Are you familiar with cold water immersion as a strategy to build health and vitality? This is also known as cold hydrotherapy or cryotherapy. It has recently been popularized by Wim Hof, but this tool has been around for a long long time. This article is going to focus on the benefits of cold water, because this is one safe and socially-distant way we can benefit our health right now.
Immersing yourself in cold water is a short term stressor on your body, and this triggers a variety of cellular responses that result in an overall net gain in resilience in your body. Here are some examples that have been established by the current research:
It improves circulation (both cardiovascular and lymphatic) helping to flush waste products and bring new nutrients to your organs and tissues.
It reduces insulin resistance so may be helpful as part of a strategy for balancing blood sugars.
It increases your metabolic rate (when you practice it regularly over time). This can help you feel warmer, and may help you lose weight.
Immersing your body in cold increases the production of mood elevating neurotransmitters (signalling molecules in your nervous system), and can be helpful for depression and anxiety.
One of the most consistent effects of cold immersion in the research is an elevation in norepinephrine (NE) in particular. This is a neurotransmitter that has a role in focus, attention and mood and likely mediates the effect on mental health.
Consider that depression is sometimes treated with NE re-uputake inhibitors – drugs that increase the amount of circulating NE. As an aside, one other thing that increases NE release is lactate, a byproduct of exercise! This may be one of the reasons why exercise is so key for mental health.
Cold water immersion also reduces inflammation in a variety of ways, including by increasing the level of anti-inflammatory enzymes. This is important for many conditions. We now understand that inflammation is one of the contributing factors to depression – one of the ways this occurs is inflammatory molecules inhibit the release of serotonin (another neurotransmitter with a role in mood). Reducing inflammation generally could be a potent preventative strategy for mental health concerns. This is also shown to help reduce pain in arthritis.
Cold water immersion can be done in many ways. Some of us have (socially distant) access to a lake or the ocean, but you can also do this in your shower or bath. In the shower, wash as usual and then turn the water to cold for an invigorating rinse at the end. Notice how it makes you feel! The amount of cold and duration can be modulated to what your body can handle.
Please note: cold water therapy can be beneficial for many reasons, but there are also cases where this is NOT appropriate. Please speak with your health provider to discuss whether this is right for you!
If you are curious to read more or want more specifics about the mechanism and the current research, check out this article (Link to: https://www.foundmyfitness.com/reports/cold-stress.pdf)
It is an informative yet accessible PDF written by nutritional biochemistry pHd Rhonda Patrick. She does a lot of work to make science and research accessible to the general public.
If you are struggling with your health right now and would like support, please reach out! At the time of writing my physical office space is closed, and I am instead seeing patients online for telemedicine consults. Please check my website for up to date information about how to connect!