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Polar plunges have been going on for centuries. Join the Cold Water Therapy movement!

Is cold plunge just another fad?  Do we only see positive responses in athletes or is it for the average person as well? Is there a specific temperature threshold we are trying to hit? how about the length of cold exposure?

All these questions answered and more in this article, well, more like a frequently asked questions post.  Enjoy!

If you’ve clicked on this article, then I’m sure you have heard of a gentleman by the name of Wim Hof and his ice plunges.  He seems to have an odd ability to withstand ice-cold temperatures and although he is known as the Iceman, it appears that his capabilities are something we all share. Through his unique breathing techniques and meditation methods he and his students can withstand extremely cold temperatures. Hof has set multiple world records for feats such as prolonged full-body contact with ice and climbing high-altitude mountains while wearing only shorts. He has paved the way for a lot of research into the many benefits of this type of therapy and his journey is fairly entertaining if you were interested.

How Cold is Cold Enough?

There’s no black-and-white answer to this and sometimes it depends on what your desired outcome from cold exposure is.  There is a general rule of thumb, the colder it is, whether a cold bath, shower, or direct immersion, the shorter the time frame needed to expose yourself to cold.

  • Some studies show that significant dopamine levels increase when in temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit for around an hour, whereas other studies describe adrenaline hormones increasing from temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for less than a minute.

The major benefit seen is that cold exposure with consistency, just like when we work out, has major health benefits. On average, most of the research concludes, colder temperatures (under 50F) for an average of 2-4 minutes are sufficient to create major health benefits and neurological changes.

The current consensus, based on some of the largest research studies, shows the best benefits for cold therapy to be in the 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit range. Colder temperatures have a faster effect and can allow for shorter durations.

For the biggest bang for your buck, all you need is 11 minutes total of cold-water exposure per week. Work within your body’s limits: make the water cold enough to be uncomfortable but not unsafe to stay in for 1-3 minutes.

What Kind of Cold Exposure?

The second biggest question we hear about cold water therapy is what’s best: ice baths, cryotherapy, or cold showers? Most research points to ice baths or cold-water immersion providing the biggest benefits. Cold showers may fit into this category, but it’s not technically full body immersion and most home’s “cold setting” temperature is going to be around 50-60F.

So maybe you’ve already been doing cold plunges, well, try bringing it outside then there are layered benefits.  For example, looking at low-angled sun in the morning can help balance out your stress hormones and improve your sleep.  So now we can add in the cold plunge, and you’ll be ready to start your day right!

Cold first or Hot first?

On the topic of synergistic therapies, heat stimulus has many health benefits independent of cold but combining the two can be extra special.  This combination is known as contrast therapy and something you may have done in the past for a twisted ankle, but now amplify it to every cell in your body!

If you are thinking of combination therapy, it appears that keeping the cold exposure until last will deliver the most benefits.  By ending with a cold, your body is stressed (in a good way; hermetic stress) to warm itself self-back up again and allows it to exercise its physiological abilities.  We forget that much of our day is within a temperature-controlled environment thus some of our capabilities are suppressed. Plus, being cold is metabolically expensive, which means your body will have to spend more calories warming yourself up.

What’s the Best Time for Cold Plunge?

What about timing for cold water exposure? The time of day does make a difference and morning is ideal. Cold exposure creates a stress response in the body which results in a significant increase in the adrenaline hormones of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in the body and brain. This increase can help you feel more energized, alert, and focused and can last long after the exposure is complete. The boost in cortisol that happens naturally (ideally) first thing in the morning is what gives us the motivation to go, and the “stress” of the cold water enhances this effect.  As our body temperature increases after exposure to cold and the blood rushes back to our extremities, it wakes us up, which is the last thing we want to do at nighttime before sleep.

Why subject yourself to the torture of cold plunges and what can they do for your body?

We saved the best for last.  Does it really live up to the hype?

Energy

Well, to begin with, it can help increase energy. We all know more energy is modern America’s lost treasure. Many adults have heard about it, talked about it and even some have felt it, but most have still yet to experience it. Who couldn’t use more energy, right? Cold exposure can significantly increase your adrenaline hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine in the body and brain. This increase can help you feel more energized, alert, and focused and can last long after the exposure is complete.

Increase Dopamine

Secondly, in a world where we are all dopamine addicts and need more and more to feel that sense of happiness, using deliberate cold-water exposure can help increase the release of dopamine. Some research even points out that cold therapy can increase the concentrations of dopamine by as much as 250%! Dopamine is our feel-good hormone and helps regulate mood, and goal-driven behaviors, and attention.

Weight Loss

Looking for weight loss? Look no further; exposure to cold increases metabolism because the body now must burn calories to increase body temperature. The shivering associated with the cold helps release compound succinate from muscles and activate brown fat thermogenesis, aka fat breakdown.

Reduce Inflammation

We live in an inflamed world and one of the other huge benefits is its anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Today we live in a sympathetic driven world where our bodies are in fight or flight constantly. Cold exposure stimulates the vagus nerve and pushes us into the parasympathetic state which is our rest/digest nervous system. It allows us to calm down and heal more efficiently.

As difficult as it may be to take the plunge, there are huge health benefits that can make an impact on your daily life. Just do it – the results will speak for themselves!

References

  • Buijze, G. A., Sierevelt, I. N., van der Heijden, B. C. J. M., Dijkgraaf, M. G., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. W. (2016). The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PloS one, 11(9), e0161749.
  • Lombardi, G., Ziemann, E., & Banfi, G. (2017). Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Athletes: From Therapy to Stimulation. An Updated Review of the Literature. Frontiers in Physiology, 8, 258.
  • Bleakley, C. M., & Davison, G. W. (2010). What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold-water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(3), 179-187.
  • Ihsan, M., Watson, G., & Abbiss, C. R. (2016). What are the physiological mechanisms for post-exercise cold water immersion in the recovery from prolonged endurance and intermittent exercise? Sports Medicine, 46(8), 1095-1109.
  • Leeder, J., Gissane, C., van Someren, K., Gregson, W., & Howatson, G. (2012). Cold water immersion and recovery from strenuous exercise: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(4), 233-240.
  • Pournot, H., Bieuzen, F., Louis, J., Mounier, R., Fillard, J. R., Barbiche, E., & Hausswirth, C. (2011). Time-course of changes in inflammatory response after whole-body cryotherapy multi exposures following severe exercise. PloS one, 6(7), e22748.
  • Janský, L., Pospíšilová, D., Honzová, S., Ulicný, B., Šrámek, P., Zeman, V., & Kamínková, J. (1996). Immune system of cold-exposed and cold-adapted humans. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 72(5-6), 445-450.
  • Kox, M., van Eijk, L. T., Zwaag, J., van den Wildenberg, J., Sweep, F. C., van der Hoeven, J. G., & Pickkers, P. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(20), 7379-7384.