It’s A Time-Tested Health Hack
A warm bath may be a more obvious form of self-care, but cold-water immersion activates the body’s natural healing powers and releases endorphins, oxygenates your cells and increases alertness. Not convinced? It’s a method that’s been used for centuries, says NHS doctor and The Drip Stop founder Alisha Damani. “Cold water therapy has been used across a number of cultures for years, particularly in communities who live at high latitudes. Take Scandinavia, for example, where the ritual of heating the body in a sauna followed by a cool dip to reboot the body is a time-tested method to wash away toxins and awaken the mind.”
It'll Boost Mind & Body…
Any icy blast may flood the body with feel-good endorphins, but studies suggest it may also keep the doctor away. “Not only does cold water therapy reduce muscle soreness, boost the immune system and increase energy levels, it is also vital in reducing inflammation,” Alisha explains. “Think about how you put an ice pack on a twisted ankle to reduce swelling and bruising. In the same way, cold water therapy can reduce inflammation across the whole body in places and ways you didn’t even know were affected. At the same time, inflammation can contribute to anxiety and depression, and several studies show cold therapy can reduce the symptoms of various mental health conditions.” One study that followed swimmers who regularly immersed themselves in cold water found there was a significant reduction in levels of fatigue, stress and an improvement in memory and mood compared to a control group. “The shock of an icy shower can also kickstart your fight-or-flight response and boost levels of dopamine, the happy hormone,” Alisha says.
…And Your Immune System
“One study found there was a 40% less chance of developing a respiratory tract infection in cold water swimmers compared to a control group,” reports Alisha. “And due to the anti-inflammatory nature of cold water, a cold shower could reduce rates of flu-like symptoms and scale down inflammation, which in turn can support the immune system.” If you’re feeling a little worse for wear this festive season, a cold shower could help in this regard, too. “A blast of icy water in the shower will kickstart blood circulation and lymphatic flow, which can aid hangover symptoms,” confirms skin and wellness expert Marie Reynolds.
Focus On Your Breathing
To reap the benefits of cold water therapy, you have to think about your breath, says Marie. “You have to be incredibly mindful and focus on your breathing when submerged in cold water – if you breath properly, you’ll then experience the benefits. Remember that cold water constricts blood vessels, which tightens muscles and the skin. If you expose the body to icy water and panic, this can be detrimental. Breathing plays a huge role in lowering your cortisol levels and calming the mind. Once this is in play, you’ll experience increased energy, mood and metabolism, improved injury time, better sleep and more balanced hormones,” she says.
Take It Slowly To Begin With
Keen to give it a go? Start with regular short bursts of cold water in the shower, says Pete Williams, functional medicine practitioner. “Cold water therapy doesn’t have to mean plunging yourself into an ice bath. In fact, taking a cold shower is a great way to dip your toe in at your own pace. You don’t need to spend long under cold water, either – start by turning the temperature down at the end of your usual shower for around ten seconds. You can then gradually lower the temperature and increase the length of time you stay under the cold water. To really reap the benefits, you need to expose the body to these cold temperatures on a regular basis rather than sporadically,” he says. Alisha agrees, adding even just five seconds of cold water at the end of your shower is better than nothing. “When you dial down the temperature, expose your hands and feet first, and then the rest of your limbs. Focus on your breathing and treat it like a meditation. Even a few seconds of cold exposure will give you good benefits.”
Discomfort Is The Name Of The Game
“Cold water therapy provides a host of benefits, but my favourites are based around building resilience and mental resolve,” James Heagney, gym director at KX, tells us. “Getting comfortable being uncomfortable can be powerful – there really is something in this.” Experts agree you need to get used to being uncomfortable for short periods. “Another way to try cold water therapy is to have a contrast shower,” James adds. “This involves three minutes of hot water followed by one minute of cold water. The temperatures are as far as you can tolerate without harm on both ends of the temperature spectrum. Repeat this two to three times and finish with hot water to help bring your temperature back up. The aim is to get to the temperature where the uncomfortable feeling lasts and doesn’t subside. This is when the benefits occur.”
Try The Wim Hof Method
Google cold water therapy and you’re likely to come across Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete who swears by the healing properties of icy water. He has a near-superhuman ability to withstand freezing temperatures and has formulated his own method, which involves taking a cold shower every morning. “Wim Hof, aka the Ice Man, has shown what the human body is capable of, and believes we can train our bodies and minds to cope more effectively with stress stimuli such as extreme cold. In turn, this can strengthen your cardiovascular and immune systems,” says Alisha. “His breathwork involves controlled hyperventilation (a type of stress response with rhythmic inhalation, exhalation and breath holding) and cold therapy, which can be a cold shower or – if you’re trained in his method – a full body immersion in an ice bath or open waters.” Experts agree mental resilience is a large part of the Wim Hof method and that, like anything in physical and mental fitness, it’s the regularity and commitment to push through challenging moments that reaps the rewards. The Wim Hof Method app is a great way to get started, Alisha adds.
Listen To Your Body
“Cold therapy is recommended in short bursts, building up to a maximum of five minutes,” Marie adds. “When it comes to a specific temperature, studies show the benefits come when water is 12-16ºC, but listen to your body. Work with what you can, and don’t let yourself feel stressed by it. If it raises anxiety and affects breathing, a cold shower will have the opposite effect.”
Beware Of The Risks
A cold shower is all well and good, but approach with caution if you have a pre-existing health issue such as a heart condition, high blood pressure or asthma, or if you are pregnant, advises Pete. “If this is you, chat to your GP before trying cold water therapy, particularly cold water swimming, as your body’s reaction to the cold water could put unnecessary strain on the heart in a way that could be potentially dangerous.”
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