We’re always looking for that next insight that will transform our lives for the better. More often than not, what we find are practices that bring incremental change.
Cold showers and cold exposure have been touted by athletes, lifestyle bloggers, and self-help gurus. Research suggests that cold exposure is a potent guard against mental and physical stress and can improve well-being in all areas. As with any physical activity or wellness change, check with your physician or health care provider before making changes.
Daily cold exposure seems a little crazy, especially considering society’s obsession with all things warm: hot tubs, seat warmers, or sunny beach days in California… By comparison, announcing to friends that you take a morning ice bath may garner looks of surprise. Yet the mechanisms at work during a cold shower are very similar to those in most forms of exercise. The intense cold stimulates a stress response that sends your body into survival mode. As it becomes a habit, the body’s threshold for stress is raised, making you more physically and emotionally resistant to stress and stressful situations.
A study following 85 Germans who regularly participated in cold-water swimming found that the participants exhibited significantly more resilient immune systems. The swimmers were found to contract upper respiratory infections, like the common cold, 40% less than members of the control group. This and similar studies suggest that frequent cold exposure seems to strengthen the body’s immune system.
Cold exposure has also helped people stave off more serious diseases. One study showed that cold exposure had been shown to help produce a protein that protects the brain from degenerative brain diseases. Another study linked cold showers to better cancer survival rates. In addition, cold exposure is shown to impact mental health profoundly. In a study published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, following Finnish winter swimmers showed a drastic improvement in mood, memory, and alertness over four months. Cold exposure has been frequently associated with antidepressant qualities, so much so that there have been cases of people stopping their use of antidepressants due to the effects of frequent cold plunges.
While cold exposure seems fairly straightforward, a few tips might make your foray into cold showers or cold plunges a little easier. First of all, start slow. Turning your shower from hot to cold at the end of your shower is a great way to expose yourself to the effects slowly. The Cleveland Clinic says that between 30 seconds and 3 minutes are when you feel the optimal effects. However, starting less than that is a great way to gently introduce yourself to the practice. In addition, Wim Hof, whose self-improvement practices are centered around cold exposure, talks about controlling the breath when first exposed to the cold. Our breath naturally gets shallow and quick in response to the cold shock, but maintaining control of our breath and learning to take deep, purposeful inhales and exhales allows us to override our body’s stress response and enjoy the invigorating experience.
However, it is important to note that for people who have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure, cold exposure has been known to put undue stress on the heart. Before rushing into any of these practices, you will want to consult your doctor.