The Cold Truth: How Cold Exposure Can Benefit Your Health
From ancient treatments to modern health ‘hacks’, the cold has been a constant companion in our journey to well-being. Written by Hogarth Personal Trainer Goran Babic
Cold exposure: Not Just a Modern Trend
Although one might think of cold exposure as a contemporary trend, its roots actually extend back to ancient Egypt, circa 2500 BC. Even then, it was employed to alleviate inflammation and treat injuries. From that point forward, its use has evolved and diversified significantly, influenced by pivotal figures and innovations.
In the ancient world, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, advocated the benefits of cold for pain relief. Following him, Anglo-Saxon monks discovered its anaesthetic properties, adding another feather in the cap of cold therapy’s therapeutic uses. The practice truly evolved in the 19th century, thanks to British physician Dr. James Arnott. Arnott was groundbreaking in his approach, using cold treatments for neuralgia and migraines, and making critical observations on the effects of cold on tumours.
The Cold Exposure Revolution
Many people are afraid of going outside in the cold, yet the health benefits are becoming increasingly clear. Cold exposure can have surprising health benefits, whether you’re sleeping in a colder bedroom, taking a cold shower, diving into freezing waters, or simply braving the chilly British winter.
My Journey with the Cold
For the past 5 years, I’ve been embracing cold showers as a part of my routine. I’ve always had a fascination with taking a dip in cold rivers or seas, almost as a personal challenge. Strangely enough, many friends and those around me would warn me against it, saying “You’ll catch a cold” or “You’re going to hurt yourself.” These warnings never quite resonated with me; something in my gut told me there was more to it.
Then, I came across Wim Hof, often referred to as “The Iceman,” is a Dutch extreme athlete and wellness guru known for his unique method of combining specific breathing exercises, cold exposure, and meditation, commonly known as the Wim Hof Method. He holds multiple world records for cold exposure feats, including ice baths and climbing snow-covered mountains in minimal clothing. Hof claims that his method has various health benefits, ranging from increased energy and better stress management to a more robust immune system.
The Role of Brown Fat
Humans generate heat primarily through two systems: muscles and brown fat. While muscles generate heat during physical exercise, brown fat excels at thermogenesis – the generation of heat. This dual system makes temperature regulation more adjustable. The significance of brown fat extends beyond temperature regulation. It has a significant impact on metabolism. According to research, a lack of brown fat is associated with obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and an increased vulnerability to lifestyle illnesses.
Receptors for cold exist on our skin. When the brain gets stimulated, it releases adrenaline, which stimulates brown fat cells to create heat, making cold exposure a potential metabolic booster. A 2014 study backed up this idea. Cooler surroundings increased brown fat activation and improved insulin sensitivity in men.
Cold Showers & Work Productivity
In a study done in Holland in 2016, researchers wanted to see if having a cold shower could make people less sick and more productive at work. They got over 3000 Dutch adults involved and split them into two groups. One group had to finish their normal warm showers with a blast of cold water for either 30, 60, or 90 seconds. The other group just had their regular hot showers as usual. They did this for a month, then watched what happened for another two months.
What they found was that people who had the cold showers took fewer sick days off work, about 29% less. However, they didn’t report fewer days of actually being ill, which suggests that the cold showers didn’t stop them from getting sick, but maybe made the symptoms less severe. That way, they felt well enough to go to work.
On top of this, they noticed that exercise also helped people take fewer days off sick. When people combined both exercise and cold showers, the benefits added up.
So, the study suggests that a quick burst of cold water at the end of your shower might make you better able to handle being ill and could make you more productive. But the researchers say more studies are needed to fully understand how and why this works.
Room temperature & brown fat
In a 2014 study by Lee and colleagues, five healthy males spent four months in rooms where the temperature was controlled. Each month, the temperature was set at different levels: 24°C, 19°C, 24°C, and 27°C. They used PET/CT scans to measure brown adipose tissue and its activity levels after each month. They also looked at how much energy people were using up, how well their bodies used sugar, and certain hormone levels after being exposed to these temperatures.
What they discovered was quite revealing. When the room was set at 19°C, the volume of brown fat went up by 42%, and its activity jumped by 54% compared to when the room was at 24°C. Also, people burned more calories after eating when they were in the colder room, by about 32%.
Winter Swimming & Health
The study from 2023 shows that short, regular plunges in cold water can strengthen your body’s defenses against cellular damage. Exposure to the cold initially causes oxidative stress. But over time, the body adapts – ramping up antioxidant enzymes and reducing harmful oxidation.
This adaptive response is an example of hormesis – a low dose of stress or toxin can trigger beneficial effects by activating repair and protective processes.
In essence, the repeated physiological shock of winter swimming works like a training program for your antioxidant systems. This builds overall resilience and may reduce disease risks linked to oxidative damage – like heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
Cold Water Immersion & Recovery
The 1960s heralded the benefits of cold-water immersion (CWI) for post-exercise recovery, with the foundational works of D.H. Clarke being particularly influential. A recent meta-analysis from January 2023 corroborates that CWI provides rapid relief from fatigue and enhances post-exercise recovery. This is evidenced through key metrics such as creatine kinase and lactate levels. Monitoring these levels in an individual’s blood can offer invaluable insights into their condition following exercise or injury, thus aiding in a more effective recovery process.
Taking the Cold Plunge – What to Expect
For those eager to experience the cold’s health benefits, beginning with a cold shower might be the most accessible method. Taking cold showers can be a bit of a shock to the system at first, but there are some steps you can follow to ease into the habit. Here’s how to get started:
Start Warm: Begin with a warm shower as you normally would. This will help you relax and wash as usual.
Go Gradual: Turn the temperature down a bit for 30 seconds to a minute. You can start by going lukewarm and gradually make the water colder as you get used to it.
Breathing is Key: Deep, controlled breaths can help shift your nervous system from the fight-or-flight response to a more calm and balanced state. Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to rise, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. This will signal your body that it’s time to relax.
Hit the Extremities: Start by getting your legs, arms, and torso used to the colder water. You can use your hands to splash cold water on these areas before fully immersing yourself.
Full Immersion: Once you feel comfortable, let the cold water hit your back and chest. Eventually, you can work up to immersing your whole body, including your head.
Short and Sweet: Keep your first few cold showers brief—maybe only a few seconds to a minute of cold water to start with. As you get used to it, you can extend the time.
Consistency: Try to take a cold shower several times a week, to help your body get used to the new routine.
Safety First: If you have health concerns such as heart issues, or conditions like hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, consult your healthcare provider before beginning a routine of cold showers.
The case for cold exposure – from therapeutic cryotherapy to brisk showers – is compelling. From potential metabolic boosts to improved mental clarity, the chilly embrace might just be the health hack many of us need. Individuals with thyroid concerns, like hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) or hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), ought to exercise caution when it comes to exposing themselves to the cold. Always remember to consult your GP before making significant changes to your health regimen, ensuring that you approach this age-old practice safely.
Do you have any cold exposure tales or insights to share? We’d love to hear from you!
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