When it comes to feeling better, people are willing to try just about anything.
The simple act of getting in cold water provides a range of physical and mental benefits.
While cold water immersion has been practiced for hundreds of years, the scientific study its effects is still relatively new.
This emerging science should continue to be studied, but years of research show the many benefits cold water can offer.
Reduces depression, anxiety and stress
Several studies indicate a connection between cold exposure and mental health.
A 2022 study led participants through a 10-day program of deep-breathing exercises, coldwater exposure, and mindfulness meditation. The study concluded that the interview improved “symptoms of stress, well-being, and depression” and called for more research into the psychophysiological mechanisms at work.
Another study, published in 2020, showed a “statistically significant difference” in depressive symptoms of participants with chronic health conditions who practiced whole-body cryotherapy for 10 sessions. The researchers also reported significant improvement in quality of life, self-assessed mood and disease acceptance.
The study’s authors concluded that whole-body cryotherapy is a useful method to use alongside medication and “reduces mental health deterioration, especially in mood disorders, such as depression, and can be beneficial for well-being and quality of life.”
Exposing yourself to cold is a great way to jumpstart your senses and make you feel alert and energized.
In 2023, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the networks in the brain that lead to these positive effects. The study noted that perceived changes after cold water immersion were “feeling more active, alert, attentive, proud, and inspired,” as well as “reductions in distress and nervousness.”
Soothes muscle soreness
Ice baths or cold plunges have long been used by athletes to recover after workouts. Reduced swelling, soreness and inflammation are all reasons that an athlete might incorporate cold water into their recovery routine.
A 2015 meta-analysis reviewed data from 27 previously published articles to examine the possible effect of different cold applications and other passive strategies after exercise. The analysis concluded that “cooling and especially cold water immersions affected the symptoms of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) significantly.”
Cold water immersion can cause blood vessels to constrict (vasoconstriction), which may help reduce blood flow to the affected area. This constriction can potentially limit the extent of inflammation by decreasing the influx of immune cells and inflammatory mediators.
Cold water immersion has also been suggested to influence the production and release of certain inflammatory mediators, such as cytokines.
One 2008 study of 10 people with different inflammatory rheumatic diseases found a significant reduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines after 5 days of whole-body cryotherapy.
Boosts immune system
While old wives’ tales purport that getting cold and wet can make you sick, researchers are discovering that the opposite may actually be true.
A 2016 study found that people who took cold showers called out sick from work less than those who didn’t.
Cold water immersion can have analgesic (pain-relieving) effects, and it is often used as a form of pain management for various conditions.
While you’re in cold water, you’re likely to experience a numbing sensation, reducing the perception of pain. This numbing effect is caused by slower nerve conduction and decreased sensitivity of nerve endings.
Increases grit and resilience
When you do hard things like cold water immersion, you’re forcing your body into a state of stress and activating the fight-or-flight response (caused by the sympathetic nervous system).
And doing that repeatedly and with focus and control, you’re also allowing your body to practice controlling those responses.
By experiencing small doses of stress, you’re teaching your body to become more resilient over time.
Cold water immersion also requires mental toughness to endure. This practice can foster a mindset of perseverance and discipline that carries over to other pursuits.
Find out how cold therapy can benefit you
These are just some of the benefits associated with cold therapy. We always encourage every individual to listen to your body and find what works best for you.
Everyone’s body responds differently to cold, so experiment with water temperatures, durations and routines to find the maximum personal benefit.
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