of benefits, you can try taking a cold shower or plunge at home by filling a tub with water and adding as many ice cubes as possible. Or you can purchase a purpose-built cold plunge unit or even convert your bathtub into an ice bath by placing the tub in your freezer. If you’re not ready to commit to a daily cold shower or ice bath, consider starting with a brief cold-water rinse followed by hot therapy and then slowly building up your routine over time.