Cold showers for better health, mood and focus - fact or fiction?
Most recently, the topic of cold showers was catapulted into global prominence thanks to Dutch athlete Wim Hof. Known as the “Iceman” for his extreme cold-tolerance, his eponymously titled “Wim Hof Method” has drawn a global cult following. You might respond to this with apathetic disbelief and maybe reasonably so, but he does hold the frankly absurd record of having scaled about 80% of the way up Mount Everest, wearing nothing more than a pair of gym shorts and shoes.
“willingly embracing the unpleasantness and stress of a cold shower can go a long way towards making you more mentally resilient and improving your stress tolerance.”
While there has been significant research conducted on the empirical facts behind cold water therapy, the fundamental, common-sense principle behind the practice is that willingly embracing the unpleasantness and stress of a cold shower can go a long way towards making you more mentally resilient and improving your stress tolerance. You will find that it helps you respond to challenging situations, be it emotional or physical, with more ease.
What Happens To Your Physiology During A Cold Shower?
- When you step under a cold shower, your body interprets the drastic temperature change as a shock and initiates a cascade of physiological reactions to adapt as quickly as possible.
- The cold receptors in your skin undergo massive stimulation which causes them to send strong electrical impulses to your brain. This activates certain regions of the brain and triggers the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters and causes synaptic release of the stress hormone, noradrenaline.
- Levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline in the blood increase.
- Your blood vessels constrict under the effect of the cold water (vasoconstriction) as an adaptive mechanism to maintain body temperature.
- Your breathing becomes rapid and your heart rate quickens, in order to make sure sufficient amounts of blood reach your heart, which has to work harder to pump blood through the narrowed vessels.
- Blood is shunted away from superficial (near the surface) vessels and is dramatically redirected to deeper vessels in order to conserve heat and protect the vital organs. Your organs get bathed in copious amounts of oxygen-rich blood, and metabolic waste products get flushed away.
- Blood flow to the brain is increased significantly, causing more oxygen to be delivered.
- Brown adipose tissue metabolism is stimulated in order to generate heat and maintain core body temperature. This causes a spike in your metabolic rate.
- Levels of such as glutathione (antioxidant), IL-4 and gamma-interferon in the blood are increased.
What Are The (Evidence Based) Health Benefits Of Cold Showers?
As with most health related information on the internet, a decent dose of skepticism is definitely in order, with regard to the health claims made about cold showers.
Here, we attempt to vet the most common claims made about the potential health benefits associated with cold showers, using hard, scientific evidence.
1. Improves Mood and Focus
As mentioned above, exposure to cold water causes your noradrenaline levels to skyrocket and also triggers a rush of blood into your brain. This gives you an instant sense of vigilance, focus and improved attention. Moreover, the endorphins and neurotransmitters released contribute to a generalised feeling of well-being. So there’s definite credence to the notion that cold showers help you shake off the dreaded morning grogginess and give yourself a kick.
Additionally, there might be good reason to suspect that cold showers cause your energy levels to soar - A 2016 study reported that participants who were in the experimental group (who took hot-cold showers followed by cold showers, for 3 months) reported higher levels of energy than participants in the control group (who took hot showers, exclusively).
2. Helps Boost Immunity
Although this a very widely made claim with respect to cold showers, it is a rather contentious one - There is no substantial evidence to confirm any increase in the counts of white blood cells (WBC), as a result of cold showers. However, a 2015 study conducted on Dutch men did confirm that the participants who switched to cold showers reported taking about 30% fewer sick days; This however, doesn’t conclusively prove the immunity-boosting claims, as the result could very well have been because of an increased feeling of subjective well-being.
