Reap the Benefits of a Taking a Cold Shower

For the past two months I have been able to (re)institute one of my favorite tests of willpower and suffering: the cold shower. I am a huge fan of doing things that push the limits of my comfort zone, and the cold shower will do just that. What you may not know is that the benefits of this ritual extend far beyond just building mental toughness into the realm of improving your overall health and well being. We will examine some of these benefits and how to implement some sort of cold exposure to your daily routine.

To start, lets take a little trip to the past. We don’t even have to go too far back. At the beginning of the 20th century most people faced more frequent exposure to temperature extremes than the majority of us these days.  Our modern advancements have afforded us the luxury of temperature regulation. Heating and air conditioning of homes and automobiles is common, whereas a hundred years ago it was just beginning to take off and most could not afford the luxury. Cars were in the early stages of development so travel usually involved exposure to the elements. Most homes were simply heated by a wood stove and relied of the natural pattern of heat convection (hot air rising) to “heat” homes.

This is in stark contrast to today’s world, where our exposure to these temperature extremes can be measured in seconds or minutes most days rather than hours as in times past. We live in a warm house. We can start our cars with heated seats without venturing outdoors. Our work environments are often times just as comfortable, and then we come home to our climate controlled abode once again and can sink into those soft warm blankets when we drift asleep.

Comfort reigns supreme, and you have to marvel at this everyday convenience we are afforded with. The shower is no different. In the dead of winter I used to love a steaming hot shower and how relaxing it felt. Now that I’ve gone cold, there is no going back though (unless you count the four months where my only shower option was an open hot water pipe in the basement during a bathroom remodel). Once you get past the trepidation of jumping in and the initial shock of the cold, the feeling after a good cold shower is simply unmatched. I feel more refreshed and alert afterwards, especially if I happen to take it after a tough workout.

Athletes have long used ice baths as recovery, and the cold shower is no different. Although recent studies have questioned the efficacy of ice treatment, the belief is that there is a decrease in localized swelling and tissue breakdown. Cold showers can also cause an increase in circulation as the body draws blood to the organs to keep them warm. Alternating cold and warm can enhance this effect and help clear lactic acid and deliver nutrients needed for recovery.

This alternating hot/cold method is also great for your lymphatic system, which is responsible for clearing cellular waste from your body. In some cases this system can get a bit gummed up and the alternating temperatures can contract and expand the lymph vessels, improving the flow and allowing those wastes to be cleared.

There are additional immune boosting benefits of the cold shower as well. Researchers in England found that daily cold showers can increase the number of white blood cells, which help fight disease and infection. The theory is that this increase is stimulated by the body’s metabolic response to the cold as it tries to warm itself both during and after the cold shower.

This metabolic response may also increase fat burning. The response to cold temperatures can increase the activation of brown adipose tissue, or brown fat. Your body actually contains two types of fat: the white fat, which is typically what is found in the visible fat stores around your abdomen and love handles. Brown fat, on the other hand, is a mitochondia dense fat. This fat utilizes the mitochondria to create energy to warm your body, usually manifesting itself as that shivering response.

You may remember the stories of how Michael Phelps, the Olympic champion swimmer, was able to eat an absurd amount of calories and maintain a lean physique. Many postulated that this was because of all of the physical activity, but it really was the amount of time spent in cold water that increased his metabolic rate so much. The body simply uses a lot of energy to stay warm. You may wonder how hours in a pool correlates to shower exposure so it’s important to note that we accumulate this brown fat in deposits around our collarbones and necks, which is essentially where that shower head is going to direct the cold water. Researchers have also found that even brief cold exposure can cause a fifteen fold increase in the metabolic rate of brown fat.

For the guys there are a few other benefits to consider, such as an increase in testosterone and improved fertility from an increase in sperm count. There’s a reason the boys hang outside the body: to stay cool, and added cold exposure will have positive effects. For women (and men too, I guess) you may be interested to know that a cold shower can help promote healthy skin and hair by constricting the pores to seal in the body’s natural, nourishing oils.

Cold showers can cause a release of norepinephrine, which is a neurotransmitter released in response to stress and partially responsible for some of the benefits already discussed. You may think increasing stress is a bad thing, but this particular stress is eustress, which is considered a “good” stress that the body can easily recover from and become more resilient in the process. By adapting to this oxidative stress we actually become better at dealing with additional stressors that we encounter throughout our daily lives. Much like lifting weights makes you stronger, frequent cold exposure makes the body more resilient to everyday stress.

You can see now that the benefits are numerous, but being told how great something is and actually doing it are two completely different things. It doesn’t help that plunging into ice cold water can be rather intimidating if you’ve never done it before. My biggest piece of advice is to start slow. While I now take five minute all-cold water showers I did not start off that way. Here’s the progression I used:

Start with a cold finish. After you’ve taken your regular shower shut off the hot water and stay under the cold for as long as you can bear. As you get used to it try and increase the length of time you spend with the cold exposure.

Once you get mildly comfortable with that (you may never become completely comfortable) try the contrast method described above, where you alternate between periods of hot and cold. You can start with short cold intervals. Let’s say somewhere around fifteen seconds. The warm interval can be much longer. Let’s say thirty seconds to a minute. From there you can work on lengthening the cold interval and shortening the hot interval so you are getting longer periods of cold exposure and adding on additional intervals.

The final step is to progress to using only cold water during your shower. By now you should be getting fairly comfortable with the cold so taking this step should be a little easier. That said, I still find myself hesitating some days to get in and briefly entertaining thoughts of turning on the warm water. Don’t listen to those thoughts. Like ripping off a band aid, it’s best to just hop in all at once without thinking. The initial shock and discomfort only lasts a few seconds

Once you’ve done this a few times it will be hard to break the habit. In addition to all of the health benefits described, you will feel just flat out better and more refreshed after a cold shower than a warm one. That and you’ll have the assurance that if you can endure five minutes of frigid water that you can endure any discomfort or adversity that comes along during the course of the day.

Don’t fear the cold. Take the plunge.

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