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Can cold water improve our wellbeing?

Could something as simple as cold water improve our wellbeing, and if it can does it really do that much? Without this popular therapy, most of us would probably grimmace at the idea of a cold bath or having to finish washing our hair with cold water when the hot's run out. But we're seeing more and more people opt in to icy pools or wild swimming, so what's the fuss about? Keep reading to find out...

Cold water therapy is a technique that has gained a lot of interest and popularity recently, especially video-based platforms such as TikTok. Anyone else constantly shown people in ice baths in the garden or shivering under a cold shower?mBut why is everyone talking about it and experimenting with cold water exposure all of a sudden? Well, you may - or may not be - pleased to know that there are many benefits. Which, feels necessary to outline before convincing you to give it a go.

The benefits of cold water exposure

  • Pain relief

  • Muscle recovery

  • Can boost immune system

  • Weight loss

  • Boosts mood

  • Enhanced blood circulation

  • Lowers risk of depression

  • Triggering further and more sustained increases in metabolism

  • Cold adaptation (feeling more comfortable in the cold)

While not true of every stress, cold exposure causes the prolonged release of dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful molecule capable of elevating mood, enhancing focus, attention, goal-directed behaviour, etc. Even short bouts of cold exposure can cause a lasting increase in dopamine and sustained elevation of mood, energy, and focus…allowing you to cope better and maintain a calm, clear mind when confronted with real-world stressors. Huberman Lab 2023

But what does cold water exposure really mean? Sure, we can rinse in cold water for half a second, but surely that doesn’t count? Here’s a great definition from the Wim Hof website (also known as the IceMan, but we’ll come onto that in a minute!).

Cold Water Immersion (CWI) is a form of cold water therapy, which improves the natural recovery process of the human body. A well-known type is taking ice baths or cold showers. Cold Water Immersion is a great way to activate the body’s natural healing powers, and to make it able to relieve symptoms of various medical conditions. When practised on a regular basis, the positive effects of exposure to cold last even longer. Over time, Cold Water Immersion improves your cardiovascular circulation, reduces muscle inflammation, and facilitates weight loss. Wim Hof Method 2023

However, there are of course some caution that needs to be taken into consideration before skinny dipping into a pool of freezing water. Here’s some things to note:

  • NEVER get into a dangerous body of water

  • Cold water shock is a real thing, so start warmer and decrease temperature slowly

  • Always prioritise your safety, if things don’t feel right, seek help immediately

  • Water might be uncomfortably cold, but safe enough to stay in for a few minutes

  • Consider doing deliberate cold exposure for a maximum of 11 minutes per week TOTAL - NOT per session, but rather, 2-4 sessions lasting 1-5 mins each distributed across the week.

  • The colder the water, the shorter the amount of time you need to spend in it to reap the benefits

Ok, I’m interested - so what do I do now?

Start off by doing your research. Find reliable sources like the ones cited below, and consult your doctor or a medical professional first to get a professional opinion. Cold water exposure can be dangerous if not done right, so make sure you do not do it alone to begin with and find out how to minimise the risks.

Cold showers are the best place to start - they’re accessible to most and the temperature can be easily controlled. Start at a temperature you are comfortable with, then slowly and steadily decrease the temperature a bit at a time, don’t go cold turkey instantly (pun intended).

If you want to try open water swimming, find an organised group or session supervised by experts. Never go alone. Start out in the summer months, when waters aren’t freezing. Again, build up the time you spend in the water gradually (Wild and Puri, 2023).

After exposing ourselves to cold water, our body temperature actually increases, making us feel more awake. For this reason, it’s recommended to do any cold water exposure in the morning or earlier in the day, avoiding doing it close to bedtime. Research has also shown that cold water exposure can aid physical recovery, and therefore it can be good to do following exercise.

After care

After you’ve been exposed to any cold water, warm up gradually by removing any clothes that are wet, drying yourself and putting on some warm layers. Having a warm drink and something to eat (preferably sweet) can help too. Do not have a hot bath or shower - the sudden change in temperature can be dangerous (Wild and Puri, 2023).

Brrrrr: All in all, it seems like a pretty good way to enhance both our physical and mental wellness, and support us in being better equipped to deal with the challenges and stressors that everyday life throws our way. Just always remember to consult your doctor or a medical professional before trying out new things like cold water exposure, and always ensure you’re in a safe and manageable environment.




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