Cold water therapy is a technique that involves immersing yourself in cold water for short periods of time—sounds nuts, right? Well, it’s actually said to have a number of positive benefits, including reduced inflammation and improved mental clarity. But where did cold water therapy come from, and how you could benefit from taking the plunge yourself?
Benefits of cold water therapy
Cold water therapy increases blood flow to organs, including the brain
Reduces inflammation and swelling
Reduces muscle stiffness, which is why ‘ice baths’ are commonly used by athletes
Can improve mood, and reduce stress and anxiety
Exposing your body to natural cold elements can make you feel awake and ‘alive’
The invention of cold water therapy
The first known use of cold water therapy (or cryotherapy) dates back to the ancient Greeks, who were said to have used it for pain relief. It wasn’t until the 19th century that doctors started using cold baths as a form of treatment for a wide range of conditions, including rheumatism and gout. Now, cold water therapy is used for muscle recovery, chronic pain, and depression.
Influencers, celebrities, and athletes are increasingly getting behind cold water therapy—which is perhaps why its popularity has increased in recent years. The most famous proponent of cold water therapy is Wim Hof, a Dutchman who made headlines when he climbed Mount Everest wearing only his shorts. The "Iceman" has been widely credited with unlocking the secrets of cold water therapy, supporting the growth of specialised clinics such as London Cryo.
The science behind cold water therapy
When you're in pain or feeling down, the last thing you might want to do is submerge yourself in ice-cold water. But research shows that cold water therapy may be a good place to start. Exposing your body to cold temperatures triggers a natural response that increases blood flow to your core organs. This helps reduce inflammation and swelling, reduces muscle stiffness, and can even improve your mood.
A recent study found that immersion in cold water after injury reduced inflammation and accelerated the healing process. It also showed similar results when it was applied to the brain— cold therapy helps the brain cope with stress and anxiety.
Cold water immersion can provide long-lasting changes to your body’s immune, lymphatic, circulatory and digestive systems that enhance the overall quality of your life.
Biologically, cold water causes our heart rate to drop significantly and reduces the amount of blood flowing to our skin and extremities. It also increases our respiration rate, which helps us conserve oxygen. This process has helped humans and other mammals survive in cold water for millions of years.
Cold water therapy for mental health
The diving response is designed to help us cope with stressful situations, much in the same way as meditation. Both reduce blood pressure, increase respiration rate and oxygenation of the blood, and improve circulation to the brain. All of these changes combine to reduce the impact of stress on your body and your mind.
Improved circulation results in enhanced mental performance, stronger immune response and better mental and physical wellbeing
Scientists are now looking into how cold water therapy can improve mood disorders including anxiety and depression. One study from 2018 found that ice baths reduced symptoms of depression more effectively than traditional cognitive behavioural therapy did after six weeks of treatment. This research is ongoing, but there are plenty of people that swear by cold water therapy as their cure for depression, stress, or anxiety.
Cold water therapy for muscles and chronic pain
Olympians, athletes, and runners have been using cold water therapy to increase blood flow and reduce inflammation for millennia. Cold water helps to speed up healing from injuries like pulled muscles or sprained joints by reducing swelling, pain, and inflammation. But can cold water therapy be used for chronic pain conditions?
While there is limited research into the effects of cold water immersion therapy on chronic pain specifically, some scientists believe that it could help those with inflammatory conditions like arthritis, muscle pain, nerve pain, or joint pain brought on by other health issues such as lupus or fibromyalgia.
Taking the plunge
If you want to try cold water therapy, it's best to start slow and work up to longer exposures over time. Start with a warm shower, then turn the temperature down until it's just above freezing (cold but not too cold). Try this for 20 or 30 seconds, then gradually increase the length of your exposure by 10 seconds each day, until you can tolerate 3-5 minutes per day without feeling overwhelmed. It's tempting to throw yourself into the deep end (literally), but the slowly-does-it approach is more sensible.
Start with a cold end to your shower, 30 seconds is a great starting point
Gradually increase by 10 seconds a day, until you can manage a few minutes
Try going for a cold dip in a local lake or the sea, and let your body acclimatise by moving around in the water
Be cautious if the water is extremely cold
Try a specialised clinic for monitored exposure
Cold water immersion is a powerful way to treat your body and mind, and it has a wide range of benefits that can improve your health. The best part? It's free and accessible for everyone—it's not just for the super athletic or adventurous. Though if you're after the authentic cold-water experience, Unplugged cabins are the perfect place. Take your first cold shower surrounded by nature, or even better, find a nearby lake to splash around in.
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