Updated: Jan 28
It's time to become comfortable being uncomfortable! Daily and seasonal changes naturally alter physiological and behavioural processes so that we can fight illness and survive. These geophysical signals, however, are becoming weaker because of exposure to artificial light and heat when it would naturally be colder and darker (1). Such privileges of modern life make it easier to find comfort in central heating and hot water. This can lead to chronic inflammation and disease as the body grows accustomed to what it considers to be an "eternal summer". In some parts of the world such as Finland, Japan and Russia, cold water rituals are considered the norm and it has been shown that exposure to temperatures cold enough to shock the body can heal us physically and psychologically (2).
In this article you will discover how you can:
- Develop a superhuman immune system
- Be more energetic
- Lose fat
- Boost circulation
- Improve skin and nail health
- Reap the benefits of cold water exposure with minimal discomfort
The power of the immune system
Cold exposure stimulates the immune system (3). The body works best when it is in homeostasis (equilibrium). Exposure to water that is cold enough to shock the body triggers a reaction from the body to re-establish homeostasis. The brain sends a signal to increase the production of monocytes and lymphocytes which are white blood cells which work to protect us by cleansing the body of toxins, viruses, bacteria and pathogens (4). By exposing ourselves regularly to cold water, the immune system becomes stronger and more capable of preventing and fighting harmful diseases and illnesses such as colds, flus and cancers.
The shock of submerging in cold water or having a shower using cold water often causes breathing to become faster and shallower. Blood vessels become narrower (vasoconstriction) and oxygen needs increase in order to retain warmth. If the shock is significant enough, the respiratory system becomes one of the few processes which the body prioritises. When mental and physical performance increases, so does productivity, recovery, mental fortitude and positivity in order to increase oxygen uptake. This focused oxygenation can reduce stress and fatigue as the body becomes energised and invigorated (5)(6).
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Exposure to the cold stimulates the production of brown fat which itself burns fat to create heat via fat oxidation. Brown fat stores, as opposed to white fat stores, have proven to be clear indicators of good health e.g. mitochondria (which provide power to cells) increase in number and generate more energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which can boost aerobic capacity, stimulate our metabolism, improve muscle contractions and nerve impulses among other things (7). In contrast, those with low levels of brown fat have been linked with fatty liver disease, obesity and low bone mineral density (8)(9)(10). Additionally, the increase in daily energy expenditure makes it more likely to achieve weight loss (11). In addition, it is likely that someone with higher levels of brown adipose tissue generates more heat during meals which may result in less body fat being stored (12).
When the body becomes colder from contact with or exposure to cold water, thermogenesis takes place to generate body heat. A knock on effect of thermogenesis is the activation of bodily systems responsible for repairing the organism such as: the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system and immune system. The body starts to function optimally and, as well as burning energy and boosting mental clarity, the reparative processes can lead to hugely improved symptoms of those suffering with poor circulation in their hands and feet. Furthermore, individuals who sweat profusely may notice a decrease in perspiration as a result of the body being able to regulate its temperature properly (13).
Skin and hair health
The impact cold water had on skin and hair is often overlooked. When cold enough, water exposure forces the cuticles to tighten and even close. This pushes dirt and waste out and stops them from being clogged. In addition, spots and other skin blemishes can disappear. Consequently, the detoxification makes skin look clean and youthful and hair stronger and less likely to fall out.
How to approach your cold water experience
Time of day: Cold water exposure first thing in the morning can energise your cells and nervous system. A cold water ritual before bed will lower your core temperature and increase the likelihood of having a good nights sleep.
Equipment: Full body immersion is best e.g. a bath full of cold water, a cold swimming pool, the sea when it is cold enough. That being said, cold showers also have a place in cold water therapy even if the whole body isn't covered. Instant temperature control and the ability to control the stream of water directly means that one can gradually progress towards colder temperatures and utilise hot cold therapy to improve recovery from strenuous workouts.
Temperature: The water doesn't have to be freezing. Studies have shown that water temperatures of 10 degrees celsius provide many health benefits (14). If you are unable to measure the temperature, it is important to avoid shivering or pain. The stress of becoming too cold or burning your skin will worsen health and make you hate the process. Simply adjust your exposure time based on the temperature of the water and try your best to gauge whether you are cold and benefiting from the shock response or whether you are too cold. Warm or hot water can be added to the cold bath until the temperature is warm enough for you to remain in the water for long enough without being scared of the process or unable to do it.
How long for? In very cold water, a few seconds can be enough. In cool water, you may find you can comfortably remain submerged for several minutes. If you are finding it hard to motivate yourself, start with head, feet and arms before adding legs then increase to full body immersion. If you are a complete beginner, you should get out sooner rather than later and practice deep breathing techniques or meditations apps beforehand.
What to do when you exit the water: If you are in a hot climate try to dry naturally in direct sunlight otherwise go straight into an infrared (or normal) sauna or warm up near a heater. Prepare a nice cup of coffee or tea or warm drink/broth to have straight away
What to avoid: Avoid cold exposure if you are ill or if you have just worked out. Warm conditions and reduced stress will help to heal an illness faster. Allow the body to recover naturally from the stresses of exercise by limiting cold water exposure to at least 2 hours either side of training unless you are a top level athlete who is competing in hot conditions and needs to continue performing at a very high level immediately after exposure. Do not depend on cold water therapy to lose fat. Be sensible if you are pregnant, elderly, very young, have difficulty breathing. If for any reason you are concerned about how cold water exposure may be detrimental to your health, consult a doctor before trying it out.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.