Cold Exposure

Supercharge your body, fight off disease, and tackle mental health 

Something about the cold is alluring, exciting and even thrilling. Whilst the idea of a cold shower makes most people shudder at the thought there are thousands of people practicing this daily as part of a healthy lifestyle. There's a few ways to practice cold exposure each posing their own pros and cons especially in terms of control and safety, hence why I am going to stick to talking about cold showers. Rivers, the ocean, and ice baths can come next!

But why the hell would I want to take a cold shower... ever? Well there's a massive amount of health benefits to be gained from even the smallest amounts of consistent practice which are:

Increased circulation: Your vascular system has to contract and relax to pump blood warming you up to return the body to a stable state a.k.a homeostais. This like most parts of the body can be trained but due to our very comfy modern lives of clothing, heating and AC we never really have to engage this system. Just a couple seconds a day in the cold will give this a 'workout' which brings us on to the following perks!

Improved Heart Health: As we just learned the vascular system get's much stronger, this in turn takes a lot of stress off the heart making it's job easier not just warming you up but throughout the whole day reducing risks of heart disease, improving athletic performance and reducing bodily stress. It's also been shown to reduce resting heart rate for most people who practice regularly. 

Improved Brain Health: Just like the heart the brain benefits from this increased circulation. A study found that a cold shower allows blood to enter deeper parts of the brain that normally take 2 hours of deep mediation to access which decreases risks of dementia, Alzheimer disease, and many other brain related conditions.  

This deep flowing of blood also gives us a very clear mediative like effect, for many cold exposure is used alongside or as a mediative practice itself. 

Stress Control: The blood flowing through your heart and brain better is also going to flow everywhere else in the body enhancing the ability to deal with damage and inflammation which can be a result of tissue damage, exercise, stress, crappy diet and more. Not all inflammation is bad, this is a dangerous buzzword trend sweeping across social media. Inflammation is a key process to fight off infections and repair damage in the body, it's not the problem itself - but some forms of inflammation are not good like that caused by arthritis which cold exposure has been shown to help. 

Stimulates Metabolism: Metabolism isn't just the miracle fat burner everyone thinks it is. It's a process of chemical reactions that breakdown and build molecules in the body. Stimulating the metabolism through the cold has been shown to lower blood pressure. 

Stronger Nervous System: Fat burning increases during and after cold exposure, the process is modulated by the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for 'fight or flight' & arousal responses) which essentially gets a sort of workout which gas been shown to stimulates it to adapt & get stronger. Afterwards the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in which is responsible for calming the body down after stress so this aids in that relaxed feeling afterwards. 

Stronger Immune System: Studies have found that people practicing cold exposure had increased levels of IL-6 CD3, CD4, CD8 and certain lymphocytes which indicated a more active immune system with the effect being further enhanced by exercise before hand - this might be one of the reasons why the famous Wim Hof method recommends practicing the breath work before the cold exposure, although there many other benefits to this. 

Better Sleep: Temperature plays a big role in good sleep hygiene. The body decreases in temperature during sleep and so an evening cold shower has been show to aid in sleep quality. When you step out of a cold shower and experience the calming nature it leaves you with it's easy to see how this could also aid the ability to fall asleep for those that toss & turn with too many thoughts at night. As mentioned before the parasympathetic nervous system will engage to calm you down so it's effects such as a decreased hear rate would definitely help prime the body for sleep. 

Combats Oxidative Stress: Studies have shown that regular goers of the cold display higher levels of an antioxidant for detoxing the body called glutathione, by this I mean the body is more able to deal with free radicals which are unstable molecules capable of causing cell damage, illness (including cancer), and ageing. Ever heard that trend word 'antioxidants' well there's loads of them such as Vitamin A,C & E, zinc, flavonoids and many more all of which contribute towards fending off free radical's effects. 

Mental Health Improvements Including (depression, burnout, stress control and concentration): Various studies have shown increases to levels of perceived happiness and reductions in depression levels from using cold therapy. The reductions to stress and oxidative stress in the body also translate over to better mental wellbeing as a stressed body effects the mind & vice versa. 

May Increase Lifespan: Many tests on animals (unfortunately) show that exposure to the cold increases lifespan to varying degrees. These have varied from exposure to extreme cold to a slight temperature drop of 1 - 3 degrees in a subjects enviroment. Papers on life expectancy also seem to show a correlation between climates and population lifespan - although this should be considered carefully due to the varied cultures, diets, and lifestyles of different countries in different climates but with the huge list of benefits it provides to overall health and well-being there is stacking evidence for it than not really. 

So now you know why (and that list has even more to add including will power & healthier skin) so considering all the above you'd be a fool not to try it - now let's look at how

Cold Showers

This is simple, safe, and effective. Don't dive straight in though, I am going to give you advice on how to practice this to both make it a little easier and to increase the chances of you sticking to it as a daily habit. So here's a step by step guide:

1. Get in the shower and have a normal shower - enjoy! Wash your hair, body, exfolicate whatever you've gotta do normally do it. 

2. Now your ready - turn the shower to as cold as it'll go - most showers will have a 100% off mode where the water is coming straight from the pipes unheated (so it changes in temp each day making things exciting). 

3. Position yourself under the water so it falls on the back of your neck & shoulders then turn around for the same on the chest but DO NOT PUT YOUR HEAD UNDER TO START WITH. The cold will elicit a shock response as your sympathetic nervous system gears up and so you'll be breathing short and sharp most likely - putting your head under makes controlling your breathing instantly much harder and the shock response much greater so that's why I recommend avoiding it on day 1. You also lose a lot of heat through the head so if we avoid it we're helping ourselves progress by taking smaller steps at first.

3. Stay under the cold for 10 - 30 seconds. Most recommend only 10 but with your head out of the water it's easier. Focus on controlling the breathe during this time. If you can, time yourself - I use my Garmin to do so.

 

4. Turn the shower off at your chosen time - get out and don't you dare turn shower to hot to warm you up before you do so. You need to get out cold and dry off. Get some form of clothing on but minimally like just your underwear or bottoms. This is where the magic happens as your body warms you up itself strengthening all the ancient systems that have sort of weakened a bit from our comfortable modern lives. 

5. Repeat daily. Slowly add more time on, dip your head under, breath deeper and slowly just make a tiny bit of progress. You don't have to whack loads of minutes on just add a few seconds and build up to something you can keep up daily. Finding your own sustainable practice is key with this.

 

I've been on and off practicing this for years and this past 4 months (Jan - April 21st as of the time I am writing) I kept it daily because I stopped making it so hard to maintain. I only do 3-3:30 minutes at the end of a warm shower, I don't keep my head under the whole time but start with it under and dip in as wanted. I use to do 5 or 10 minutes cold only but I'd get in and totally forget some days starting on a hot shower which then demotivated me or I'd get run down from managing work, training and everything else in-between during winter and then a 10 minute cold shower loses it's thrill and becomes miserable. In warmer months and climates sure go for cold only but during winter or in colder countries try the warm first then cold - there's also a ton of benefits to doing this know as shock or opposites where you go from hot to cold adding even more benefits. 

I started taking 20-30 minute cold baths on weekends when I was 17 to burn extra calories on rest days when dropping body fat during my massive weight loss. It sparked a love and ability to tolerate the cold which then resurged a few years later when I began increasing my interest in self-development. Today it is part of my daily routine to keep me healthy, happy and strong - I hope you may find the same through the cold. If you liked this article keep an eye out for my next one on breath work which compliments cold exposure extremely well with both bolstering each others benefits.