5 Shocking Health Benefits of Cold Therapy and Exposure
When we take inventory of our routines related to our health, it’s not often that we check the “cold exposure” box. Frigid temperatures are rarely pleasurable, yet the benefits of cold therapy go far beyond fringe science and something you saw while you were scrolling on Twitter or Instagram.
The body is a miracle, a collection of bone, tissue, stored energy, and the desire to move forward, always. Then the day happens, be it the workday, the cranky child day, or a poor sleep day, and all these days stack together, mixing with the good, the bad, and the ugly. And that speaks nothing of the toll this takes on the brain. The need for repair is constant, especially as we age, and cold exposure is a relatively simple way to maximize healing our body while strengthening our mind.
So, take a deep breath, add ice to the tub, and consider these shocking benefits of cold exposure therapy.
What Is Cold Therapy?
Before deciding to plunge yourself into a snowbank, it’s essential to understand more about the primary function of cold therapy. If you’ve ever put a bag of frozen veggies on a bruise or an ice pack on a sprained ankle, you’ve practiced the primary function of cold therapy: swelling and pain reduction. The cold achieves this by constricting blood vessels and limiting circulation to the area. It’s a time-tested and proven treatment, but what if you don’t have a particular injury or aren’t actively training hard enough that your body requires repair?
Cold Therapy Benefit #1: Cold Exposure Improves the Mind-Body Connections
Exposing the body to cold water aids in faster healing, regardless of our training and fitness routines, but it also helps drive a deeper connection between the mind and body. Cold therapy is a continual process; there isn’t a goal to achieve or a final class to attend. Like life, it provides an ongoing opportunity to learn about ourselves and what we can do when we set our minds to it.
However, if one person has “mastered” cold therapy, it would be Wim Hof. Wim Hof is a teacher and founder of the Wim Hof Method. He believes cold exposure benefits our total body because it brings us closer to our ancestral survival mechanisms, which include reclaiming our mind-body connection to achieve what we want from our lives, day to day, decade to decade.
Hold On – Who Is Wim Hof?
One sentence summary: he’s the guy who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts. He holds the world record for full-body contact with a slab of ice (it’s just under two hours, by the way). Wim began his pursuit of cold therapy for a very different reason. After suffering the loss of his wife, he began submerging himself in cold water to better process his grief while also connecting with himself in a more meaningful way. From that, he further exposed himself to extreme cold until folks just started calling him “The Iceman.”
Through these feats of endurance and mental toughness, he realized how the brain has the power to control not only our moods like happiness and grief, but also our strength and, with that, our overall health. It’s these benefits of the mind-body-spirit connection Wim continues to share with others.
That connection is why he created the Wim Hof Method. In it, Wim teaches about our inner power to control our autonomous nervous system by mastering our breath and regulating our minds by being present in ways few are. Wim describes the method as “a natural path to an optimal state of body and mind.” It’s something that is within reach for us all; we just have to accept the challenge of facing the cold.
Cold Therapy Benefit #2: Cold Exposure Develops Mental Toughness
In order to not immediately dodge that first step into a cold shower, gaining control over our minds is key. Tell yourself, “You got this, you’re fine,” which might sound obvious, but it’s so important to remind yourself consistently.
Just think about how often we aren’t closely connected to something our body wants to avoid. The coldest of cold water hurts when it hits the skin, yet the more connected we are with our thoughts of withstanding it, enduring it past our natural reaction to escape, the more relaxed we become. That “inner power,” as Wim Hof calls it, is the key to unlocking the deeper benefits of cold exposure therapy. It’s that mental toughness we can carry into other, more meaningful parts of our lives.
One of the first steps to cold exposure therapy is actually climbing into the ice tub or standing under a cold shower. It’s not an accident that we end up submerged up to our neck in near-freezing water. We made this choice; we did this. It took a level of commitment. Take a moment to acknowledge your strength after your first experience with cold therapy. Next, carry that mental strength into everything else you do that day. Then tomorrow, withstand the cold for just a second longer. You’ll quickly realize just how much mental power you have and what else you can do with it.
Cold Therapy Benefit #3: Hop in a Cold Shower to Relieve Stress
Stress comes at us from all angles — work, family, and traffic, to name a few. The list is both endless and specific to each person. Frequently, stress relief comes in the form of comfort-seeking. Sometimes it’s a handful of cookies and your favorite binge-able TV show. Other times, we relieve stress through a session at the gym or a walk around the block. While there’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things (in moderation), cold showers play an important part in relieving stress.