3. Helps fight Anxiety and Depression
A study published in 2013, outlines the basic principles of using cold water hydrotherapy as an effective treatment strategy for those struggling with anxiety, depression and generalised mood disorder. Thanks to the huge number of nerve endings specialised for temperature, on the surface of the skin, cold showers usually result in an overwhelming number of electrical impulses being sent to specific regions of the brain, which is postulated to be the reason for the substantial decrease in reported symptoms of anxiety and depression;
Although it might be challenging to establish this empirically, an overwhelming number of people claim that cold showers improve their feelings of “well-being” and leave them feeling more optimistic and energetic.
4. Speeds Up Muscle Recovery
Cold showers have been shown to have a significant anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. World-class athletes often dip themselves in ice-baths after rigorous training sessions or games, in order to boost recovery speeds. There is solid evidence for cold water immersion aiding faster recovery from intense physical activity, but the results also suggest that the magnitude of the effects may be commonly overstated.
The mechanism behind this is well understood - When the temperature of a particular region of the body is made to drop, it causes an increased amount of blood to flow to that region, in order to restore normal temperature; In the process, high amounts of oxygen and restorative compounds are transported to the affected area. It is for the same reason that we apply ice-packs to bruises.
5. Increases Metabolic Rate
Cold showers activate stored brown adipose tissue to release heat, in order to maintain a stable temperature. This causes a noticeable spike in metabolism, which may be desirable for those looking to lose weight.
However, it has to be said that cold showers alone can not do much for someone on a serious quest to reduce their weight. Nevertheless, it can definitely give a helping hand to someone who is serious about losing weight and has made the necessary lifestyle changes to facilitate the process.
6. Improves Circulation
Cold showers cause vasoconstriction, which challenges the circulatory system to maintain optimal blood flow. Over time, regular cold showers have been shown to improve circulation and improve vascular health.
It is also claimed that as a result of improved circulation, skin and hair health improve. However, despite significant anecdotal backing, there is no tangible evidence, as yet, to support this claim.
7. Increases fertility/ Testosterone Levels
This could also be an instance of an exaggerated albeit partially grounded claim. While it is a well documented fact that lower temperatures, on average, are associated with better testicular health, sperm counts/motility and testosterone levels, there is no evidence directly linking regular cold water exposure with increased fertility or testosterone levels.
However, a study conducted in 2007 did report a 200% increase in sperm counts in men who stopped taking warm/hot showers over the study period. Nevertheless, this only confirms what we already know about the testes not functioning optimally at higher temperatures and doesn’t actually furnish any evidence for the claims that cold showers increase testosterone levels/improve fertility.
8. Helps Fight Inflammation
The science definitely backs this one. As mentioned above, exposure to cold water draws a quick-fire cascade of adaptive physiological changes from the body. The sympathetic nervous system is activated during a cold shower and the resulting response seems to lower the amounts of pro-inflammatory cytokines which are mainly implicated in auto-immune diseases and chronic inflammation.
Can I Have Cold Showers During A Fever?
If you are not a seasoned campaigner when it comes to cold showers, it is recommended that you keep your water temperature lukewarm or, if at all, only slightly cool, during a fever.
Although it is true that the thermal exercise of having to work harder to maintain constant body temperature pays many health dividends, a fever may not be the appropriate time to subject the body to such rigours. During a fever, the system is already in a compromised and vulnerable state. Moreover, the immune system is weakened during a fever and this might mean that ice-cold showers might end up doing more harm than good in these times.
If you are like most people, the prospect of stepping into a cold shower first thing in the morning might be the stuff of nightmares. However, the feeling of being thoroughly invigorated and alert, that a cold shower leaves you with, will definitely make you change your stance.
It is definitely not recommended that you jump into the habit. To start off with, end your regular showers with 1-2 minutes of cold water. Gradually increase the amount of time spent under cold water, over a few days/weeks until the level of discomfort becomes manageable. Much like any muscle in the body, your ability to withstand low temperatures is also something that can be trained over time, as your body adapts to the stress.
If you are pregnant, suffer from a heart condition or have any illness that impairs immunity, it is NOT recommended to start cold showers without consulting your physician first.