Myth or reality: Cold water immersion therapy, the scientific term for taking icy showers and ice baths, has become a popular health trend lately.
Renowned actors, bodybuilders and athletes actively participate in exercise and boast of its numerous health benefits. “A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away” is the new saying these days.
Cold showers have been linked to a variety of health benefits, ranging from reducing recovery time and boosting immunity to curing depression. Today we test the validity of the perceived health benefits of cold showers and ice baths.
Read on to find out if the idea that cold showers and ice baths are beneficial for your health is a myth or reality.
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What are cold showers and ice baths and how to take them?
The use of ice for healing is as old as civilization. Ice is known to preserve food, reduce swelling in the body, and cool the environment. Hydrotherapy (comprising hot and cold water) has been used in India, Egypt, China and many other cultures for naturopathic treatments. But for now, we will focus solely on using cold water to improve health.
Taking a bath or shower, or simply immersing yourself in water below a temperature of 70°F (21°C), is a form of therapeutic exercise called cold water immersion (CWI) or cold hydrotherapy.
There are many ways to practice cold therapy, such as taking cold showers, ice baths, swimming in winter, or just exposing yourself to the cold in general. This is a challenge for people who live in tropical countries or in summer. Cryotherapy chambers and cold saunas have come into operation in these places.
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Q: Is a cold shower as good as a bath?
According to research, cold showers, like cold baths, activate the SNS, but not the PNS. Which means showers are good, but not AS good as cold baths, if the goal is to increase resilience and gain health benefits from CNS activation. 🧵…
— Susanna Søberg, PhD (@SusannaSberg1)
August 18, 2022
Benefits of cold showers and ice baths
- Reduces inflammation in the body: Cold showers and ice baths reduce inflammation in the body and provide relief in conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism, joint pain, fibromyalgia or asthma.
- Increases endorphins: The sudden stress of exposure to low temperatures acts as a jolt to the nervous system, resulting in the injection of endorphins, also called happiness hormones, into the bloodstream. This results in increased alertness, calmness, energy levels and better sleep.
- Improves recovery: Cold showers and ice baths are more common among athletes as they aid in recovery and healing. A cold shower after an intense exercise session improves blood circulation in the body, reduces inflammation and prevents delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
- Boosts the immune system: Scientific studies have found that taking a cold shower increases the white blood cell count in the body. White blood cells are responsible for fighting infections. Regular cold showers raise white blood cell concentrations and increase metabolic rate, resulting in a strong immune system.
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People who regularly shower with cold water take 29% fewer days off.
Read more about the benefits of cold showers: https://t.co/BTGDesepRX pic.twitter.com/fiamuIcAHd
— World Economic Forum (@wef)
October 2, 2021
What is the science behind the benefits of cold showers and ice baths?
Stress is the main factor behind the success of cold showers and ice baths. Subjecting the body to the sudden stress of low temperatures activates the fight or flight response. It is characterized by dilated pupils, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and tremors.
Hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, testosterone, endorphins and dopamine are injected into the bloodstream. The regular release of these hormones works wonders for improving alertness, recovery, immune system, and mood.
Additionally, taking cold showers and ice baths maintains high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the body for longer periods of time compared to other similar activities such as walking, exercising, laughing, or having sex.
Based on numerous scientific studies and the satisfaction of their participants, it can be concluded that the opinion that cold showers and ice baths are beneficial for health is a reality.
A cold shower subjects the body to sudden and immense stress, activating fight or flight mode. Hormones such as adrenaline, testosterone, endorphins and dopamine (all proven mood boosters and powerful stimulants) are released into the bloodstream, resulting in increased alertness, better recovery, a strong immune system and a better mood.
As such, an individual becomes more productive, happier and healthier. However, cold showers and ice baths are not a panacea for all diseases. People with weak cardiovascular systems and respiratory problems should avoid taking cold showers.
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Winter swimming improves overall well-being – PubMed (nih.gov)
Immune system of cold-exposed and cold-adapted humans – PubMed (nih.gov)
Human physiological responses to water immersion at different temperatures – PubMed (nih.gov)
Health: What are the benefits of taking a cold shower? | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)