The Physical and Mental Benefits of Cold Showers

cold shower

Cold exposure is a method of body hardening, which increases your tolerance to stress and disease. Odds are you’ve heard whispers around the water cooler about different kinds of cold therapy techniques, from full-body ice bath emersion to cold showers. What we’ve found at The Manual, flipping through the leading studies in the subject, is that there isn’t one “right” way to get cool.

But 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 staring his showers at a scalding temperature then lowering 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. The dude 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.”

man in shower
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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 promoting 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 been proven to increase your metabolism and ability to burn fat through thermogenesis.

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. 

Does It Have to Be 100 Percent 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 …)

Meanwhile the one-two punch of both routine hot-to-cold showers and regular exercise cut sickness absence by over 50 percent.

Do You Get Used to the Cold?

It is 100-percent 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 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.

How Does Cold Water Make By Brain Stronger?

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

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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.

Try it: Take 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.”