Like it or not, cold showers are good for our health, so brace yourselves for some cold, hard truths. In my last post, I talked about Why Hitting Snooze Kills Productivity, but now I want to talk about what happens after you emerge from your sleep and start your day.
Showers! That are cold!
The science is in: as our bodies adapt to harsher conditions, the more resistant they become to stress. Cold conditioning is a simple and effective way to improve your health and your very approach to life.
The physical and mental benefits of cold showers are significant but the changes will not happen overnight. Cold conditioning must be practiced regularly to create any real, lasting change. This can be as simple as a few minutes, once a day.
Over time, you’ll feel warmer in the cold, be able to thermoregulate more efficiently, and something you may have never expected: you’ll balance the ratio of fat cells in your body more effectively.
How Now, Brown Fat?
Cold Showers Improve Metabolism
Our bodies have a ratio of white fat to brown fat. Infants and runners have a better ratio of brown, while people battling obesity have nearly only white. When we think of fat, we’re usually thinking of the white fat cells. Each cell is basically a bucket of oily junk that has difficulty metabolizing.
Then there’s white fat’s more fit, robust cousin, brown fat, which is brown because it is packed full with mitochondria. Remember mitochondria? The all-star dynamo of our cells that provides us energy and releases ATP. This is the power of brown fat: it metabolizes easily and can provide us heat energy immediately when we need it. It burns calories to produce heat, using triglycerides as fuel, which eliminates substances leading to metabolic dysfunction, all while devouring sugars.
The cold also activates a gene that is ignited every time we exercise. Coincidence? I think not! The noteworthy gene in this case is UCP1, which, when activated transforms white fat into beige fat, stuffing it full of mitochondria, moving it along the pathway to becoming brown fat.
Both cold exposure and exercise (and especially in combination) increase the amount of brown fat in our bodies. The more brown fat we have, the healthier our levels of white fat (and body mass index) will be.
It is not 100% clear how cold showers help people lose weight, but cold water has been shown to regulate certain hormone levels and heal the gastrointestinal system. These effects may add to the cold shower’s ability to lead to weight loss.
There is no coincidence that cold-conditioning enthusiasts and aficionados rarely get colds, or claim that they almost never get sick. Their not-so-well-kept secret lies in their daily activity of cold conditioning, which by releasing adrenaline, supercharges both the activity and number of natural killer cells in their bodies.
These are called leukocytes, which help fight infection in the body and are stimulated when cold water shocks the bloodstream. A little cold every day can produce quick and extraordinary results, resulting in an increased immune system.
Does your body get good circulation? This is something a lot of people don’t think about or notice that could be harming them. Exercise is a great remedy for bad circulation, but cold conditioning can also increase circulation to the extremities.
Water that is colder than our core temperature causes our bodies to work harder to maintain that temperature. By giving our bodies this challenge, this greater range of change, our circulatory systems can grow more efficient. Some report that their skin looks better after cold showering.
Think of athletes who use cold water or ice when they bruise or tear a muscle in order to decrease inflammation. It’s the same with showers: bringing the temperature of an area of the body down causes delivery of warmer, freshly oxygenated blood to that area to speed up so that blood moves through the body more quickly.
People with poor circulation, high blood pressure, and diabetes have also used cold conditioning as a therapy. As opposed to the standard treatment for this issue, a regimen of three weeks of cold conditioning worked better and the results lasted for over a year.
A 2016 study found that participants reported having more energy after certain cold showering regimen. Hot-to-cold showers for a month followed by cold showers for another two months felt similar to having caffeine.
Cold showering may also require less energy from your body to recover after strenuous workouts. This also may mean inflammation decreases and blood flow increases.
This one seems strange, but is nonetheless pretty cool and supported by evidence: cold conditioning has been shown to increase blood levels of certain antioxidants significantly.
Cold exposure is also being studied as a treatment for the following:
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Pain reduction
- Testosterone booster
- Sperm enhancer
- White-fat weight loss
Small but growing evidence suggest cold showers can act as an anti-depressant, as a way to increase blood levels of beta-endorphins (something that happens during exercise too). This can create a positive feedback loop.
Hydrotherapy, or cold showering for up to five minutes, two to three times per week was shown to help relieve symptoms of depression in a clinical trial. Experts say that it works as a kind of gentle shock therapy by sending increased number of electrical impulses to your brain. The jolt you feel (if you’ve ever showered cold) increases alertness, clarity, and overall energy levels. Endorphins are also released in this process, which leads to feelings of well-being and happiness.
We all love our comfort zone. It is much easier to get out of bed, (you better not be hitting snooze), go to the shower and turn it on as hot as we can take it. We like the warmth after leaving our cozy covers. We like comfort. We don’t want to be too hot and sweat, and we don’t want to be too cold and shiver miserably. Our bodies have biological responses to these things, so why not just be comfortable, somewhere in the middle?
We easily could. But think about the challenge and stress your body (temporarily) will go through when you turn that handle down just a bit, and make the water cold. Think of the discipline and power you’ll gain when you show up and do the same thing at the same time every day.
By consciously changing your routine you’ll become more conscious of your body, your habits, and your overall lifestyle. Cold showers won’t be the most fun thing in the world, but you’ll thank yourself when your physical, mental, and emotional health sees positive changes and you have more energy (among other things).
If you can discipline yourself to do this one thing, you’ll be able to discipline yourself to do the next thing… and the next.
Testing the Waters: Finding your way in to Cold Conditioning
Cold showers are not the end-all, be-all for anything. They should not be seen as a cure-all for any condition. They should be used as a supplement to traditional treatments, not as a replacement.
Wait to try out cold showers if you:
- Are already feeling sick
- Have recently been released from the hospital
- Have a compromised immune system
Cold showers are beneficial for most people, however the habit takes some getting used to. The body may be taxed in the process so make sure you are feeling good and healthy before you take the plunge.
Here is a good way to ease into the practice:
- At the end of your usual shower, start by slowly lowering the temperature
- Lower the temperature so that you still feel comfortable
- Stand underneath the water for 2 to 3 minutes
- Take deep breaths. It will help reduce your mind and body’s discomfort
- The next time you do this exercise, make the water slightly colder, and see if you can last for another minute or two in the colder water (your body will be building up its immunity)
- Try this 7-10 more times, or as many as it takes until you’re not even thinking about how cold the water is anymore
- Do it every day and at the same time (our bodies like routine)
- Rinse and repeat 😉
Here are some more answers from Quora experts, followed by some precautions.
Cold showers are not for everyone. People with the following conditions should not partake:
- High blood pressure
- Heart condition or heart disease
- Those overheated or feeling feverish (hyperthermia) from illness or rigorous exercise
- Those recently recovered from being sick (flu or cold)
- A disorder of the immune system, or having a dysfunctional immune system from an illness
- Those feeling stress or exhaustion as cold showers can put the body under more stress
- Those who live in cold climates where cold water exposure can lead to hypothermia (yikes!)
I’m going to do a cold-water challenge in August. I hope you’ll stay updated and join in the challenge with me!