After braving some morning cold plunge sessions by myself for a few days in our pool, I recently convinced my husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, to join me. I understand why some people may not want to start the day with a dip in water at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but I have found it to be an invigorating practice. Daniel was skeptical at first, though he came around—and even returned for another try the next morning, claiming that he felt great throughout the day afterward.
As more people spread the word on social media, perhaps you too have heard about some of the benefits of cold plunges, also called cold water therapy or cold water immersion. These perks include increasing your general sense of happiness, boosting the immune system, improving circulation, and revving up your metabolism. This practice can also reduce inflammation and help foster better emotional health. On the other hand, there are also detractors who warn of potentially dangerous pitfalls when we shock our bodies in cold water, especially for people with certain health conditions. Let’s look a little deeper into the benefits—and the potential downsides.Humans have experimented with exposing themselves to cold temperatures for thousands of years in an attempt to receive therapeutic benefits like better health and improved athletic recovery. Click To Tweet
THE BENEFITS OF COLD WATER THERAPY
A study published in 2022 noted that humans have experimented with exposing themselves to cold temperatures (through ice, water, and air) for thousands of years in an attempt to receive therapeutic benefits like better health and improved athletic recovery. Cold exposure in general is called cryotherapy, and it’s been believed to help with everything from reducing pain and boosting circulation to improving well-being and decreasing the body’s inflammatory response after exercise. And according to the 2022 study on the history of cryotherapy, it was already being talked about in documents way back in 3500 B.C.!
Luckily, with today’s scientific advancements, researchers have been able to fully examine its positive effects. Here are some potential upsides they have discovered:
1. Post-exercise recovery.
Studies have found that athletes or those performing high-intensity exercises may benefit from cold water immersion after these activities. One meta-analysis that reviewed 52 studies found that the tactic “improved the recovery of muscular power” 24 hours after both strength training exercise and high-intensity exercise, and improved muscle soreness and perceived feelings of recovery 24 hours after high-intensity exercise, but was associated with “no significant influence on the recovery of strength performance” after either category of exercise. These benefits reflect the fact that cold exposure can help to reduce inflammation and swelling in the body, which assists recovery.
There may also be mood and emotional benefits to cold water immersion, according to one study that examined 64 college students who were otherwise fit and healthy. Because some previous studies in this field had researched cold water swimmers, skeptics thought that the exercise was the mood-booster, not the cold water exposure. Therefore, this study removed the exercise aspect and simply submerged participants in chest-deep cold water for about 18 minutes as they held themselves in place. Afterward, the immersion group “felt less negative mood disturbance” on all of the markers listed on the study’s Profile of Mood States questionnaire, “and showed significantly increased vigor and esteem-related effects.” In addition, these benefits were shown after a single immersion—they didn’t require repeated exposure over time.
3. Physical health impacts.
In one study from the Netherlands, participants from ages 18 to 65 who were asked to engage in cold showers every day were found to have 29% fewer sick days reported over 90 days, even though they reported no fewer bouts of illness. The researchers hypothesized that this means “the intensity rather than the duration of symptoms” was affected by the cold shower exposure. When combined with regular physical activity, participants showed an even greater decrease in absence from work due to sickness (a 54% reduction, compared to people who didn’t engage in either practice). Another study pointed out that cold water immersion “seems to reduce and/or transform body adipose tissue, as well as reduce insulin resistance and improve insulin sensitivity,” which may have a preventive and protective effect against concerns like cardiovascular conditions, obesity, and other metabolic diseases.
THE POTENTIAL DOWNSIDES OF TAKING A COLD PLUNGE
While exposure to cold water can have many benefits, it’s important to note that there may also be potential dangers. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, plunging into cold water (between 50 and 60 degrees) can create too significant of a shock to the system. These issues are more likely to occur in open water—like if you capsize in a canoe and your entire body submerges unexpectedly—but they have triggered concern over cold plunges.
Other people might not think 50 or 60 degrees sounds too cold since air temperatures in winter often reach far lower, but the Center explains that because water has more density than air, our bodies react in different ways. And while most people assume the connection between cold water and hypothermia, other physical responses can be more immediately dangerous. For example, during a cold water plunge, the heart rate and blood pressure quickly spike, which could cause a heart attack or stroke in people who have health vulnerabilities. In addition, responses like cold shock can incapacitate a person, making it impossible to swim or breathe properly, which can even prove deadly (such as drowning).
The American Heart Association (AHA) warns that losing heat from the body so rapidly also creates a chain reaction, reducing circulation to the extremities, and points to research that has examined the link between cold water immersion and the health of the heart over the long term. However, the AHA also notes that there are ways to prepare the body for cold plunges, such as starting slowly, exercising outdoors in cooler temperatures, changing out of cold and wet clothes immediately after a plunge, and making sure you plunge with someone else in the area for safety reasons. The bottom line is if you’re thinking of taking the cold plunge, first check with your doctor to ensure it’s safe for you. Those with pre-existing heart conditions, for example, may not be the ideal candidates to experiment with this practice.
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