Ice, ice baby.
You may be familiar with cold water plunges — and maybe you’ve even tried them yourself. Whether you do them regularly or once a year (like participate in a Polar Bear Plunge every January), perhaps you’re wondering What exactly is cold water therapy, aka cold hydrotherapy, and how is it beneficial to the body?
“Cold water therapy is the process of exposing your body to chilled water, at or below 58 degrees Fahrenheit, to elicit a reaction within the body,” Jeff Ono, CEO & co-founder of Pause Studio, tells TZR in an email. “Positive stressors, like cold water, encourage our bodies to adapt in advantageous ways, having both physiological and cognitive effects.”
Over the years, the chilly ritual has gotten increasingly popular, and you may have heard about the Wim Hof Method® in relation to it as well. Hof, a former Dutch athlete combines three factors in his method — breathing, cold therapy, and commitment — and believes it can help you gain control of your mind and body. There’s also cryotherapy, which is essentially any treatment that involves freezing or near freezing temperatures, but often refers to immersing oneself in a full body cryogenic chamber for a few minutes, which can be as cold as -230 degrees Fahrenheit. And then there’s simply good old-fashioned cold water therapy, which many incorporate daily as part of their wellness routine via shower or bath tub.
While it may take some getting used to, many people who try cold water therapy get hooked and make it a part of their daily or weekly routine. In fact, Kate Hudson and Harry Styles are fans of the wellness practice, known to incorporate it regularly into their wellness routines. If you’re shivering just thinking about it, that’s understandable. But you might be persuaded to power through after reading about the plethora of benefits of cold water therapy, ahead.
Research has found that cold water therapy has several benefits, including reducing stress, boosting immunity, improving your mood and helping to alleviate depression, as well as promoting better focus and sleep. Dr. Raghu Appasani, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and mental health advocate, seconds that there are a number of health benefits. “Scientists have found evidence that exposure to cold speeds up metabolism,” he tells TZR. “Another benefit is that it reduces inflammation, swelling, and sore muscles. Therefore, many athletes [such as Michael Phelps and LeBron James] use ice baths and other types of exposure to cold as a means to speed up recovery after physical exercise.”
Ono agrees and adds that it’s good for the mind, too. “There are mental benefits that come from doing something hard, teaching yourself how to stay calm under adversity and overcome internal resistance,” he says. “While most people would benefit from having a practice focused around cold exposure, there are a handful of contraindications to consider. If you’re prone to high blood pressure, or cardiovascular or neurological complications, it would be best to consult a doctor before following any protocols.”
Appasani says that cold water immersion can take many forms. “But the basic practice involves sitting in a tub or container of cold water (usually under 50 degrees Fahrenheit, though this may vary) for five minutes or less,” he says. Some wellness studios also offer contrast therapy, wherein you alternate between hot and cold therapies. At Pause, for example, first, you spend 12 minutes in the full-spectrum infrared sauna (175 degrees Fahrenheit), then three minutes in the cold plunge (which is 45 degrees), then one minute resting outside in room temperature. That way, your body can decompress and reach homeostasis, a steady, balanced state. Although Pause recommends a 60-minute session, in which you’d repeat this cycle three or four times, you can ease yourself into the practice and initially try a 30-minute session instead.
“Combining cold water therapy with heat exposure intensifies the experience and maximizes the benefits of both hot and cold therapies,” Ono explains. Your body will undergo dilation, followed by compression, and will create an internal pump which can help flush out toxins and metabolic waste while increasing vascular tone.” As a result, it’ll benefit the immune system.
But if you can’t get to a spa or more formal location to practice cold therapy, you can easily do so in the comfort of your own home — or discomfort, as the case may be. “The best way to get started with cold therapy is to introduce yourself to cold showers,” says Appasani. “If you’re not used to cold showers, you’ll need to build up tolerance. Start by exposing your body to cold water for 10 seconds, followed by as much warm water as you want. Gradually increase the amount of time spent in the cold over a period of days, until you can commit to a full minute under an icy stream.”
Appasani notes that although cold showers are a good starting point, your average shower can’t produce water that’s as cold as an ice bath or a dedicated cold water immersion system you’ll find at a wellness space. Luckily, there are methods people can use at home for cold therapy, including little inflatable pools or bathtubs filled with ice water. “Ice baths involve immersing yourself in a container of icy water for a short period of time,” he says. “However, they usually involve very cold temperatures that can take a while to get used to.”
No matter what type of cold therapy method you use, Appasani stresses that it’s important to cool down gradually afterwards. “It’s never a good idea to start with extreme temperatures when first introducing your body to cold temperatures — and this is especially true if you’re trying out an ice bath for the first time,” he explains. “Instead, gradually cool the water down as your tolerance increases. This will help prevent shock and injury.” This is particularly important since your body temperature could keep dropping even after you get out of the water, increasing your risk of hypothermia. “So warm up slowly once you get out from the cold water and limit your time to just a few minutes,” he says.
When you look at social media, you may see people smiling, sitting in a kiddie pool of ice like no big deal. So this begs the question: The way it’s grown in popularity, is cold water therapy just a fad? Ono doesn’t think so. “We think cold water therapy is here to stay,” he says. “This therapy dates back millennia and research has been done to prove its effectiveness. The ease of accessibility, immediate relief and satisfaction, and prolonged health benefits make it appealing not only in the present, but also well into the future.”
Appasani adds that it is definitely something that should be taken seriously. “When it comes to our health — spiritual, physical, and mental — there are many options in the toolkit, and each individual needs to find what works for them,” he says. “Cold water therapy has scientifically proven benefits, but it might not be for everyone. There is still ongoing research happening in this practice, but what we know is that it has proven clinical efficacy, and that makes it more than a fad.”
If you’re on the fence — or on the edge of your ice-cube-laden tub, as it were — about trying cold water therapy, Ono says to just take the plunge. “Everybody can gain something from cold water therapy,” he says. “Whether you’re a professional athlete competing in physically demanding matches, a parent going through stress and anxiety with your kids, or just someone who is interested in staying healthy, you can benefit from cold exposure. It can take a while to get used to the temperature, but repeated cold exposure can be a wonderfully meditative and relaxing experience.” Plus, he adds that there is a lot of confidence that comes from conquering something like an ice bath. “The feeling, both mental and physical, is truly remarkable.”
Appasani seconds Ono and says someone can make cold water therapy part of their daily routine, or even join an online group for accountability. “In addition, just like with other modalities, there are risks and benefits that need to be considered, so speak with your healthcare provider first to ensure this is an appropriate practice for you,” he says. “And for added motivation, check out Wim Hof’s videos or Andrew Huberman’s episode on cold water therapy.”
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