Feeling blue, burnt out, tired, or struggling to get going in the morning? The antidote could be cold water exposure, recently made famous by “The Ice Man” and his modestly named technique The Wim Hof Method.
Whether it's wild swimming, plunge pools, cold showers, cold chambers, cryotherapy, or the celebrities' cold-water activity of choice, tin ice baths in the backyard, we’ve all seen our fair share of the Instagram world, including Zac Efron, Liam Hemsworth and Russell Brand taking on the sub-zero temperatures with gusto. As it turns out, it’s not just an Instagram fad – from boosted immunity and circulation to enhanced muscle recovery, improved mental health, increased energy and mood, and clearer thinking, let’s dive into the transformative benefits of cold-water exposure and why it’s fast becoming everyone’s new favorite therapy…
It supports muscle recovery
Cold exposure can reduce pain, swelling, and decrease the chance of injury and muscle fatigue after strenuous exercise thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties – hence why ice packs are commonly used to treat an injury. Next time you smash out a toughworkout,grab a protein shake, then hit the plunge pool or take a cold shower for faster muscle recovery. World-class athletes have been doing it for years – and ancient Greek physician Hippocrates swore by it – now the chilly recovery technique is solving more than physical ailments.
It boosts immunity
Cold water immersion forces your lymphatic system to pump lymph fluids around your body to flush out any toxins. Winter swimmers are found to have a higher number of white blood cells including types that kill cancer cells, viruses, and tumors. They also have 40% fewer respiratory tract infections, and several studies point towards cold water exposure improving the health of those with autoimmune disorders.
More studies are needed, but the research so far indicates that being exposed to cold temperatures often points to a longer life expectancy thanks to its effect on metabolic health.
It can alleviate stress, anxiety & depression
Cold-water exposure triggers our sympathetic nervous system that produces those wonderful feel-good endorphins that make us happy! If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know that once you’re past the shock, it’s hard to wipe the giddy smile off your face!
Cold exposure stimulates the fight or flight response which causes our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to increase. Our circulation goes into overdrive as it rushes to warm our core and protect our vital organs. At that moment, in survival mode, you’re not thinking (or worrying) about anything else. You’re completely focused on the moment and that mindfulness makes calm and contentment wash over you.
Plus, if you’re lucky enough to take a dip outside, being surrounded by nature increases those feelings of elation all the more! Expansive and scenic nature landscapes (especially at sunrise) instantly transport you to a state of bliss. Combining this with exercise, taking time out for yourself without distractions (or digital devices), and connecting with others in a group, can help you to feel at peace. This increase in endorphins, along with the rush of adrenaline (studies show that it increases by 530%), could also promote weight loss thanks to heightened metabolism.
It makes you more resilient & productive
As well as an instant mood-lift, regular cold-water exposure can alter your long-term stress response too. You might notice that you become more tolerant of risk as it forces you to exercise that survival response. Studies show that taking more risks regularly can make us more resilient and adaptable to change – useful in an ever-changing world. Plus, you might find that your confidence and productivity increases.
Once immersed, set a timer for three minutes. After that time, your skin should reach the same temperature as the water, and you’ll feel warm. It’s like magic!
If you immerse yourself often (in water 15C or less), the panic response is reduced as our body learns to cope. It’s thought that just six three-minute swims will have an effect on your cold shock response that can last for months. Wild swimmers even report saving on the heating bills during winter, because their resilience to the cold is superpowered!
This is a very physical way to get comfortable being uncomfortable – that’s where growth happens. You can transfer those skills of resilience over to less adrenaline-inducing experiences like projects and work you’re passionate about to get more done and overcome challenges with ease. Overcoming a cold-water dip first thing can get your day off to an exhilarating, positive start, and help you overcome more as the day goes on.
It makes skin glowy & hair glossy
As well as the extra energy and perkiness that comes after an icy dip, cold water has myriad benefits for your skin and hair too. In the same way that muscular pain and swelling can be reduced, so can irritation and pain from acne, breakouts, psoriasis, and eczema. Plus, cold water closes skin pores and hair cuticles creating a protective barrier so they’re much less vulnerable to bacteria, dirt, and oil getting in. It also adds gloss and shine for healthy-looking locks, and stops your skin or hair from becoming dry from too much hot water. And we all know that hydrated, protected skin means a dewy, plump, youthful complexion – especially useful for those juicy anti-aging benefits like boosted collagen production and increased cell renewal.
The good news is, improving your skin through cold exposure is now being used by beauty brands and salons too. Salons now offer cryotherapy treatments and ‘ice-tech’ that works to lift, firm, and sculpt skin, and rejuvenate tired complexions. Why not try your own cold therapy at home by popping your facial roller in the fridge before using it as part of your morning routine to awaken, brighten and depuff?
How to dip your toe in cold water therapy
Start with “cold-outs” in the morning instead of your usual caffeine fix! Immerse yourself in a cold shower and stay there for 30 seconds. (Try an icy blast at the end of your regular shower to start.) Aim to increase the time under the water over time, then feel alive and ready to tackle your day head-on!
Practice cold exposure daily – a little and often!
Find a scenic spot nearby to go wild swimming; take in beautiful surroundings, join a group or go with friends (who can swim). If you’re new to it, start in summer or early autumn when it’s not bitter to ease yourself in. Swim in shallow, calm waters where it’s safe.
Approach cold water swimming as you would exercise – if you suffer from existing heart, blood pressure, or respiratory problems, consult your GP and take extra care.
Once immersed, focus on taking long, deep breaths, making your exhale twice as long as your inhale. For example, inhale for a count of 4, and exhale for 8. “The use of breathing techniques is important when using cold water therapy so to be calm, focused, and determined to do it, will help to block out the intense pain or fear of the cold to your body. Relaxing the mind and focusing on a single object, likened to mediation, will allow you to engage in this treatment therapy,” advises spiritual expert, Estella, from Psychic Sofa.
This effectively hacks your parasympathetic nervous system to help you feel calmer and gives you something to focus on to overcome the urge to quit!
Take the plunge!
While face masks and bubble baths can work wonders, an icy plunge can expand your mindset, boost immunity, soothe tired muscles, plus provide instant exhilaration in energy and mood with the ultimate escapism. While subjecting your body to sub-zero temperatures might sound more like torture than self-care, once you take the plunge, the thrill becomes addictive, and who are we to argue with the astounding health benefits?