Cold plunge therapy, also known as cold water immersion or cold shower therapy, has become an increasingly popular wellness trend in recent years. The practice involves brief exposure to cold water temperatures – usually between 50-60°F (10-15°C). Proponents believe that braving the cold offers both mental and physical health perks. But what does the science say? Here we cover the top 10 research-backed benefits of taking regular cold plunges.
1. Improves Circulation
When you immerse yourself in cold water, your blood vessels constrict to prevent body heat loss. This sends blood from your extremities to your vital organs to protect their function. However, this reaction is short-lived. As soon as you get out of the cold, your circulatory system opens up again, allowing flushed blood and oxygen to flow back to the skin and muscles. This has been made famous by athletes who often use ice baths following training to speed recovery. However, a simple cold shower is also effective and far easier to do. Many people believe that this “pumping” action improves circulation over time. Some small studies support this.
2. Boosts Immunity
New research suggests that routine cold exposure may give your immune system a kick. Scientists believe that brief cold stress creates inflammation that activates your immune response. Repeated cold exposure also increases metabolic rate and the number of disease-fighting antioxidant enzymes in the body. As such, taking regular cold showers may reduce sick days. Though more research is needed, evidence indicates that cold plunges help fine-tune immune function.
3. Burns Calories
Shivering is your body’s natural mechanism to warm itself up when cold. This muscle contraction requires energy, which your body burns from its fat stores. Research shows that shivering intensely for 10-15 minutes can burn up to 200 calories. Experts estimate that staying in cold water for 20 minutes per day could theoretically burn several pounds of fat over a year. Just don’t rely on cold alone to melt fat away – controlling food intake and exercise are still key! But cold plunges combined with a healthy lifestyle may accelerate fat loss.
4. Eases Stress and Anxiety
According to numerous studies, cold water immersion dampens the body’s stress response. Being in cold water triggers the release of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals that lift mood naturally. Plunging into cold water also helps regulate the autonomic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic “rest and digest” branch while suppressing the sympathetic “fight or flight” branch. This brings your heart rate and blood pressure down and relaxes muscles. Evidence shows that combining breathwork with cold showering is particularly powerful for alleviating anxiety and depression. Even a one-minute cold shower may provide instant mood relief.
5. Speeds Up Recovery
Athletes have used cold water immersion for decades to reduce soreness and speed up recovery after intense training. Brief cold exposure constricts blood vessels, helping flush waste products like lactic acid out of tired muscles. It also reduces swelling and muscle spasms. Multiple trials demonstrate that cold water bathing after hard workouts accelerates the body’s return to homeostasis, so you recover faster.
6. Improves Sleep
Research indicates that cold exposure promotes higher quality sleep. One reason is that it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress hormone levels that can interfere with restorative sleep. Routine cold showers also help regulate the circadian rhythm – your body’s 24-hour internal clock. The change in body temperature signals to your brain that it’s time for bed. In one small experiment, insomniacs who took cold foot baths before bed fell asleep faster and slept more deeply than the control group. If you struggle with sleep, sipping ice water before bedtime or taking a cold shower 90 minutes before bed may help improve sleep quality.
7. Increases Willpower
Multiple studies demonstrate that practicing small acts of physical discomfort strengthens mental discipline. Facing the initial shock of cold water triggers an adaptive stress response that increases tolerance. With regular cold exposure, you learn to stay centered when discomfort arises. Researchers found that people who immersed a hand in near-freezing water were able to perform better on a test of self-control compared to those who just immersed a hand in room temperature water. Like exercise, frequent cold plunges can help “train” your willpower muscle.
8. Alleviates Depression
Emerging research indicates that hydrotherapy may provide lasting relief of depressive symptoms. Scientists believe that brief cold stress releases mood-boosting endorphins and dampens inflammation linked to depression. Combining cold exposure therapy with positive lifestyle habits like exercise and mindfulness meditation may amplify antidepressant effects. Though more high-quality studies are needed, evidence suggests that simple cold water treatments can help lift low mood.
9. Boosts Alertness
The shock of cold water on your skin sends a jolt of adrenaline throughout your body, making you feel invigorated and alert. Studies confirm that cold hydrotherapy activates areas of the brain involved in attention span and alertness. Researchers also found that taking a cold shower improves reaction time. Regular cold water immersion may help reduce fatigue and brain fog throughout the day. Instead of defaulting to coffee when your energy crashes, try a brisk cold rinse. The zing of cold water will get your mind and body humming again.
10. Strengthens Immunity
As mentioned earlier, brief cold stress triggers anti-inflammatory and antioxidant defenses which boost your immune function. Population studies show that rates of sickness decline in winter swimmers compared to non-swimmers. One small experimental study found that taking daily cold showers resulted in 29% fewer days of illness compared to the non-shower group. Researchers speculate that cold exposure trains your innate immune system to respond better to threats. While more research is needed, evidence suggests that ending your shower with 30-60 seconds of pure cold may help ward off infection over time.
Adopting a habit of brief cold water immersion offers a myriad of potential wellness benefits backed by research. From improved circulation and recovery to easier weight loss and better sleep, cold plunges can be a simple but transformative addition to your self-care routine. However, cold water therapy may not be suitable for everyone. Check with your doctor before trying it, especially if you have heart problems or other medical conditions. The website Cold Plunge Facts provides more guidance on safely incorporating cold exposure into your lifestyle. With some grit and determination, the health perks of cold therapy can be yours to enjoy.