Bathing, showering or swimming in cold water might not sound like your idea of a fun time, but while cold water immersion might seem off putting, it can actually give you lots of physical and emotional health benefits.
I’ve been aware of the benefits for years, and I regularly go wild swimming in the sea – and have a cold water shower ever day! I’ve definitely noticed the positive effects of doing this regularly on my health and wellbeing.
So what exactly is cold water therapy – and what are these benefits?
What is cold water therapy?
Put simply, cold water therapy is the process of allowing your body to spend time in water that’s below 14 degrees Celsius. The idea is that this natural remedy activates the body’s natural healing power. Practising cold water therapy can give your body and mind a natural, healthy boost – and as well as promoting better general health and wellbeing, it can also help to relieve pain, and the symptoms of chronic illness.
If you’re wondering if this is ‘just another new trend’ in health and wellbeing, well, it’s definitely not – in fact, it’s actually been around for few thousand years! Hippocrates documented the health benefits of cold water, and cold water therapy was practised in many ancient civilisations in places like Rome, Egypt, Greece, and China.
And it’s easy to see why this health remedy has lasted for millennia when you realise how many different health benefits it has.
What are the benefits of cold water therapy?
1. Boosts your immune system
What does cold water have to do with immunity?
This is all about your lymphatic system – your body’s self-cleaning system – basically a network of vessels that removes waste material from your cells. If your lymphatic system itself slows down or loses efficiency (for example, from lack of exercise), toxins will build up in your system, causing all sorts of health problems.
Being immersed in cold water makes your lymphatic system contract, forcing fluid through your lymph nodes and helping your system detox by stimulating the white blood cells that help you combat illness, and destroying those toxins. This gives your immune system a healthy boost!
2. Improves your circulation
Why should we be concerned about our blood circulation? Bad circulation stresses your heart and can cause headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, muscle cramps, and even heart attacks and strokes. Good circulation is really essential for good health.
And when you immerse your body in cold water, blood rushes to your vital organs. This makes you feel alive, awake and alert, because it forces your heart to pump more efficiently, sending oxygen and nutrients to the parts of your body where they are needed.
So regular cold water immersion will improve your circulation and make you feel much better, as well as making you healthier!
3. Reduces inflammation
Ever wondered why professional athletes will often soak in an ice bath following a strenuous workout?
Well, cold can help to numb pain and reduce swelling, by lowering the temperature of your damaged muscle tissue and constricting your blood vessels. It’s what makes ice such a good remedy for stings and sprains: it reduces swelling and inflammation, and numbs your nerve endings, giving you immediate pain relief.
Adding cold water immersion to your daily routine can give you a more natural way of recovering from strenuous activity, and reduce your reliance on painkillers and anti-inflammatories.
4. Helps with pain management
Cold exposure can sometimes help with pain caused by conditions such as fibromyalgia and rheumatism. Immersion in cold water has been shown to prompt a natural wave of sympathetic nervous system activity, which can alter your body’s perception of pain.
And not only can cold water therapy help with managing existing pain, it can also help your body’s healing process, which may help break pain patterns and prevent future pain by helping you move more freely, starting a virtuous circle of improvement.
5. Improves your mood and helps you build mental resilience
As we’ve seen, there are many physical benefits to be gained from cold water therapy – but it is also hugely beneficial to your mental health and wellbeing.
Immersing yourself in cold water on a regular basis isn’t easy! At the most basic level, doing this can help you build resilience and enhance your mental strength so that you can handle the challenges of everyday life better.
But the mental health benefits of cold water therapy go deeper than that. It can help you sleep better and lower your stress levels, be more beneficial than prescription medications in lifting your mood and helping treat symptoms of depression, and can also help conditions such as anxiety and chronic fatigue.
A 2018 study found that cold-water swimming ‘led to an immediate improvement in mood following each swim and a sustained and gradual reduction in symptoms of depression, and consequently a reduction in, and then cessation of, medication’.
So how does this work? Here’s the science bit: your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for slowing your heart rate, and a key part of this system is the vagus nerve, which connects your brain to your heart and lungs. If you have high vagal tone, your body can relax faster after stress. Immersing yourself in cold water can increase your vagal tone. It puts your body under stress, but the more often you do it, the smaller your stress response will get, and the better able you’ll be to cope with mental stress in the future.
