Athletes have been fans of ice bath therapy, or immersing themselves in cold water, for a while now, with the practice said to alleviate muscle fatigue after workouts. Some have even taken ice therapy to an extreme.
The Dutchman Wim Hof, for example, is famous for his ability to withstand ice-cold temperatures. He currently holds two Guinness World Records – one for full-body contact with ice and the other for swimming under ice. In particular, Hof believes that cold therapy releases dopamine and serotonin, increasing focus and a general sense of well-being. He also claims that exposing the body to two short cold showers a day boosts the immune system.
However, you don’t have to be a pro athlete to reap the benefits of cold therapy. Brisk morning showers or immersing yourself in water that’s around 15°C (59°F) have a whole range of health benefits. And, no, you don’t need to cover your body with ice to feel the positive impact of cold therapy on your mental and physical well-being.
Eases Sore Muscles
Cold therapy alleviates muscle pain by reducing inflammation and swelling. This is because low temperatures constrict blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the affected area.
Cryotherapy can also help to eliminate lactic acid, which accumulates in the muscles during exercise. When you expose your muscles to cold water, your vessels contract. When you get out of the shower or bath, they re-open, flushing out the metabolic waste products from the muscles and delivering beneficial oxygen and nutrients.
While cold therapy is not a cure for mental health issues, it can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression – this is particularly true about swimming in cold water, which can have an almost meditative quality.
The ‘shock’ associated with immersing your body in cold water can also trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain as a response to environmental stress. Over time, this can condition the brain to be more effective at dealing with the stresses of everyday life.
A study published in BMJ Journals found that a 24-year-old woman who had been suffering from long-standing anxiety and depression was able to stop her medications after a program of weekly open water swimming sessions.
Along with exercise and supplements such as vitamin C, cold therapy has been credited with boosting the immune system and improving resistance to illness through a process called controlled hypoxia: states the platform SupplementGuide.nl. “The shock of submerging your body in cold water activates the stress hormone, challenging the body to step out of its comfort zone and as a result increasing the immune response,” the website states.
According to a Dutch study published in PLOS One, people with severe comorbidity who took regular cold showers took fewer days off work due to sickness.
According to one theory, exposing your body to cold water can change the behavior of fat cells. There are two kinds of fat cells, one being unhealthy white fat cells and the other brown fat cells that are responsible for thermogenesis, a process that converts energy into heat. Cold temperatures can trigger this process, helping to improve the body’s metabolic function.