Winter swimming, cold plunges and applying ice to targeted areas of the body are all forms of cold therapy. Regularly exposing the body to cold water for short periods of time brings several benefits to physical and mental health.
As more people are looking for natural ways to improve their health, balance their mood and manage the stresses of daily life, cold-water bathing has become more popular. Scientific researchers have picked up on this and there are now several studies demonstrating the many health benefits of cold-water bathing.
Read on to find out more about the benefits of cold-water bathing.
Research has shown that recovery after exercise is faster when combined with cold-water bathing. Cold water reduces inflammation of the muscles caused by exercise. The reason behind this is vasoconstriction. Cold water constricts the blood vessels to help reduce heat loss from your core.
Post-exercise muscle inflammation happens when the body increases blood flow to the affected muscles. Cold-water bathing reduces the flow of blood to the muscles, which, in turn, reduces inflammation. Researchers suggest cold-water bathing immediately post-exercise for maximum benefit.
Sources: Brophy-Williams et al., 2011; Peiffer et al., 2009; Sramek et al., 2000; Vaile et al., 2010.
Inflammation of the muscles and blood vessels is a common cause of pain. By reducing inflammation, cold-water bathing also reduces inflammation-related pain. Inflammation pain is a common cause of reduced performance in sport.
Inflammation of the blood vessels in the head cause vascular migraines and headaches which can be debilitating. Cold therapy, whether in a cold plunge or winter swimming, has been shown to reduce inflammation-induced headaches by causing constriction of the blood vessels.
Research also shows cold-water bathing blocks nerve cells that signal pain.
Sources: Abaïdia et al., 2017; Angelopoulos et al., 2022; Klich et al., 2018; Kurniasari et al., 2022; Mooventhan et al., 2014; Wang et al., 2021
Regular exposure to cold can help strengthen your immune system. Researchers put this down to stress, such as through immersion in cold water, activating the immune system.
Using a cold plunge, for example, causes hormetic stress on your body. Hormetic stress is good stress whereby your body responds, recovers and improves after exposure to the mild stress of being in the cold plunge.
This type of body 'training' helps improve your immunity by activating it in a non-infectious way.
Sources: Dugué et al., 2000; Janský et al., 1996; Kox et al., 2014
Cold therapy improves your mood and wellbeing.
One theory as to why is because immersion in cold water boosts the body’s production of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter. It increases heart rate and blood pressure which can make you feel more energised. It also increases blood sugar levels, which can help you manage hunger and increase concentration.
Low levels of norepinephrine are linked to depression and low mood.
Sources: Huttunen et al., 2004; Jedema et al., 2008; Moret et al., 2011; Rymaszewska et al., 2008; Trylińska-Tekielska et al., 2022
Improved sleep quality
Exposure to cold water before sleep can increase deep sleep, reduce nighttime waking and improve the quality of sleep. Research shows pain is directly associated with lack of sleep. Pain makes the nervous system more active and, in turn, makes it difficult to achieve sleep.
Lack of sleep can also worsen the experience of pain as it lowers pain thresholds and increases the likelihood of other pain-causing symptoms, such as headaches.
Cold-water immersion reduces pain related to inflammation and promotes good-quality sleep. It also reduces the body’s core temperature which helps the body achieve a relaxed state before sleep.
Sources: Chauvineau et al., 2021; Haack et al., 2020; Hakki et al., 2005; Krause et al., 2019
Activates brown fat
Exposing the body to cold activates brown fat cells.
Adults have a small amount of brown fat, mostly located by the neck and shoulders. Whereas white fat mainly stores energy, brown fat mainly generates heat. Brown fat is responsible for regulating body temperature when cold and also burns calories.
Brown fat can help control blood sugar, improve insulin levels and metabolic health. Regular exposure to cold can increase the amount of brown fat in the body.
Sources: Blondin et al., 2014; Wouter D. van Marken Lichtenbelt et al., 2009; Yoneshiro et al., 2019
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