Cold plunging has been a part of my self-care routine for the past six months. And honestly, it has changed my life. Let’s talk about the benefits of cold therapy.
If you follow me on INSTAGRAM , you already know that I’ve been cold plunging (almost) daily for the past 6 months. And in my healing journey, it is the one thing that I think has had the biggest impact on my physical AND mental health. It has helped make me a happier, more calm and resilient person.
What is Cold Therapy?
Cold therapy (also called cryotherapy or cold thermogenesis) is essentially the process of using cold temperatures for health benefits. This type of therapy has been used for hundreds of years to decrease pain, improve recovery, and to improve overall health.
Taking a cold shower is an easy way to experience cold therapy. Athletes often submerse themselves in cold tubs and ice baths. And whole body cryotherapy, in a specialized chamber using liquid nitrogen, is becoming available all over the place.
Benefits of Cold Therapy
While it may sound a bit crazy to purposefully expose yourself to extreme cold temperatures, there is actually quite a bit of science behind the practice.
For those of you that like to skim, here’s the quick version. Please continue reading below if you’re a science nerd like me and want to know all the things. 🤓
8 Health Benefits of Cold Therapy
- improves cardiovascular circulation
- improves lymphatic circulation
- boosts metabolism, lowers blood sugar, and can help with weight management
- reduces inflammation and pain
- improves immune response
- improves mental focus
- boosts your mood
- improves mental resilience
My Personal Experience
I love cold plunging.
For those that know me, this is pretty incredible, given that I have absolutely hated cold up until now. But for the past 6 months, I’ve learned to really appreciate the benefits of cold temperatures.
I started taking cold showers last summer as an experiment to see if it would help improve some of the lingering cognitive symptoms I still had from being sick for so many years. I started doing more research and following other people who were into cold therapy.
What I soon discovered is that I prefer cold plunging in a bath tub to cold showers. Immersing myself in still cold water enabled me to better calm my nervous system.
I began by filling my bath tub up with cold water from the tap and immersing in it every morning. I soon started adding several large ice cubes that I made in plastic tubs in my freezer. It didn’t take long for me to realize how beneficial this practice was for my brain health. I was feeling more awake and alert after my morning plunge. I was in a good mood for hours afterwards. I felt more calm throughout my day. I was basically feeling happier.
Once the winter months came, we installed a claw foot bathtub on the back deck just outside of our bedroom. I keep this filled with water (changing the water every 4-5 days), and I plunge in it almost every morning after taking a quick hot shower.
The water temperature ranges ranges from 30’F to about 45’F, depending on the outside temperature. THIS is the digital hand held thermometer I use. I spend about 2 to 2 and 1/2 minutes in my cold plunge. Once the weather gets warmer gain, I will go back to adding large ice cubes from my freezer.
The Benefits I’ve Noticed
The first thing I noticed about cold therapy is that I feel AMAZING afterwards. I feel alert, awake, and alive. Cold plunging immediately improves my mood, and I feel overall happier when I do it regularly.
I also notice that after cold plunging, it is much easier to focus and get my work done. My brain feels clear and sharp.
Weight management and blood sugar control is not an issue for me. I tend to have a fast metabolism and already need to eat regularly in order to keep up with my body’s needs. I have noticed that I am a bit leaner in the past 6 months and find myself needing more calories, especially on days that I work out. I have no scientific evidence, but maybe my metabolism is faster due to the cold plunging.
I also notice that I feel less cold. I have had cold intolerance since I can remember. I have “hated” the cold. Cold plunging has made cold more tolerable for me.
I work out regularly, and cold plunging has been really great for sore muscles. I can tell a big difference once I get out of the cold water. I was experiencing shoulder pain a couple of months ago from over-training. Cold therapy really helped with immediate pain relief that would last for a couple of hours.
I wish I had a way to measure immune response. But I can say that since I have been cold plunging almost every day, I have remained pretty healthy. I got one cold over the holidays, but it was mild and I got over it in a few days. Full disclosure here, I do take supplements for immune health and optimize exercise and sleep, which all help with immune function.
I think the biggest lesson I have learned from cold plunging is that I CAN DO HARD THINGS. Putting myself in a “stressful” situation every morning is teaching me to remain calm in other aspects of my life. I FEEL more resilient. I feel more in control of my emotions. I feel more able to handle difficult situations. And that makes my life better in so many ways.
How To Get Started
Let me start by saying that cold plunging is not for everyone. And it would make sense not to just toss yourself into freezing cold water before acclimating yourself to cold temperatures first. Start slowly and work up to colder temperatures and more time. If you have pre-existing health conditions (especially cardiac conditions), please consult with your medical provider before starting any new health regimen.
Taking cold showers is the easiest way to dive into cold therapy. It’s quick, easy, and free. Simply turn the water to cold after your shower and let the cold begin. Start with just 15-30 seconds and work up from there. It’s amazing what a little cold water will do.
The benefits of cold therapy can be felt from just taking cold showers, but many people like to take it to the next level and start cold plunging in icy water. The optimal temperature for cold therapy is below 55’F.
Check it out for yourself. Do your own research and see what works for you right now your current season of your life.
