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Why Taking a Cold Shower is Beneficial, According to Studies

Staying in the same place to work, sleep, and play can be rather monotonous. If you are looking for new habits to add to your health routine, a nice, cold shower might be just what you are looking for! You can use them to effectively wake yourself up in the morning or to cool you down on a hot day; either way, a cold shower can provide you with many health benefits.

Odds are you’ve heard whispers about different kinds of cold therapy techniques, from full-body ice bath immersion to cold showers. What we’ve found at The Manual, flipping through the leading studies on the subject, is that there isn’t one “right” way to get cool.

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However, there is an easy way! If you’re not down with the frigid trend of cryotherapy tanks, over a decade’s worth of research points to the mental and physical benefits of lowering your bath nozzle below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You can experience the mental and physical benefits of cold therapy with a two- to three-minute icy shower.

The practice has also been dubbed “The Scottish Shower” and “The James Bond Shower” (in the original Ian Fleming books, 007 starts his showers at a scalding temperature then lowers it to freezing), but cold therapy has been around for centuries. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, used cold water in treating serious illnesses. In the modern era, cold therapy has been associated with boosting mental dexterity and decreasing anxiety and depression.

What Does a Cold Shower Do to the Body?

Dutch athlete Wim Hof scored the famous nickname “Iceman” for withstanding extreme (we mean extreme) cold, which he attributes to his breath and mental control. He practically has his own empire now: The Wim Hof Method, which is centered around cold therapy.

“Both cold exposure and conscious breathing require patience and dedication … Armed with focus and determination, you are ready to explore and eventually master your own body and mind,” says Hof’s website. He calls it “a practical way to become happier, healthier, and more powerful.”

A man with tattoos on his biceps washing his hair in the shower.

Try It:

If you’re thinking of starting cold therapy for post-workout muscle recovery, one researcher suggests taking a 24-minute cold bath that is 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. But how does it work? During cold exposure, your body attempts to maintain a normal temperature by increasing heat production and minimizing heat loss. This causes physical adaptations (i.e. shivering) and responsive mechanisms, which induce metabolic and hormonal changes that alter your immune system. It also lowers your heart rate and lays the hammer on inflammation.

On the surface level, dermatologists say quick, cold showers are best for your skin health and promote blood flow. A deeper look shows that cold water can lower the temperature of damaged tissues while improving circulation and speeding up muscle recovery. Long-term cold shower practice has also been proven to increase your metabolism and ability to burn fat through thermogenesis.

Does It Have to Be 100% Cold Water?

Nope! Experts in the field believe alternating between hot and cold temperatures drives oxygen and nutrients to your organs, promoting detoxification and decreasing blood lactate concentration, which quickens muscle recovery. This is great news, considering some believers in extreme cold therapy advocate for dunking your body into freezing water while holding a 20-pound ice block to your chest. Uh, no thanks.

A 2016 report found that taking quick 30- to 60-second hot-to-cold showers actually decreased the number of sick days taken from work and improved self-perceived quality of life and work productivity in those studied. Researchers even compared the health benefits of a routine cold shower to the effects of regular physical activity. (So, if you need an excuse for skipping leg day.)

A man taking a shower in the bathtub.
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Meanwhile, the one-two punch of both routine hot-to-cold showers and regular exercise cut sickness absence by over 50%.

Do You Get Used to the Cold?

It is 100% not a myth that cold showers suck during the 30 seconds to three minutes they’re happening. However, step out of the bathroom, and you’ll feel a perceived increase in energy level. Subjects in the aforementioned study compared it to a boost of caffeine.

This is all mental, of course, which is another reason you should be taking cold showers.

A side profile of a man washing his face in the shower.

How Does Cold Water Make My Brain Stronger?

Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s report on “Cold Shocking the Body” shows that ice baths and cold showers increase the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that works to calm you down, to the blood. It also affects your mood, vigilance, focus, and attention.

A rear view of a man lathering shampoo on his hair in the shower.

Try It:

Try taking a two- to three-minute cold shower below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. “Cold showers seem like a good way to exercise self-control,” Dr. Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University, tells The Manual. “Doing this regularly will improve your self-control in other domains. Cold showers build character.”

Another study that focused specifically on the use of cold water for the treatment of depression suggests that exposure to cold activates our sympathetic nervous system and increases the levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline. “Additionally, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect,” say researchers.

They point out that some depression may be caused by a lifestyle that lacks the physiological stimuli experienced by primates during evolution, such as “thermal exercises” like cold swims, that promote these brain functions.

Article originally published March 6, 2018.

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