In other words, the stress created by depression and other mental health conditions can be countered by the introduction of a new physiological stressor – such as immersing your body in cold water.
How to get started with cold water therapy
I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that you don’t have to dive straight into a freezing lake in order to experience the benefits of cold water therapy!
There are a few different ways you can practice this therapy – from taking a cold shower to wild swimming in the sea or a lake or river. Whichever appeals to you (or is most practical!), the idea is to stay in water that’s ideally below 15 degrees Celsius for between 3 and 10 minutes.
Take a daily cold shower
I take a cold shower daily, which is probably the easiest way to start practising cold water therapy. Sounds simple enough – but also pretty daunting it you’ve never done this before. So what’s the best way to get started? Here are three methods you can try, depending on what appeals most!
Method 1: slow and steady
Start by slowly decreasing the amount of hot water you use in your shower and ease yourself into steadily cooler showers.
Method 2: temperature transition
Start showering under warm water as usual, then gradually lower the temperature to as low as you can bear for about 30 seconds, before raising the temperature again. Now repeat the warm to cold transition three or four times.
Method 3: take the plunge
Standing outside the water spray, get the temperature as low as you think you can bear. Now enter the shower, wetting your hands first, then your feet, then gradually the rest of your body. Do your normal showering routine, but get out or raise the temperature as soon as you feel too cold.
As you get used to cold showers, you’ll be able to spend more time under the colder water, and gradually lower the temperature more and more.
Make yourself an ice bath
If you want to try cold water therapy at home but you don’t have a shower – or you’d just prefer to submerge yourself completely – an ice bath is a good option. Plus, there is evidence to suggest that this is a more effective treatment, as using ice will of course make the temperature lower than what you’ll achieve with a shower, even on the coldest setting.
Fill up your bath with cold water, then start adding ice until the temperature reaches somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. This will typically take around 10 minutes when using three parts water to one part ice.
Once the temperature is where you want it (use a thermometer!), gradually immerse yourself in the water, and aim to lie down and be as completely submerged as possible (depending on the size of your bath!).
Stay immersed in the water for around three to five minutes, then get out and see how you feel. As you become more comfortable with cold water therapy, try working your way up to eight to 10 minutes each time.
Cold water swimming
I regularly enjoy a wild swim in the sea!
You can do this all year round in the UK; if you go for a swim outdoors anywhere here at any time of year, you are pretty much guaranteed to be swimming in cold water. Our seas, lakes and rivers are pretty cold all year round, since the water here rarely gets warmer than 20°C even at the peak of summer (our normal body temperature is 37°C). And UK inland waters can be as low as zero in winter – a true cold water therapy!
The good news is that it’s pretty easy to get used to UK water temperatures in the UK, if you swim outdoors regularly. As with cold showers and baths, a big part of acclimatising to the cold temperature is mental, not physical – you just need to ‘get over it’ and embrace it!
So, what do you need to know to get started safely?
If you don’t fancy going it alone, there are wild swimming clubs and groups you can join in many parts of the country – a quick Google should find one in your area.
Firstly, as with the bath and shower options, unless you’re used to it, always get into cold water slowly and carefully (sudden exposure to cold water results in a ‘gasp reflex’, which makes you inhale the water). Once you’re in, keep your feet on the bottom and increase your exposure gradually. Splash some water on your hands and face. Don’t start swimming until you’ve got your breathing under control, which usually takes 1-2 minutes.
Especially if you’re new to this, stay close to shore. Staying in too long can cause cold incapacitation, where your surface blood vessels constrict to preserve your core temperature. This means that your arms and legs become weak, stiff and numb due to the reduced blood flow to your extremities. If you find you can’t touch the tip of your second finger to your thumb, you are cold incapacitated, which will make it difficult to get yourself back to shore if you’ve gone out too far.
The cold will feel very uncomfortable at first, but stick with it. Try setting yourself small goals, like swimming to a particular (nearby) rock or tree. Then build up gradually as you get used to it and become more confident. In a few minutes your circulation will start pumping and you’ll start to feel alive!