Just the thought of turning the relaxing, warm experience of a hot shower into something frigid is a daunting one. However, taking a cold shower is an effective stress reliever. And no, it’s not just because the blinding chill of the water makes you forget about everything else in your life.
Anxiety and stress raise your blood pressure and your heart rate. Even daily stressors can put potentially unnoticed stress on your heart and body. When you experience prolonged stress, such as an overbearing boss or an unexpected deadline, your brain can become used to shouldering it. These low-level, consistent stressors become dangerous because you may not notice your body’s internal reactions to them, such as an uptick in your pulse.
To keep your body temperature regulated when you cool down, your body cycles in fresh blood, which helps your core temperature rise. When you are stressed and under anxiety, your blood pressure rises, so it only makes sense that exposing your body to the burst of a cold shower will lower it by quickly circulating fresh blood through your body. Studies have shown that cold showers can reduce your heart rate by up to fifteen percent. That’s some solid de-stressing for just a hundred and twenty seconds under the water.
What Are the Long-Term Benefits of Taking a Cold Shower?
The most apparent benefit of ongoing cold showers is increasing your alertness. It’s like the natural embodiment of an alarm clock going off at full volume: your body and your brain jolt into action. But what about as you get used to the chill? You can only lower the water temperature so far. Do cold shower benefits have a half-life of effectiveness? The short answer: no, they don’t.
The cold stimulates us to take deeper breaths, removing more Co2 from our bodies. The stress that cold imposes on our system slowly decreases over time and through consistent exposure, such as your morning shower. However, it’s that adaptation that we seek. As our body adapts to that stress, it raises the base level of our innate stress response. This means that the next time you’re asking for a raise or stuck in a traffic jam, your increased stress tolerance response will be higher, keeping you calmer, longer, and more focused on achieving the outcome you seek.
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Cold Therapy Benefit #4: Increase Weight-loss by Practicing Cold Therapy at Home
Scientists continue to learn and study how cold exposure affects us. One thing they do know is cold temperatures activate brown fat – also known as “good fat,” in our bodies. Brown fat affects our body’s temperature regulation, so while the cold causes us to shiver, it can also help lower the numbers on the scale to some extent.
Scientific studies suggest cold exposure benefits include boosting your immune system. While the exact reasons for that are still unclear, we all know that being cold makes us shiver, and what happens when we shiver can help lower the numbers on the scale to some extent.
As we shiver, we wrap our arms tight around ourselves, which triggers our bodies’ internal mechanisms to leap into action. The thermoregulation needed to sustain our body temperature while enduring cold therapy increases our metabolic output. Shivering causes us to release the hormones irisin from our muscles and FGF21 from our fat stores, which just happen to be the same hormones we release during certain levels of exercise like a brisk walk or a light jog.
While we are freezing on the outside and the inside, our body goes into hyperdrive to keep us warm, and this process will effectively burn as many calories as running up the stairs.
Cold Therapy Benefit #5: The Ice Bath Is Where You’ll Genuinely Meet Yourself
Ice baths are a doorway, a portal even, to meet our inner self.
It’s no secret that distractions consume much of our day. Some are big, like work deadlines, while others are smaller, like time spent scrolling through social media. Subconsciously, we avoid our own thoughts, dodging that nagging voice that remembers uncomfortable experiences. That’s what the ice bath takes away: the noise and the clutter of our daily distractions while putting us face-to-face with who we are inside.
As we mentioned, cold exposure therapy builds mental toughness, but once you’re in the ice bath, maybe alone, perhaps with others, you go further by creating a stronger connection with yourself. You can’t worry about or fear anything. Your brain can’t ping you about the awkward interaction you had that morning or remind you someone else in the tub might be judging your appearance.
All those worries evaporate as you learn to control your breathing to continue in the ice bath. Your body will shiver, and your teeth will chatter regardless, but your mind will clear as you focus on the in and out of your breaths. This is how you learn to last longer and longer in the cold and enjoy more and more of the cold exposure benefits. You’ll not only find strength in cold therapy, but you just might also find yourself.
Cold Therapy Delivers Long-Lasting, Positive Effects on Your Life
Cold therapy is such a simple concept. Stand under a cold shower, slide into an ice bath, and become a stronger, healthier you. However, starting something new, especially one that feels like a challenge, is tough. Endurance of the cold is a continual process, but you’ll start reaping the benefits long before sitting in an ice bath for extended periods.
Start with a hot shower and slowly turn it colder and colder. It’s okay if you can only last a second or two under the water at first. The important thing is that you’ve started — you’re already on your way to connecting with your inner power. And one day, those few seconds will become 30 seconds, and soon after, it will be a whole minute.
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