From freezing showers to cryotherapy tanks, cold exposure is in vogue amongst health-conscious people. And rightly so, given its potential to boost fat burning, shield the nerves, strengthen the immune system, and more. In this article, we will explore the science behind cold exposure, ways to practice it, and important precautions.
What is Cold Therapy?
Cold therapy is not a new invention; it is among man’s earliest medical treatments. The Edwin Smith Papyrus (3500 BC), the most ancient medical text, repeatedly mentioned cold therapy .
However, until the late 1980s, cold exposure remained relatively unappreciated by modern, allopathic medicine .
More recently, cold therapy has been increasingly used to prevent or mitigate various types of neurologic injury .
Even so, the numerous benefits of cold therapy remain relatively hidden and untapped. Hopefully, this article will give you an insight into how you can leverage cold exposure to optimize your health and performance.
Benefits of Cold Exposure
1) Aids Fat Burning
Humans have stores of active brown fat tissue (BAT). Unlike white fat, which stores energy and comprises most body fat, brown fat is active in burning calories and using energy .
BAT can essentially turn calories from food into heat [5, 6].
Indeed, studies show that cold exposure increases BAT activity which leads to increased calorie expenditure. Researchers concluded that frequent cold exposures might be an acceptable and economical complementary approach to address the current obesity epidemic .
According to preliminary research, a lack of BAT has been linked with obesity .
Cold exposure increases shivering and nonshivering thermogenesis. These processes increase calorie expenditure .
Exposure to cold temperatures leads to increased levels of adiponectin, a protein that increases fat burning. Low levels of adiponectin are associated with obesity [10, 11, 12].
In one study, subjects who were exposed to cold stress had an 80% increase in their metabolism over “warm” levels .
In one study, cold-exposed rats burned so many extra calories that they ate 50% more than control rats but still weighed less than controls .
2) Fights Inflammation
Exposure to cold temperatures raises adiponectin, a protein that combats inflammation .
Another study found that exercising in the cold reduced the inflammatory response seen in regular temperature environments .
This same study found that exercising past a certain time in the cold can actually increase the inflammatory response, so moderation is important .
3) May Support Longevity
A study found that flies lived twice as long when kept at 21°C than 27°C .
Similarly, research on worms found that a 5 °C drop in temperature increased lifespan by 75% .
A number of studies on insects have also found a negative relationship between temperature and lifespan [19, 20, 21].
Fish also seem to live longer at lower temperatures. For example, one study showed that a 6 °C drop in temperature increased the average fish lifespan by 75 % [22, 23].
In 1986, one researcher immersed his lab rats in shallow, cool water for four hours per day. The rats burned so many extra calories that they ate 50% more than control rats. The cold-exposed rats still weighed less than the control rats and lived 10% longer .
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Another study lowered the core temperature of mice by 0.3 °C (males) and 0.34 °C (females), resulting in an increase in the average lifespan of 12 and 20% respectively .
Increased longevity via cold-exposure could be due to hormesis. Hormesis refers to the paradoxical adaptation that makes animals stronger and more efficient if they are exposed to environmental stresses .
Other researchers prefer the ‘rate of living hypothesis’. This theory suggests that lower temperature promotes longevity by slowing down the rate of reaction of various metabolic processes. This means fewer by-products of metabolism, such as reactive oxygen species (ROS) .
Alternatively, increased longevity from cold exposure may be due to a modulation of genes, such as TRPA-1 and DAF-16 .
Promising animal research in this field should spark further investigation and clinical trials that would examine the anti-aging effects of cold exposure in humans.
4) Strengthens the Nervous System
The increase in fat burning during cold exposure is modulated by the sympathetic nervous system. Cold temperatures act as a mild “workout” for the nervous system, which adapts and strengthens [27, 28].
5) May Support and Speed up Recovery
The physiological effects of cold therapy include reductions in blood flow, swelling, inflammation, muscle spasm, and metabolic demand .
There is some preliminary evidence that ice plus exercise is effective at increasing healing speed after an ankle sprain or surgery .
Cold exposure has a positive effect on muscular enzymes linked to muscle damage (e.g. creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase) .
One study looked at 360 people who either rested or submerged themselves in cold water after resistance training, cycling or running. 24-minute cold water baths (50 – 59 °F) prevented sore muscles after exercises .
This approach is becoming increasingly popular among professional athletes.
6) Regulates Blood Sugar Levels
One study found adiponectin levels increase by 70% after cold exposure. Adiponectin is a protein involved in blood glucose regulation, with low levels often found in insulin resistance [11, 12].
In rat studies, cold exposure increased glucose uptake in the peripheral tissues. Thus, cold exposure may be beneficial during a fast, as fasting can cause peripheral insulin resistance .
Cold exposure can enhance the body’s response to insulin, allowing glucose to be cleared from the blood more efficiently .
7) Improves Sleep Quality
Natural daily temperature fluctuations are an important regulator of sleep cycles .
The nonprofit National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping bedroom sleeping temperatures between 60 and 67 degrees F .
8) Strengthens the Immune System
One clinical study looked at the effects of 6 weeks of cold water immersion (14C for 1hr) on the immune system. Participants had increased levels of IL-6, CD3, CD4, CD8 and activated T and B lymphocytes, suggesting a more active immune system .
Engaging in exercise before cold exposure enhances the immune-stimulating effects of cold therapy, but the available research is limited.
9) Combats Oxidative Stress
One study found that people who regularly swim in ice-cold water had relatively high levels of reduced glutathione, an antioxidant that’s vital for detoxing .
Cryotherapy can enhance antioxidant status, allowing the body to deal with free radicals more effectively .
10) Reduces Pain
According to anecdotal evidence, blasts of cold significantly improve the quality of life for patients suffering from phantom limb pain.
