Skip to main content

Can dousing yourself in an ice bath really improve your mood? These researchers think so

If you can handle the freezing temps, there's a lot to love

Young man have bath in cold water and does Wim hof method
CharlieChesvick / Canva Pro / Getty Images Signature

Ice baths have become somewhat of a fad amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts, but recent research suggests that hopping into a tub full of ice-cold water may have mood-boosting benefits.

According to Rachel Lee, M.Ed, NASM-CPT, PN-1, and GGS, ice baths can stimulate the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain associated with improved mood. Lee is an ambassador to Edge Theory Labs and the founder of Ice Bath Boston, which focuses on holistic well-being practices, including ice bath therapy.

In this article, we’ll explain how the occasional cold plunge could improve your mental health and list other benefits of ice bath therapy.

Bathing in an ice-hole tradition
aloff353 / Canva Pro / Getty Images

What is an ice bath?

An ice bath is a therapeutic practice (a form of cryotherapy) where a person immerses themselves in ice-cold water (50-59°F) for anywhere from a few minutes to 15 minutes, depending on their tolerance, whether they’ve done it before, etc.

People usually do this after intense physical exercise or to aid in recovery from muscle soreness and inflammation.

“The first time you cold plunge, it’s truly shocking, but the mood-improving magic happens when you learn how to breathe through the shock response until your heart rate settles down,” says Lee.

It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional or certified instructor before attempting an ice bath, as it can be physically and mentally demanding. This is particularly true for people who have pre-existing medical conditions (e.g., asthma, diabetes, heart disease), physical injuries, weakness, skin conditions, open wounds, pregnancy, or postpartum or post-surgery status.

“It’s far easier to start cold plunging by seeking an expert, starting with a cold shower, or using a temperature-controlled tub since you can specify the exact temperature you want and gradually adapt,” Lee adds.

Male Lying in Jacuzzi
diplo_game / Canva Pro

Here’s what the science says

Ice baths aren’t new; several studies have shown they can boost mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Cold exposure works by activating the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the release of beta-endorphins, dopamine, and noradrenaline. Beta-endorphins are neuropeptides that relieve pain and boost mood. They’re said to have a stronger effect on the body than morphine.

Research shows that just a single instance of cold water immersion can skyrocket dopamine levels by 250% and noradrenaline levels by 530%.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often referred to as the “reward chemical.” It plays a central role in the brain’s motivation, anticipation, and learning centers. A surge in dopamine levels can lead to feelings of euphoria and pleasure.

Noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, regulates the body’s “fight or flight” stress response. Surges can lead to euphoria, alertness, and general well-being.

These neurotransmitters are crucial for mood, attention, and our body’s response to stress.

“Cold plunging is the most effective means of cold exposure because water transfers heat from the body at a rate 40 times faster than air, so you get more benefits at even moderate temperatures,” says Lee. But you don’t need to spend a fortune on a cold plunge tub to reap the benefits of cold exposure.

“Even daily 2-3 minute cold showers over several weeks to a month can significantly relieve depressive symptoms,” adds Lee. 

Other cold plunge benefits

Taking ice baths or engaging in cold water immersion therapy can also have other benefits.

Potential cold plunge benefits include:

“In a world where depression is predicted to be the third-largest burden of global disease by 2030, improving mental health is an immediate priority,” says Lee. “Cold plunging has a tremendous and positive impact on this growing problem and is definitely something that everyone should try.”

Editors' Recommendations

Tabitha Britt
Freelance Writer
Tabitha Britt is a freelance writer, editor, SEO & content strategist.
Is honey a superfood? Here are 11 reasons we think so
Have you heard the buzz? This sticky sweetness is not only delicious, but incredibly good for you, too!
Honey

Whether you love to stir a teaspoon of sweet honey into your favorite herbal tea to enjoy a light, soothing treat before bedtime, or you like a dash of this naturally sweet nectar in your oatmeal, honey is a delicious natural sweetener with many applications. Moreover, while excessive sugar consumption is associated with weight gain, obesity, inflammatory diseases, type 2 diabetes, and even acne and other skin conditions, there are potential health benefits from consuming raw honey in moderation. In fact, raw honey has been used in traditional medicine for years for a variety of health and medical purposes.
Unlike most of the honey found on grocery store shelves, which is pasteurized by treating it with heat, raw honey is unpasteurized and retains potent natural compounds that provide health benefits. As with any high-sugar food, consuming too much honey can lead to weight gain, but incorporating a serving or two of raw honey into your daily diet can provide health benefits while satisfying your sweet tooth. Keep reading for a list of the benefits of honey.

Health benefits of honey
Raw honey is essentially straight from the hive. It is unprocessed, unpasteurized, and retains all its antioxidants. Unlike pasteurized honey, which is clear, silky, and preserved to last on the shelf, raw honey is cloudy and should be refrigerated. Note that honey should not be given to any child under the age of 1 year old, due to the risk of botulism.

Read more
Your sedentary lifestyle is doing so much damage — here’s what to know and how to get moving
Ditch your sedentary lifestyle and step up your physical activity with these simple tips
A man walking down the street listening to music.

You already know physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk for chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, which averages out to about 15 to 30 minutes of exercise per day for five days a week. Meeting these benchmarks is great.
However — and not to be discouraging here — they don't form the only barometer for daily activity. Research shows that you can still get the recommended physical activity and lead a sedentary lifestyle. What gives, and what can you do? Here's what to know about sedentary lifestyles, steps, and simple ways to add more movement to your day.

I work out daily. Why is my lifestyle still considered sedentary?
The biggest reason is one there's no shame in and that you can't completely control: Your job. Modern technology has its perks — the ability to work remotely, for instance. However, we're not on our feet like people were while working in factories during the industrial revolution.
Other issues: Commuting via mass transit or car requires tons of sitting still. In 2019, the average one-way commute was 27.6 minutes. Double that (because commutes are two ways), and it's more than 55 minutes of commuting daily. The following year, the pandemic normalized remote work. When you're not even walking from the car to the office, it's even less time commuting.

Read more
Study: 5 sleep habits that can add years to your life
This study tells you all of the ways you need to get your sleep schedule in check right now
A man getting ready for bed but still on his phone.

The older we get, the angrier we get that we didn't take advantage of those naps as a child. And the more years we see, the more we appreciate how a great night's sleep transforms us from a grumpy Squidward into an upbeat SpongeBob. Though we have more reasons to get less sleep with all of the adult responsibilities, we need not only the proper amount of sleep, but more restful sleep. Good thing there was a study on all of that, and we'll share the highlights.

The top 5 healthy sleep factors
The study was conducted by the American College of Cardiology's Annual Scientific Session with the World Congress of Cardiology and centers around people who are 30 years old.

Read more