There are few things in life as comforting and therapeutic as a nice hot shower. It’s not very often that you hear someone exclaim, “I can’t wait to go home and take an ice-cold shower!” However, that seems to be the newest trend hitting social media, with celebrities, influencers, athletes and regular folks alike touting the benefits. But is there actually any merit to it or is this just another passing trend?
What are the Benefits?
Cold showers have been a part of various cultures and traditions for centuries, and there are several purported benefits of taking cold showers. While some of these claims may be exaggerated, research suggests that cold showers can have a range of benefits for both physical and mental health.
Circulation and Muscle Soreness
One of the most well-known benefits of cold showers is their ability to boost circulation and reduce inflammation. When you plunge into a body of water, it causes your blood vessels to constrict. When blood vessels contract, they push blood toward your organs. Directing blood toward your organs supplies the blood with more oxygen and nutrients.
Then, once you get out of the cold water, your blood vessels open up, allowing oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to return to your tissues to help remove waste products, such as lactic acid buildup, that could delay healing if left to sit in the muscles. This can be especially helpful for people with conditions like arthritis or muscle soreness.
Although there is debate among researchers, studies indicate that athletes who soak in cold water for short periods of time after exercise have less muscle soreness later on. This is often referred to as cold water therapy.
A small study conducted in 2011 found that cyclists who completed intense training sessions had decreased soreness after they were immersed in cold water for 10 minutes.
Additionally, a 2016 study showed that athletes who soaked in a pool of cold water (54°F to 59°F) reported less muscle soreness than those who did not participate in cold water therapy after exercising.
Hair and Skin
Cold showers can also be beneficial for your skin and hair. Hot water can strip your skin and hair of natural oils, leading to dryness and irritation. Cold water, on the other hand, can help preserve these natural oils, which can help keep hair and skin moisturized and healthy.
Cold water can also help improve the appearance of hair by making it look shinier and less frizzy. This is because cold water helps to seal the hair cuticle, which can prevent moisture loss and damage.
Additionally, cold water can help tighten the skin and reduce the appearance of pores, making skin look smoother and more even. It can also help reduce inflammation and puffiness, which can be especially beneficial if you suffer with sensitive or acne-prone skin.
While there has been a lot of debate, it is said that cold showers have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health. The shock of cold water can trigger the release of endorphins, which can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Researchers in one study found that short, twice-daily cold showers decreased depressive symptoms. However, it should be noted that none of the participants in this study had been diagnosed with depression, only reported having depressive feelings.
Cold showers may also improve alertness and focus by way of increasing cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the body in response to stress. It helps to regulate various bodily functions, including blood sugar levels, metabolism, and immune response. Cold showers can help increase cortisol levels because they stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's "fight or flight" response. This response can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels in the body, all of which can help improve alertness and focus.
In addition, cold showers can also help increase alertness by causing the body to release adrenaline, which is another hormone that is associated with the "fight or flight" response. Adrenaline can help increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate, all of which can help improve mental alertness and focus.
Cold water therapy can also potentially provide several benefits to the immune system.
In one study, researchers tested whether people could voluntarily influence their own immune response by practicing meditation, deep breathing, and cold water immersion techniques. When study participants were exposed to a bacterial infection, it was found that the group that used these techniques had fewer symptoms. Their bodies produced more anti-inflammatory chemicals and fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines in response to the infection.
That being said, it’s important to note that researchers felt the breathing techniques were more influential than the cold water immersion. But they credited cold water with building up a kind of resistance to stress over time since exposure to cold water can also help stimulate the production of white blood cells, which are a key component of the immune system.
Last, but not least, one of the biggest claims influencers make in favor of cold water therapy is focused on the potential for increased weight loss due to increasing your calorie-burning capacity.
Although more research is needed to determine whether cold water therapy can help with weight loss, some studies have shown that immersion in cold water can speed up your metabolic rate. This is the rate at which your body uses energy and burns calories and is often referred to as your metabolism.
Cold water therapy can help stimulate your metabolism because when the body is exposed to cold, it must work harder to maintain its core temperature, which can then increase energy expenditure.
While a 2009 research review concluded that brief immersions (5 minutes) in water less than 59°F did increase metabolism, there haven’t been any large studies proving that repeated icy plunges result in significant weight loss.
How to Try Cold Water Therapy
If you’re still interested in giving cold water therapy a try, there are a few ways you can go about it effectively and safely:
- Try warm-to-cold showers: This can be a great place to start if you’re a bit concerned about tolerating cold water for a long time. Start with warm water and, after a few minutes, gradually drop the temperature until you get to the desired temperature.
- Skip the warmup and go straight to a cold shower: If you’re a rip-the-band-aid-off kind of person, you can skip the previously mentioned tip. This may be especially helpful and feel refreshing if you’ve just finished working out.
- Take a cold plunge: Many gyms and fitness centers these days have a cold plunge “pool” which can look a bit like a hot tub — minus the hot water. If yours doesn’t, or you don’t have access to a gym, make your own by adding ice to water in your tub or a large bucket until the temperature is between 50°F and 59°F. You can safely stay submerged for about 10 to 15 minutes and still reap the benefits.
- Consider a short swim in cold waters: This can be in a natural body of water or a swimming pool.
Overall, it is important to start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of cold water therapy over time. To be safe, you should consult with your healthcare provider prior to trying out cold water therapy, especially if you have a history of heart issues and/or circulation issues. It is also important to listen to your body and stop if you experience any discomfort or adverse effects.
After using cold water therapy, it is important to warm up the body slowly to avoid any potential shock to the system. This can be done by using a warm blanket or towel, getting out of your wet clothes and drying off, drinking a warm beverage, finding a warm place to sit down or engaging in light exercise. While a warm shower is fine, avoid taking a hot shower in order to avoid a sudden change in blood flow that could cause you to pass out.
You should also never participate in cold water therapy on your own. Always have someone nearby to observe your condition.
While cold showers may not be a magic cure-all, there is evidence to suggest that they can have benefits for both physical and mental health. As with any health practice, it's important to listen to your body and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns.
Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician that’s appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/FindaProvider today.