Cold Water Immersion: The Benefits of Cold Showers and Ice Baths

cold water immersion

A balanced diet and regular exercise are two aspects that are well-known for their health benefits.

However, cold water immersion is one method that provides beneficial results for the majority of us.

Whether you’re an athlete that requires help with recovery or someone who needs to boost their circulation, cold water immersion has surprising effects.

What Is Cold Water Immersion?

Cold water immersion involves submerging the body in an ice bath or cold shower. Some people mistakenly assume that this could lead to hypothermia, but this method has been used for years in sports therapy and beyond to aid muscle recovery and blood flow.

The body is only submerged for a limited time, before any harm can occur. When taken regularly, cold water immersion offers relief from a range of medical conditions, a sense of well-being, as well as changes to your immune and circulatory systems.

The Benefits For Everyday People

Cold water immersion in the form of cold showers or ice baths has beneficial results for most people.

Boosts Blood Flow/Circulation

One of its main benefits is to boost blood flow. Taking a cold shower or bath aids poor circulation. When blood flow is poor, it can put the heart under extra pressure and result in headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, or stroke.

Cold water immersion helps to stimulate blood flow as blood rushes to the organs when your body is immersed in cold water. The heart is then required to pump blood more efficiently and supply each area of the body with the nutrients and oxygen it needs.

This helps to improve your immune system, metabolism, and overall energy levels.

Boosts Lymphatic Function​

As well as improving blood flow, cold water immersion is also great for boosting lymphatic circulation. Your lymphatic system helps to eliminate bacteria and waste from your cells and it relies on your muscles to pump lymph fluid around the body.

Therefore, a lack of exercise or slow lymph system causes toxins to build-up in the body. Immersing your body in cold water results in lymph vessels contracting, pumping lymph fluid around the body to remove waste. This stimulates the immune system to destroy any toxins in the fluid.

Weight Loss​

Cold water immersion is perfect for those who want to lose weight. A 2009 study found that cold water promotes brown fat – the healthy body fat that is required for warmth, as well as helping to eliminate bad fats that cause us to put on weight. Cold water increases your metabolism by forcing our bodies to work harder to keep warm. Furthermore, another research study found that being exposed to very cold temperatures activated brown fat in almost all participants by a 15-fold increase. This leads to weight loss. While it’s not an alternative for a healthy diet and exercise, it can be beneficial when used alongside these to lose weight.

Mood Booster​

If you’re feeling down, cold water immersion may help to boost your mood. A study from 2007 revealed that when used regularly, cold showers can aid depression by stimulating mood improving neurotransmitters in the brain. Another study discovered that participants felt more energized after four months of regular cold water therapy.

Increase Alertness

A burst of cold water in the morning helps to increase your heart rate, boost alertness and give you a shot of energy to get you going for the day. A study carried out in the Netherlands revealed that two thirds of participants continued to take cold showers as it increased their energy levels as much as a mug of coffee.

Relieve Depression

If you’re suffering from a low mood, cold water may help. Cold water stimulates transmitters in the brain to boost your mood. A 2008 study demonstrated that cold showers could be a treatment for depression without any side effects.

Relieve Stress

Cold showers may increase tolerance to stress. A 1994 study found that exposure to a cold stimulus decreased uric acid levels, helping to reduce the risk of gout and other medical conditions. Furthermore, there was an increase in an antioxidant called glutathione which keeps other antioxidants performing at optimum level. During exposure to cold water, the participants of the study adapted to oxidative stress.

Improve Hair and Skin

Cold water is one of the best ways to maintain the condition of your hair and skin. Cold showers help to tighten pores and cuticles to prevent them from becoming clogged with dirt and bacteria. Clogged pores tend to lead to spots so maintain clear skin by taking regular cold showers.

The Benefits For Athletes

For those who partake in regular exercise, cold water immersion provides highly effective benefits.

Muscle Soreness

Strenuous exercise can cause inflammation in the muscles, but studies have demonstrated that cold water therapy can alleviate muscle soreness. 

A study from 2009 revealed 24-minute cold water baths with a temperature of 50 to 59 degree Fahrenheit were highly effective in relieving sore muscles up to four days after exercise.

Minimizes Swelling

Cold water reduces the temperature of damaged tissue and constricts blood vessels to minimize swelling and any inflammation. It’s a great alternative to taking pills for muscle recovery.

Cold Shower Versus Ice Baths. Which Is Better?

If you’re new to cold water immersion, you may be wondering which treatment is better. Cold showers or ice baths?

Cold showers tend to be more practical for the everyday person. They’re available straight away and you can access it without ice. However, a cold shower doesn’t allow for full immersion, especially for lower limbs. If you’re planning on using cold water immersion for muscle recovery, an ice bath may be a better option. While these are less practical, there are thought to have a greater physiological effect on the body.

For athletes new to cold water immersion, you should be conservative with the temperature, starting slightly warmer and then heading towards a lower temperature after a few baths.

Many professionals suggest a bath temperature of 54 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, each individual has their own temperature threshold so if this temperature is too cold, try a slightly warmer temperature – this will still have benefits for your body.

An ice bath is only recommended for between 6 to 8 minutes unless you’re experienced. Many gyms and sports centres offer ice baths under the guidance of a specialist – see if your local area has one if you’re unsure how to get started.

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