If you follow the more esoteric health scene circles, you'll have come across Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof – a man so fond of the cold that he holds the current world records for swimming under and prolonged full-body contact with ice.
He believes that leaving your central heated palace for the elements comes with a 'cascade of health benefits', from enhanced sleep to the production of endorphins and a fortified immune system.
Are cold showers better for you?
While the prospect of dunking yourself in a paddling pool of cubed frozen water might feel like one for the, erm, future, one impact of Hof's influence is the proliferation of people taking (slightly more accessible) cold showers, for their alleged health benefits.
While still not an enticing prospect, they're eminently more achievable than climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts (another achievement of the 60-year-old). But are they backed up by science?
Here's those that have a grounding in research.
9 Health Benefits of a Cold Shower
1. A cold shower can help you recover from a hard workout more quickly
Have you heard about athletes taking ice baths after training to promote recovery? Well, the principles behind taking a cold shower instead are very similar.
‘Cold generally stimulates a response of the blood vessels, which causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels),’ says Hasit Jethwa, health and fitness tutor at The Training Room.
‘Essentially, this occurs in order to direct the blood to where it’s needed the most, in this case, vital organs. So, blood is forced to return to the heart where it can then be transported to the lungs to replenish and this oxygenated blood can then be pumped around the body, meaning you are now getting fresh oxygen and nutrients to the right areas.
'The cold also helps to reduce any potential inflammation you might experience post exercise, which can help to speed up your recovery and reduce your aches and pains.’
2. A cold shower might boost your mental heath
According to a study from experts at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, taking cold showers for two to three minutes, once or twice a day, preceded by a five minute 'adjustment period' of slowly cooling water, could be a helpful part of relieving some of the symptoms of depression.
How? The team put the positive findings down to the fact that exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system and, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, sends lots of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain. While they concluded that larger studies would be requited to corroborate the findings, it's a promising start.
3. A cold shower can provide pain relief
There’s a reason why you put ice on a burn or a bad back – cold can have anaesthetic-like effects says findings published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences.
The principles are the same as those outlined by Jethwa above: cold constricts blood vessels, reducing swelling and it also potentially slows the rate at which pain signals are transmitted to the brain.
4. A cold shower might support your immune system
This one is pending further research. But one 2016 study found that participants were 29% less likely to need to call in sick to work, when they practiced the hot-to-cold approach of showering. The data showed a link between those who have a hot shower, with 30-90-second bursts of cold water reported fewer sick days than those who took warm showers.
‘This is supposedly due to the increase in metabolic rate caused by the shock of temperature change,’ says Jethwa. ‘Your body then accelerates its functions, in order to try and compensate.’
5. A cold shower can make you feel more alert
No surprises with this one – the reduced difference in temperature of a cold shower comes as a bit of a shock to your body.
‘This places your body under stress,’ says Jethwa. ‘Which sends your sympathetic nervous system into a “fight or flight” response so, you may, all of a sudden, feel much more focused and alert.
‘Being under the physical stress of cold temperatures means your requirement for oxygen also greatly increases, which promotes a higher breathing rate and forces more oxygen into the body.’
6. A cold shower can support fat loss
The key word here is ‘support’. Yes, a study published in Cell revealed that exposure to cold temperatures can protect against obesity, improve your metabolism and alters the composition of your gut bacteria so it’s better suited to burn fat but the studies were based on mice placed in cold conditions for ten days.
However, there is evidence that taking a cold shower can activate brown fat, a type that helps to generate heat around the body by burning calories.
7. A cold shower can improve your complexion
‘Cold water is great for the skin,’ says Kay Greveson, Aesthetic Nurse Practitioner at Regents Park Aesthetics. ‘Even a simple splash of cold water after cleansing can give you brighter skin.’
‘In addition to this, to lock in our core temperature our skin’s pores shrink, which can help improve the overall texture and appearance of the skin,’ says Dr. Michael Barnish, Aesthetic Doctor at the Dr. Jonquille Chantrey Clinic.
Oh, and those benefits we’ve already mentioned – that cold reduces inflammation and boosts your body’s immune response? Well those both work together to reduce the lifespan of spots.
Pretty impressive stuff.
8. A cold shower can help you better manage stress
Perhaps one for the brave to try out – in a study from 2000, researchers placed participants in 14 degree C water for one hour. It may sound extreme, but the experience did trigger a reduction in levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – in the body.
9. A cold shower could improve your heart health
As Jethwa has already identified, cold showers cause the body’s blood vessels to constrict. Blood rushes around to the organs to stay warm – promoting blood flow. An improved circulation is associated with better cardiovascular health – meaning your heart stays healthy and happy.
However, it’s also important to remember that cold temperatures force your heart to work harder to keep your body warm – which could, in turn, according to the British Heart Foundation, put your health at risk.
The takeaway? There are many other ways of keeping your heart healthy – like a balanced diet and exercise plan – so don’t rely on cold therapy alone.
How to Harness the Health Benefits of a Cold Shower
Keen to give it a go? Great. But before you dive right in, like with anything new, cold showers are worth giving your body time to adjust to.
‘There is not really an optimum way of taking a cold shower,’ says Jethwa. ‘Some people may have a short, five to 10-minute shower at a consistently cool temperature, whilst others may vary between heat and cold intermittently.
Ultimately, it’s about what works best for the individual, as everyone’s bodies are different. With some trial and error, you should be able to figure out which method is the most effective for your body.’
And remember, cold showers aren’t for everyone. If you have a history of heart conditions, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system or any concerns as to whether cold showers would be of benefit to you, seek the advice of a medical professional, first.
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