You’ve probably heard of groups like the “Polar Bear Club,” who get their kicks from swimming in freezing cold water in the middle of winter. And if you’re like most people, you probably have always thought that they’re crazy.
But thinking of their cold-water escapades as nothing more than eccentric thrill-seeking is selling the practice short.
There’s actually a rich history of cold-water bathing that extends back thousands of years. Yogic literature tells stories of saddhus who would hike for days to reach ice-cold glacial waterfalls. They claimed that showering in this water was profoundly rejuvenating and strengthening for the body, mind, and spirit.
They even referred to it as hydrotherapy—a name that has lived on today, and which has been warmly adopted (no pun intended) by the alternative health community.
“Cold plunges” have also been an integral part of the healing regimen of bathhouses and spas since the dawn of these establishments. It’s been conclusively demonstrated that an icy dip or two can dramatically increase the healing benefits of saunas.
Even sports medicine experts are inclining towards ice baths as a therapeutic method for increasing training benefits and speeding recovery from injuries.
So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this unconventional practice withstood the test of time, and can it stand up to medical scrutiny?
The science of cold water therapy
While there’s a rich anecdotal history of hydrotherapy’s benefits, it’s still considered controversial and unorthodox by mainstream medicine. Fortunately, promising study results are paving the way for more widespread acceptance of this life-changing practice.
The lore surrounding cold water therapy has always highlighted its profound strengthening effect—and recent research strongly supports this notion.
As mentioned above, cold water techniques (usually cold water immersion) have long been used by athletes for decreasing recovery time and fortifying the body. One study showed that immediately following strenuous exercise with cold water immersion significantly decreases soreness, inflammation, and muscle damage. Another showed that cold water therapy led to a faster restoration of full physical performance than any other dietary or exercise-based recovery routine.
Cold water therapy also strengthens the immune system. Researchers have found that it increases white blood cell count, and one study even demonstrated that mice exposed to just 8 days of brief cold water immersion developed significant resistance to parasites. If this is what happens after only 8 days, imagine what incorporating cold showers into your daily life could do for you!
Still not convinced that the brief discomfort is worth it? Cold water therapy has also been shown to increase levels of glutathione, one of the most powerful and important antioxidants in your body (link). Glutathione is the keystone of your body’s detoxification and free radical defense system—more and more researchers agree that keeping optimal levels of it could be one of the best-kept secrets to radiant wellness and longevity.
The simple act of enduring cold water for a few minutes on an ongoing basis can even alleviate depression. Researcher Nikolai A. Shevchuk claims that our continual “room temperature” lives might actually be a contributing factor in depression. This is because exposure to cold triggers a cascade of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline, two feel-good chemicals that we miss out on when we avoid when he calls “thermal stress.”
The general takeaway is this: frequent, brief exposure to cold water strengthens your body by teaching it how to resist stressors of all kinds more effectively—whether physical, mental, or emotional.
So go ahead, just try it…
Enthusiasts have evolved all sorts of cold water therapy variations, but the easiest way to get started is to take a cold shower in the morning.
If this prospect still seems intimidating...I can assure you that it’s 100% worth it. It’s an exhilarating and invigorating way to wake up (as good as a cup of coffee, but without the weird residual stimulation), and it immediately sets you on a positive and disciplined path for the day. After making it a daily practice, many people report having more energy, getting sick much less often, and feeling more in control of every aspect of their life.
Advocates like to fuss over things like proper temperature, duration, time of day, and whether it’s “cheating” to start or end with hot water. Ultimately, anything is better than nothing— so just start with what works for you.
If you need to start with hot water and then turn it cold, fine. If ending with hot water provides a nice reward incentive for you, great. If you can only muster a few days a week at first, that’s completely fine. Just give it a try, and build up to a daily cold shower of at least 5 minutes. Once you experience how incredible it makes you feel, I bet you’ll be surprised by how quickly this “crazy” practice becomes one of your most beloved daily routines.