We recently wrote about the benefits of heat therapy from sauna and steam room use. Another type of temperature therapy that can yield measurable benefits for our physical and mental well being is cold therapy. We have probably all used the cold shower trick to wake ourselves up when we’re tired, but the benefits of cold temperature exposure go much further than just making us feel more awake.
What is cold therapy and what are the benefits?
Cold therapy is the use or application of cold temperatures to the body. You can practice cold therapy through a number of methods: by applying ice or a cooling device to the body, entering a full body cryotherapy pod or chamber, taking a cold shower, or plunging into a cold body of water or pool. From reducing inflammation, to easing muscle strain, to releasing endorphins, to boosting the immune system, the list of benefits from regular cold exposure is extensive. Dr. Rhonda Patrick, biochemist, explains “The stress from heat alteration such as extreme exposure to cold is actually good for our health, athletic endurance, preventing muscle atrophy, increasing neurogenesis, improving learning and memory, and improving longevity. Cold showers can even be used to treat depression. Exposure to cold releases norepinephrine into the brain, where it is involved in vigilance, focus, attention, and mood. It has also its role in pain, metabolism and inflammation.” (https://www.rejuvcryo.com/the-science/health-benefits-of-sauna-cold-exposure)
Exposing the body to cold can also induce “cold thermogenesis” which is the body’s way of producing heat. This process activates brown adipose tissue, “a form of fat that burns regular fat for heat generation through fat oxidation.” According to Dr. Patrick, the more brown adipose tissue our bodies have, the better we are at burning fat as energy. (https://www.rejuvcryo.com/the-science/health-benefits-of-sauna-cold-exposure) Cryotherapy has also been used as a treatment option for cancer patients. According to the Regional Cancer Care Associates, when extreme cold is “applied to tumors and abnormal tissue, it can quickly and effectively destroy cancer cells.” (https://www.regionalcancercare.org/services/cryotherapy/)
Who should practice cold therapy?
Whether you are a professional athlete who wants to decrease inflammation, soreness, and pain after an intense workout or someone who wants to optimize their brain health, most of us can benefit from exposing our bodies to cold temperatures. Always check with your doctor before adding any new routine into your regime. Word to the wise: don’t try to DIY by converting your refrigerator into a home cold plunge. You will most likely end up turning it into a home electrocution box.
How cold does it need to be to experience benefits from cold exposure? Cold plunges are typically around 50 degrees F, however some people, like our in-house travel contributor, Patricia Garcia-Gomez, do cold plunges or swim in the ocean in the winter which can get much colder than 50 degrees F. Cryotherapy chambers or pods can get down to -230 degrees F.
How long should I expose my body to cold temperatures for optimum benefits? Timing will depend on which method you are using. For cryotherapy chambers, the facility that you are using will most likely have a time frame based upon their specific chamber and method, typically ranging from 2-3 minutes per session.
If a cold shower is your preferred method of implementing cold therapy into your routine, a 5 minute rinse can provide you with those benefits listed above. You can even replace your normal shower with a cold one.
What should you know before trying cold therapy?
Make a commitment. Sitting through extreme temperatures is uncomfortable and your brain will tell you that you need to get back to neutral. Know that our bodies are capable of withstanding the discomfort, and if you are just starting out, be patient with yourself as you build up to colder temperatures. Perhaps you begin by simply rinsing your face and head in cold water and then work up to 30 seconds of cold after your normal shower. Then, over a course of days, make it colder and colder. As Wim Hof, Dutch journalist and athlete, explains for those of us who have no experience with cold showers, we should “start with a regular shower and finish the last 30 seconds cold. You quickly notice that you are able to tolerate the cold more and more.” Eventually, you will be able to graduate to longer cold showers, cold plunges, or cryotherapy chambers. (https://www.wimhofmethod.com/benefits-of-cold-showers)