There’s a lot of discussion about the benefits of hot / cold therapy and how it’s applied. You’ll see many different T.V. series that try to convey the importance of cold therapy albeit cold showers, ice plunges, or even those cryo chambers. Out of the three, a cold shower seems to be the easier one to gain access to perform. So, with all the dialogue in the media about cold showers, is it worth taking cold showers? If so, how long do I need to take the cold shower for it to be effective? What are the health benefits?
What’s Happening in The Body?
Taking a plunge into cold water triggers a series of physiological responses in the human body. These responses are part of the body’s natural mechanism to cope with the sudden change in temperature. Here’s a breakdown of what happens:
Cold Shock Response:
Initial Breath & Breath Holding: The sudden exposure to cold water often leads to an immediate gasp reflex, causing a rapid inhalation of air. It’s crucial to be mindful of this response, especially when entering cold water, as involuntary breath holding underwater can pose a risk.
Blood Vessels Constrict: The blood vessels near the surface of the skin constrict, a process known as vasoconstriction. This is the body’s attempt to conserve heat by reducing blood flow to the extremities.
Increased Respiratory Rate: Cold water exposure can lead to hyperventilation, where the breathing rate increases. This is a response to the shock of cold water and helps regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body.
Increased Urination: Cold water immersion can stimulation the production of urine, a phenomenon known as cold-induced diuresis. This response is thought to be related to the body’s attempt to maintain thermal balance.
Shivering: The body initiates shivering, a muscular activity that generates heat. Shivering is a way to increase the body’s internal temperature in response to cold exposure.
Stress Hormone Release: The sudden cold water exposure triggers the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which can increase alertness and metabolic activity.
Numbness and Loss of Dexterity:
Reduced Sensation: Cold water can lead to a temporary reduction in sensation, numbness, and loss of dexterity in the extremities. This is due to the effects of vasoconstriction on nerve function.
Adaptation Over Time:
Cold Adaptation: With repeated exposure to cold water, the body may undergo adaptations, such as reduced cold shock response and improved cold tolerance. This is part of the acclimatization process.
What Does the Research Say?
Research on cold showers suggests a range of potential health benefits, although it’s important to note that findings can vary, and more research is needed to establish definitive conclusions. Here are some reported benefits based on existing studies:
Improved Mood & Mental Health:
A study published in the journal “Medical Hypotheses” (Shevchuk, 2008) proposed that exposure to cold water may stimulate the production of beta-endorphins and noradrenaline, leading to an increase in mood and a potential reduction in symptoms of depression.
Moro et al. (2011) investigated the effects of cold water exposure on the immune system and found that it led to an increase in white blood cell counts, suggesting a potential immune-boost effect.
The shock of cold water can stimulate the blood cells that fight off infections (leukocytes). One study in the Netherlands found that people who switched to cold showers for 30, 60, or 90 seconds for 90 days called out sick from work 29% less than people who didn’t switch to cold showers. The best part of this study revealed that the individuals who showered for 30 seconds had the same benefits as those who showered for 60 or 90 seconds!
Hohenauer el al. (2015) conducted a meta-analysis on the impact of post-exercise cold water immersion. The study suggested that cold water immersion may reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery rates after strenuous physical activity.
Note: While there is evidence supporting the use of cold water immersion for post-exercise recovery, it’s recommended to perform it at least 1 hour after your exercise. This allows the good inflammatory markers in your body to maximize their effects prior to being blunted by the immediate cold exposure. This is different from the "R.I.C.E." method.
Potential Skin & Hair Benefits:
Rawlings (2003) explored the effects of cold water exposure on skin and suggested that it could constrict blood vessels and pores, potentially reducing the risk of acne and promoting skin firmness.
Increased Alertness & Energy:
Exposure to cold water is associated with an immediate increase in heart rate and oxygen consumption, which may lead to increased alertness and energy levels. Sometimes this effect will only be short-term while other’s have claimed to have longer bouts of energy throughout the day.
Is it worth it?
There appears to be a lot of supporting evidence to show that taking cold showers is worth it. More research needs to be done to solidify some of these studies but from what has been found currently, it’s definitely the right direction to move towards.
Health and wellness are important and should be something that everyone should strive for. Fortunately, switching your shower from hot to cold for 30 seconds is very easy and accessible. Best part, it’s inexpensive! There shouldn’t be any excuses to try this out if you’re looking to receive the health benefits that were listed above.
At Hybrid Physical Therapy, we care about your health and wellness regardless of your injury. We strive to take care of the individual as a whole rather than just focus on a body part that was hurt. We want everyone to reach their goals and be healthy at the same time. If you’re looking for a facility that evaluates everyone holistically and effectively, give us a call today and we’ll help you Optimize Your Performance!