Is taking the plunge a wellness fad or a guarantee of a healthier, more wholesome life? Our expert dives in...
From cold showers to icy open water swimming to Wim Hof running up mountains in his shorts, cold exposure therapy has become ubiquitous in recent years.
Yes, the Vikings used to alternate hot steam rooms with rubbing snow on their bodies. And yes, things got pretty chilly for our ancestors during the Ice Age. But, in 2023 do we really need to chill out so much? We invented central heating for a reason, right?
The icy adherents of Hof’s school of thought may have a point. “‘Cryotherapy’ or ‘cold therapy’ is the exposure of the body surface to very low temperature,” explains Alla Pashynska, director of Ice Health Cryotherapy. “The reduction in the superficial skin temperature stimulates the thermoreceptors – sensors that react with cold stimulations. These then send a signal to the brain in order to generate a defence mechanism to the imminent hypothermic situation.”
In other words, cold makes our bodies go into survival mode – a process which has surprising benefits. “The narrowing of the blood vessels caused by cryotherapy leads to an increase in blood flow back to the core of the body. This stimulates a process in the body known as the ‘baroreflex’ which is responsible for maintaining our blood pressure,” says Pashynska. It’s also why your heart and head feel vibrantly alive while your extremities feel cold following a cold dip.
Studies back the idea, suggesting a slew of therapeutic benefits to a cold dip, from reducing muscle soreness to improving inflammation, boosting mood, and activating fat loss. That latter point ties in with the much-touted brown fat activation. The theory here being that cold exposure encourages the growth of brown fat, which we can more easily use for energy, as opposed to white fat which, erm, makes us fat if we collect too much of it.
Wim Hof also claims cold exposure also boosts his immune system. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found the brown fat claim to be true and while a 2021 study found that cold exposure does limit ‘immunologic reprogramming’ – it helps your immune system stay sharp.
The jury is still out on the question of whether a quick plunge or an hour in an ice bath bestows the best benefits, but anecdotally, many people report that swinging the shower dial and spending a few minutes shivering makes them feel more alert and energised. It’s also a bit easier than filling your bath with ice every morning. The key is to do it consistently, as the benefits build over time.
If you've never done cold therapy before, it's best to start low and slow. Pashynska recommends turning your water a bit colder at the end of every shower for 2-5 minutes, and working yourself up to tolerating colder and colder water slowly.
“Everything has to be very gradual, allowing the body to adapt,” says Pashynska. “Start with hot water first followed by a few minutes of maybe not so cold water, increasing the time and reducing the temperature as we go along. The more our body adapts to this procedure, the easier it gets. And as soon as we start feeling the benefits, it becomes easier to persuade ourselves to do it.”
Note: It isn’t advised to just jump into a cold body of water – doing so could be fatal as the cold will take your breath away. And, even in the shower, make sure someone else is in the house in case the shock is too much. We’re not saying invite a lifeguard into your bathroom, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Cold showers aren’t pleasant, at least not at first (although those who love them do love them passionately). So be prepared. Start slow, breath through the cold and build up your resistance with incremental sessions before diving into an ice bath or attempting to climb K2 in your undies.
Over time, you too, could become an ice cool example of peak physical perfection and mental mastery. At the very least that cold shower will help you wake up in the morning. Either way, win-win.
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