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Cold compression therapy provides more pain relief than popular, alternative interventions .
Cold application alone may be effective in reducing pain associated with migraine attacks .
Cold Exposure and Will Power
This benefit is anecdotal and not backed by scientific research.
Many people have noticed a huge increase in will-power from taking regular cold showers.
Nobody wants to get in a cold shower. Getting under freezing cold water every morning trains the brain to do things it doesn’t spontaneously want to. This attitude could then translate to other areas of your life.
Cold Exposure Suggestions and Precautions
It is essential to build up cold exposure gradually.
You could start by occasionally turning the central heating down, and going for minimally (but legally) clothed short walks. Then move on to cold showers. When comfortable with these you might be ready for cold baths and, finally, ice baths.
(brief exposures to air temperatures below -100°C) is becoming more mainstream and, as a result, more affordable. However, at the moment there is insufficient evidence to suggest it offers advantages over traditional methods of cold exposure .
— Update: 10-02-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Cold Therapy: A Health Secret Weapon You Need to Try from the website www.cleaneatingmag.com for the keyword benefits of cold therapy.
If you’re looking to decrease inflammation, improve your mood, increase metabolism, boost your immune system and recover better from your workouts, then cold therapy may be your secret weapon.
Exposure to cold is a hormetic stress on the body. Hormesis refers to the adaptation that makes us stronger when we’re exposed to environmental stressors. Cold therapy has been used for centuries to treat disease. The use of cold goes back centuries to 2500 BCE when the Egyptians used cold to treat inflammation and injuries. And it’s definitely having a moment right now.
You can give cold therapy a try and take advantage of its potential whole-body benefits.
Cold therapy comes in many forms
Cold therapy can be done in a number of ways. You don’t have to try a “polar plunge” in order to practice this kind of therapy – though short spells in super cold water will offer the same benefits. It’s possible to try cold therapy right at home.
All you need for cold therapy is brief exposure to cold temperatures. The following are some examples of different methods:
- Ice bath: Soaking in a tub filled with cold water and ice is a cold therapy method that’s popular with athletes, who are known to submerge in an ice bath after a tough workout.
- Cold shower or pool: A short stint in cold water – between 50 and 59F in temperature – is a great way to start including cold therapy into your daily routine.
- Cryotherapy: Just three minutes in a cryotherapy chamber causes rapid reduction in tissue and core body temperature, as well as blood vessel constriction. Once out of the chamber, blood vessels dilate, allowing for anti-inflammatory proteins to flood to the injured areas.
- Ice packs: This cold therapy is primarily used to treat localized pain and inflammation after an injury or to deal with muscle soreness. However, you can also use ice packs when you aren’t in pain.
- Exposure to cold external temperatures: Taking a walk outside on a cold day in minimal clothing can have an effect that’s similar to a cold shower.
- Topical cooling agents: Icy Hot, Tiger Balm, BioFreeze – the active ingredients in products like these, menthol and methyl salicylate, are known as counterirritants. They help to alleviate pain by causing the skin to feel cool and then warm.
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No matter which approach you like best, it’s essential to build up your cold exposure gradually. Start by turning down the water temperature at the end of your shower for a few seconds, gradually increasing the time you spend in the cold water over the course of a few weeks. When you’re comfortable with that, you might be ready for a plunge into a cold pool or lake – but not for more than just a couple of minutes.
How cold therapy benefits your health and wellness
No matter which method of cold therapy you try, the icy temperature can potentially give your health and wellness a boost. And it takes just a few minutes of cold exposure to start reaping the benefits. When you practice cold therapy regularly, you may notice even more significant effects.
Let’s look at some of the health benefits of regular cold therapy:
If you’re feeling sore, achy or in pain, cold therapy can help lessen inflammation. Exposure to cold causes blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow to injured areas, which helps reduce swelling and inflammation.
Improved metabolism and weight loss
Shiveringly cold temperatures might just help you rev up your metabolism. Brown fat cells, when exposed to cold, can generate heat by burning fat. Brown fat cells are mostly located around the neck and shoulders. This increased calorie burning may even help with weight loss.
Better mood and mental clarity
While cold therapy might not feel immediately pleasurable to your skin, it can actually give your mood a boost. Cold helps with mood by the stimulating dopamine production in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure.
You might’ve heard that taking a bath before bed helps you relax – but a cold shower could be even better for sound sleep. Taking a cold shower right before bed helps to lower your core body temperature, which makes falling asleep easier. It’s also recommended to lower the temperature in your bedroom to 65 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Enhanced recovery from exercise
It might sound counterintuitive, but newer research suggests that cold therapy can improve recovery from exercise when practiced a few hours your workout rather than right away. The inflammation that’s caused by your workout is actually a good thing – that’s how your muscles become stronger and more resilient. So, time your ice bath or other cold therapy for a while after your workout, and you could recover more easily.
When not to use cold therapy
Cold therapy isn’t always a good idea. For some individuals and certain health conditions, it can potentially do more harm than good. If you find yourself in any of the following situations, it’s better to skip cold therapy:
- Living with sensory disorders, including diabetes, that prevent you from feeling certain sensations
- Stiff muscles or joints
- Poor circulation or any conditions that cause poor circulation
- Living with cardiovascular or heart disease (you should consult your doctor first)
- If cold therapy hasn’t helped an injury or swelling within 48 hours, call your doctor.
Additionally, it’s important to note that if you’re not careful, cold therapy applied for too long or too directly can result in skin, tissue, or nerve damage. If you aren’t sure if it’s is a good idea for your health, consult your doctor before giving cold a try.
For more therapeutic foods and practices, keep reading:
- The Healing Power of Medicinal Mushrooms
- 6 Ways Meditation Supercharges Immunity
- The Healing Power of Berries