Cold Water Immersion: How to Do Cold Therapy and What Are the Benefits to Cold Exposure

Siim Land

Summer is over. The temperatures are dropping. It’s the perfect time to start doing some cold water immersion because…winter is coming.

Why You Should Start Doing Cold Water Immersion

As you’re reading this, you’re probably sitting inside your cozy warm home. There’s a nice fire going in the fireplace. The idyllic atmosphere it creates is comforting and enjoyable. But chances are that up until now you didn’t notice this. We’re all so used to central heating that we begin to take it for granted.

Now, watch this video and tell me how you feel.

Chilling…to say the least.

Are you shivering, do you have chills running down your spine, are you scared? I definitely got some brrrrrsssss. But I’m already used to having a cold water bath every now and then.

There are immense benefits of cold water immersion that not only improve your health but also make you feel extremely empowered, happier and almost invincible.

Benefits of Cold Exposure

  • Triggers anti-inflammatory norepinephrine release that reduces short-term pain from injuries [i]
  • Reduces muscle soreness (DOMS)[ii]After exercise, your tissues are damaged and inflamed. Cold water lowers the temperature in those regions and constricts blood vessels, which helps to reduce the swelling and trauma.
  • Boosts happiness. Cold water unleashes a floodgate of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine. It can help you battle depression[iii] and enjoy your life more. Regular winter swimming will increase your well-being and energy[iv]
  • Bolsters the immune system that kills viruses and fights off tumor factors [v][vi][vii]
  • Increases the antioxidant glutathione and superoxide dismutase, which support the liver functioning, optimize cellular processes and protect against oxidative stress[viii]
  • Increases brown fat[ix], which increases metabolism and burns energy to produce heat, which doesn’t happen with regular white fat[x]
  • Increased norepinephrine, or adrenaline, which is a hormone that boosts your energy, focus, mood and sleep cycles[xi]. It can also trigger neurogenesis, which improves your memory[xii].
  • Increases your tolerance to stress through the body’s mechanism for hardening[xiii]. This makes your body more capable of handling oxidative stress and exposure to harmful stimuli, such as temperature, disease, toxins etc.
  • Teaches your body to generate its own heat and allows you to control your autonomic nervous system.

The reason why you would want to start practicing cold water immersion before the actual freeze is to condition your body and mind with the temperatures. Winter is coming and you shouldn’t take advantage of central heating or thermojackets. What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age…

Winter is coming... start doing cold water immersion
Winter is coming… start doing cold water immersion

Physiological Responses to Different Water Immersion Temperatures

I want to take a closer look at a study about 1 hour immersions into waters of different temperatures (32°C, 20°C and 14°C).

  • 32°C did not change rectal temperature and metabolic rate, but lowered heart rate (by 15%).Plasma renin activity (PRA), plasma cortisol and aldosterone concentrations were also lowered (by 46%, 34%, and 17%), which regulate your blood pressure. Diuresis (excretion of urine) was increased by 107%.
  • 20°C caused a similar decrease in PRA, heart rate butincreased metabolic rate by 93%.
  • 14°C actually increased heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure (by 5%, 7%, and 8%, respectively). So did diuresis (by 163%) and aldosterone (23%), while cortisol decreased.

Now for the real kicker.

One hour of head-out cold water immersion in water of 14°Cincreases metabolic rate by 350%[xiv], plasma norepinephrine by 530% and dopamine by 250%.

Click to Tweet the World about the benefits of cold water immersion
Click to Tweet the World about the benefits of cold water immersion

That’s just profound and mind-boggling. Norepinephrine is basically adrenaline and dopamine is the reward hormone that causes pleasure. The combination of those two induces a state of ecstasy and empowerment. It’s an explosion of neurotransmitters, which lights up every cell in your body and makes us feel on top of the world.

How to Do Cold Water Immersion

But simply looking at the benefits and acknowledging them won’t help you in having an ice bath. You’re still like…there’s no way I’m going to do this! That’s perfectly natural because it’s indeed quite difficult at first. Hell…it’s scary every time I do it.

The biggest obstacle to this is fear. You’re afraid of getting wet, cold, shivering, potential drowning – discomfort. But those things are only based on your subjective perception of the experience. As the freezing water starts piercing your skin, you think that it’s going to harm you. You think that you’re dying, but in reality, it’s a life-enhancing and empowering event. If you were to see it as good, then you would approach the situation differently as well. By knowing the benefits you’ll get afterwards, you’ll be able to change the way you think about cold.

Fear is an illusion and not real.

It’s created by your own mind in anticipation of future events. It’s a choice – a decision of how you decide to perceive the experience yet to come. There’s no real basis to fear, other than how much power you choose to give it.

Becoming conscious in the present moment will allow you to notice yourself being anxious, leverage that energy and not be paralyzed by your fearful thoughts. Concentrating on the ins and outs of your breath is a great way to raise your awareness in the now. This heightened focus gives you the ability to rise above fear and see beyond it. By having something else to concentrate on you’re taking away its power and using it against anxiety.

As you traverse into the water, your immediate reaction would be to tense up and become stiff. It’s a natural response. The body experiences a stressor and starts fighting it by causing these physiological adaptations. But to actually adapt to the freeze, you must not fight it. You have to yield to the cold. Fully accept it for what it is. Really feel how the temperature is affecting you. How your muscles are coming to live, cells exploding, neurons firing, blood flowing. Your perception shifts because you’ve made a conscious decision of dwelling inside the cold and thus not being afraid of it. Courageousness is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of its presence.

Become Addicted to Cold Water Immersion

Compare the amount of pleasure plus the other beneficial effects with some other reward inducing activity. Let’s say you do hard drugs, like cocaine, that release immense amounts of dopamine. The high you get makes you feel good but also comes with an array of negative consequences. On the flip side, those things aren’t granted with cold water immersion.

People don’t get addicted to drugs. They get addicted to the reward mechanisms of dopamine. It makes them feel pleasure, which then creates a feedback loop inside their head. Drugs = Feel-good. What they’re really seeking is this trance-like state that transcends their normal consciousness.

The same applies to other dopamine inducing activities as well. People aren’t addicted to sugar, alcohol or shopping. They’re after the feedback loop of anticipating a reward, getting the stimulus and then dwelling in pleasure until the effect fades away.

But the same can be achieved by other empowering behavior that

  • have a much greater effect
  • don’t come with almost any negative consequences
  • make you feel amazing for longer
  • and don’t wreck, but improve your life.

Come on…an adrenaline rush of 530% and a boost of dopamine by 250%. I would imagine that binge eating or buying another pair of shoes would only increase them by about 150-200%. Even if drugs will do so by 700%, then those metrics are incomparable when you look at the other consequential effects.

Morale of the story:

Become addicted to cold water immersion and other life-enhancing activities.

Make sure to start doing cold water immersion in preparation of the winter. Once the freeze hits us, you’ll be perfectly fine and can start having ice baths as well.

Check out the video on my YouTube channel and make sure to join the Body Mind Agoge to take control of your own reality.