Training the Brain with the Breath
While there are many physiological benefits to cold therapy, training the brain and the nervous system is where the real magic happens. `
Our natural reaction to submerging ourselves in cold water (or turning on a cold shower) is to gasp and to get really tight. The practice of remaining calm while putting ourself in a stressful situation is what trains the brain to remain calm in other stressful situations in life. That is why I focus on the breath while doing my cold plunge.
Slow and deep breathing has a calming effect on the the brain and nervous system. Allowing my breath to really slow down and get really deep when in cold water tells my brain that I’m OK… I am calm. This build resilience and helps with feelings of overwhelm, anger, frustrations, and anxiety during other difficult times in life. I essentially rewires my brain to not always go to the “fight or flight” place that I am accustomed to going. It teaches me to remain calm and relaxed even if I’m feeling stressed.
4 Part Breath (or Box Breathing) is a breathing technique with a simple 4 second rotation of breathing in, holding your breath, breathing out, holding your breath, and repeating. It’s a surprisingly simple and effective way to help regain calm and control of your thoughts when under stress.
Here are the directions:
- Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds
- Hold your lungs full for 4 seconds
- Exhale through nose or mouth) for 4 seconds
- Hold your lungs empty for 4 seconds
Other breathing techniques to use during cold therapy :
- simply focus on breathing in and breathing out, completely relaxing the body on the exhale.
- breath in for count of 4, breath out for the count of 8
The Science Behind Cold Therapy
improves cardiovascular circulation
Immersing yourself in cold water stimulates blood flow, moving the blood through your vessels and around vital organ and cells in your body. Cold therapy makes every single vessel in your body contract, making it essentially a cardiovascular workout that brings more oxygen, CO2, nutrients, hormones, and toxins in and out of our cells. Considering that cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death in the US, having a daily practice that improves cardiovascular health sounds like a pretty good idea.
improves lymphatic circulation
The lymphatic system is a network of vessels throughout the body that carry our lymphatic fluid back towards the heart. Its job is to regulate balance of fluids in the body, to absorb and transports fatty acids and fats, and to support the body’s immune system by filtering out harmful microorganisms and cellular waste from lymph. Cold therapy causes the lymph vessels in the body to contract, helping the lymphatic system better do its job and supporting detoxification in the body.
boosts metabolism, lowers blood sugar, and weight management
Immersing yourself in cold water will kick start your metabolism. Shivering in cold water is your body’s attempt to maintain core temperature. Shivering generates heat, and this increase in heat means a boost to your metabolism.
People who regularly expose themselves to cold tend to have higher levels of brown fat (brown adipose tissue or BAT) in the body, which converts food energy into heat energy. This is the good fat that when it burns it helps to generate heat without shivering AND also burns calories. With cold exposure, glucose uptake has been observed to increase 12-fold in brown fat, along with a significant increase in metabolism and energy expenditure.
Cold exposure also can cause blood glucose to be burned rapidly as fuel to help heat the body before that blood sugar can potentially be converted to fat via the liver. Brown fat is being studied as a possible therapy for obesity and diabetes.
While cold therapy isn’t a magic pill for weight loss, the increase in metabolic rate along with healthy food, lifestyle, and exercise choices may help with weight management.
reduces inflammation and pain
Most of us have used probably cold therapy (ice) to reduce inflammation. And you may have heard about professional athletes soaking in ice baths after strenuous workouts. Immersing the body in cold water lowers body tissue temperature and constricts the blood vessels. This reduces swelling and inflammation, and can numb nerve endings, bringing immediate pain relief. Regular cold showers or cold plunging can be a useful part of pain management.
improves immune response
I’ve done quite a bit of reading on this topic. I like hard science and wish I could find more evidence. But research does point to cold exposure boosting the production of antioxidants like glutathione. Research also has shown that cold therapy increases levels of immune system cells that help fight disease and infection, specifically increased leukocytosis and granulocytosis, an increase in natural killer cell count and activity, and a rise in circulating levels of interleukin-6. This is likely due to norepinephrine release that happens with cold exposure. Basically, cold therapy gives your immune system a big boost.
improves mental focus
This was the first thing that I noticed personally with cold plunging. Cold water feels a bit shocking and makes you feel awake and alert. This is my favorite way to start my day. After I cold plunge, I feel pumped and ready for my day. That exhilarated feeing lasts for hours into my day.
boosts your mood
Improved mood has been the most surprising benefit of cold therapy for me. I have noticed a dramatic increase in my happiness and overall mood. This is because cold water triggers a flood of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, which make you feel happy. It’s no surprise that research shows that cold showers can help treat symptoms of depression.
Cold therapy can also be used to help with anxiety. Anxiety happens when you allow your emotions to control how you feel, negatively affecting your nervous system. Regular cold exposure can help you gain a bit of control over your emotions and reactions, helping to train your nervous system to stay calm, even when exposed to stress. This helps you stay out of fight or flight mode.
improves mental resilience
This last benefits of cold therapy goes along with training the nervous system and brain to remain calm when immersed in cold water. When you regularly expose yourself to stress (cold water) and remain calm while doing it, it teaches your brain to remain calm in every day situations. Your brain and nervous system gets used to this small amount of stress and you are more easily able to think straight and manage your stress levels when difficult situations arise. Your nervous system remains calm. You get less flustered. You are better able to manage anger and frustration.
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