Cold-dips, cold water therapy and ice plunges have all seen quite a boom in popularity recently, hot and cold-water therapy is a ritual that has been around for centuries, however it has been growing an increased interest over the past few years, with partakers saying it can boost your mood, your energy, and even help with depression, anxiety and menopause! But is there any science behind it, are these benefits genuine or just a coincidence?
WHAT IS COLD WATER THERAPY/COLD DIPS?
Cold dips or cold-water therapy means immersing your body in cold water (any water that’s less than 15°C). To give you a rough idea, the water coming from your cold tap at home will be less than 20°C (and usually between 10 and 20°C). Cold water therapy can involve taking an ice bath, a cold shower or a cold plunge in an outdoor tub or natural body of water, whichever you choose, it’s usually only for a few minutes at a time.
Your own resistance to the cold and tolerance level will affect whether you stay immersed in the cold water from just a few seconds, up to 30 seconds, or a few minutes. The more you are consistent with the practise, the more tolerance you may build and be able to stay in a little longer each time.
HOW DOES COLD THERAPY WORK?
Exposing your body to cold water causes the blood vessels in submerged areas to narrow and constrict which directs blood to your organs, this also reduces inflammation within the body and helps with muscle soreness.
The mental benefits that are thought to come with cold therapy are also due to the release of hormones and endorphins that come with the immediate change in the body’s temperature.
Cold water therapy regulates the release of hormones and therefore can help to aide and support the body’s hormone imbalances and reduce a variety of health problems, such as anxiety, depression and weight gain.
The body’s vagus nerve is a long nerve that runs from your brain to your stomach. It's responsible for a variety of functions, such as controlling your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress response. When you're stressed, the vagus nerve signals your body to release stress hormones. When you take an ice bath, the cold water has a calming effect that activates the vagus nerve to decrease stress levels and to help reduce tension and anxiety.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF COLD-WATER THERAPY?
The physical benefits of cold water therapy include reduced inflammation and improved muscle soreness, supporters of the technique believe that cold water therapy can also improve your circulation, deepen your sleep, spike your energy levels, and reduce other inflammation in your body, as well as regulate your hormones which can have positive effect on your mood, anxiety and stress levels, all of which give reason to believe that cold-plunging and cold therapy are rather good for you.
After the initial “shock” of stepping into an ice-cold tub of water, many people experience an elevated mood. This is likely due to the release of the hormones endorphins, these hormones act as natural painkillers, which have been shown to improve mood and reduce stress; serotonin, widely thought to maintain mood balance; and dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centres and regulates movement and emotional response.
Another wonderful side effect of cold-water dips or showers is that it helps boost your immune system by increasing your white blood cells. A short burst of adrenaline, that is stimulated when your body first comes into contact with cold water, actually activates your immune system.
Taking regular ice baths or dips can also be seen to help improve your focus, concentration, and overall cognitive performance.
Though there isn’t extensive research on the topic yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that menopausal side effects like hot flashes, anxiety and sleeplessness can also subside with regular cold-water dipping.
DOES COLD-WATER THERAPY HELP WITH ANXIETY?
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders, affecting millions of people around the world.
Cold water therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on anxiety and depression symptoms
Cold water exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing blood flow to the brain, and increasing blood levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline. It also helps calm systemic inflammation, which is strongly linked to depression. In addition, because your skin has far more cold receptors than warm receptors, sudden exposure to cold water sends a huge amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, stimulating it in such a manner that it produces an antidepressant effect.
Though more research is required on the topic, the production of ‘happy hormones’ -endorphins, which are released when you plunge into the cold water, elevate mood, reduce stress and increase pleasure hormones which all aide in the reduced feeling of anxiety.
Anxiety often comes with an increased heart rate and high blood pressure; with the exposure to the cold water and change of body temperature the blood pressure drops with the constricting of the blood vessels and lowers the heart rate, all which makes you feel calmer and therefore less anxious.
DOES COLD THERAPY HELP MY PERIOD CRAMPS?
We’re all very familiar with curling up with a hot water bottle, taking a long window-fogging shower or soaking in a hot bath around our periods, but trying cold therapy hasn’t been a regularly listed aide to period cramps.
Whilst not as proven as heat therapy to help with period cramps, some women and menstruators have noted that the cold-water plunges help to ease their cramps due to the constricted blood vessels, and the released endorphins and hormones helps to improve their mood around their period. The increased circulation could also aid in relieving any period headaches.
However, there isn’t much research around this topic yet. Due to the change in your body around your period, if you are not used to cold plunging, or consistent with practising it, then it may be best to steer clear of cold plunges at the beginning of your period, try a cold end to a warm shower or ease your body back to it towards the end of your menstruation. Equally you can combine your cold plunge with a sauna to have the cycle of hot and cold which may be more beneficial on your period.
If you’re comfortable with regular practise of cold plunging and you want to continue with it through your menstruation you don’t have to let your period hold you back from the plunge bath or natural open water. The Rosaseven period bathing suit is built with absorbent period protection inside so you can bleed freely with your period bathing suit any day of the month or swap the cold plunge for a warm hot tub on your menstruation days.
IS IT THE SAME AS HOT & COLD THERAPY?
Often known as the “Nordic Cycle”, hydrotherapy, contrast bath therapy, and other names, hot and cold-water therapy is a ritual that has been around for centuries but differs slightly in practise to the pure cold dip or cold plunge.
The transition from one extreme temperature to another is thought to act as a restorative tool for the mind and body and is supported by many health and wellness benefits.
It can optimize the cardiovascular system, increase hormone levels, flush out the lymphatic system, improve adrenal function, enhance immune system function, improve sleep quality, reduce inflammation and more...
While raising your body’s temperature in the hot environment of the sauna, the increased blood flow to the skin and muscles increases circulation, creating an active state of unwinding and peacefulness. When this is immediately followed by immersion in ice-cold water it creates a physical awareness. The body generates an instantaneous blood pressure shift, stimulating high blood flow and forcing the heart to pump efficiently.
Whilst having similar benefits to the cold-water therapy, the “Nordic Cycle’ encourages a cycle of these hot and cold states to create a sense of calm and wellness both physically and mentally. As before, there is no need to let your period hold you back from these therapies if you find them beneficial, the Rosaseven period bathing suit is built with absorbent period protection inside so you can bleed freely with your period bathing suit any day of the month, whether you’re in cold or hot water.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS TO COLD WATER THERAPY?
Despite its researched benefits, there are also some dangers with cold therapy. Exposing your body to sudden drastic temperature changes is stressful for the body. Plunging into an icy lake or frozen plunge bath is especially tough on the circulatory system, the heart, blood vessels and lymph system. For this reason, people with heart problems, blood pressure or other circulatory issues should consult their health care professional first before considering cold plunging.
Submerging your body into cold water, no matter how healthy you are can increase your risk of hypothermia, which develops when your body temperature drops too low. Hypothermia can occur much more quickly in water, because water pulls heat away from the body 25 times faster than air!
It is advised to always cold dip with a buddy to stay safe and if you’re starting out to try it in controlled physical therapy centres, wellness spas or with a professional.
Note: If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles, please consider seeking help from a professional. Information in this post is for educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice.