Taking the plunge into cold water immersion

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Can 30-seconds of cold water change your life? Let’s dive into the age-old topic of whether being immersed in cold water can bring you better health and wellbeing.

Share the love: this post was written by University of Melbourne Science Communication student Talia Oates.

A quick dip in ice cold water – refreshing… right? Image by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

What is cold water immersion?

Have you ever heard of ‘The Iceman’? He’s a famous Dutch motivational speaker and founder of the ‘Wim Hof Method’. His method aims to achieve an ‘optimal natural state’ between your mind and body. One ‘pillar’ of this practice involves cold water immersion because according to Wim, ice baths or cold showers can unlock the natural healing powers of the body. Now, this may seem farfetched, but there is an abundance of scientific research which confirms that cold water immersion really is good for you.

So, let’s dive a little deeper.

Cold water therapy is an ancient practice, found in various cultures around the world. For many years, Scandinavians incorporated a post-sauna cold dip into their routine to cleanse themselves of toxins, increase blood flow, and release endorphins. This method involves using water <15°C to invigorate the body. This practice has evolved over time, from outdoor swims to ice baths, and even cryotherapy sessions. At the same time, our knowledge of the benefits and risks of cold water immersion has also progressed. 

A boost for your metabolism

Many people revel in the joys of a warm shower after a long day. But have you ever considered what a crisp, 30-second cold shock to your system would feel like? 

There is a wealth of evidence which highlights the physiological effect of cold water immersion on our bodies. A cold shower or an ice bath increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. 

This refreshing experience can also increase your body’s metabolism, and potentially burn some of your body fat too! When your body is exposed to extreme cold conditions, you involuntarily shiver to keep warm. This is known as shivering thermogenesis – where shivering generates heat for your body, thereby boosting your metabolism. 

In one study, people were exposed to water temperatures of 32°C, 20°C and 14°C for one hour. They identified that the metabolism of young men increased by 93% in the 20°C water, and a remarkable 350% for the 14°C water. 

Now, before you start filling up your bathtub with icy water, careful consideration and caution is still required. With a balanced diet, this increase in metabolism during cold exposure could possibly result in weight loss. But a large increase in metabolism can also result in an equally large expenditure of energy, meaning you may experience heightened hunger and overeating – as seen in mouse studies.

Could a cold shower cure Alzheimer’s?

In 2015, Professor Giovanna Mallucci, Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute’s centre at Cambridge University and colleagues, conducted a series of experiments investigating the effects of cold water on dementia. They looked at the effects on ordinary mice, and mice with Alzheimer’s disease. Both groups were cooled until they became hypothermic: defined as a body temperature below 35°C. This condition causes a loss of synapses – which are connections between brain cells – and these connections breaking down can cause dementia. 

Their study showed that when the mice were re-warmed, only the ordinary mice could restore their broken down synapses, and a cold-shock protein from the brain was produced – called RNA-binding motif protein 3 (RBM3). Interestingly, the mice with Alzheimer’s lacked high levels of this protein, but the levels in ordinary mice skyrocketed! So researchers thought, what if we artificially boost RBM3 levels in mice? And much to their surprise, this reduced and prevented synapse damage in the mice with Alzheimer’s.

But what about humans? The same research group found that outdoor swimmers who regularly experience hypothermic conditions had higher levels of RBM3 in their blood. The research shows that cold water immersion can trigger the release of this cold-shock protein, and perhaps RBM3 could be the key to synapse regeneration and preventing the onset of dementia.

Should I take the plunge?

Cold water immersion has also been used as a treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Extreme cold temperatures can activate our sympathetic nervous system, and this elevates the levels of endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine in our brains. The combination of these hormones and neurotransmitters generates that ‘high’ or ‘feel good’ feeling people experience after cold water immersion, demonstrating antidepressant effects. But it’s important to note cold water should not be used as a replacement for the medical treatment of mental health conditions. 

Despite the wealth of knowledge we have on the benefits of cold water immersion for our mental health and physical wellbeing, we must also keep in mind the complexity of the human body. You might be persuaded to dip into the wonders of cold water immersion, but first consider your current health conditions, and even have a conversation with your doctor for more information.

Whether you prefer to jump into an ice-cold pool or lake, or add a refreshing blast of cold water to your shower, cold water immersion could be the cure you’ve been searching for.

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  1. Aurelia Zardo says

    Well done Talia!
    Enjoyed reading your article.
    Found it interesting to read about the benefits that ‘cold water plunge’ would have on metabolism, Alzhiemers and mental health.
    As well as it being very informative, I loved that you had the evidence and the links to back up your article.
    I am looking to further enhance my knowledge on this subject.
    Great work!
    Thank you and all the very best for your future endeavours.

  2. Nina Riella says

    Hi Talia – loved the article. My husband Peter and I have been doing the Ice Plunge, once a week, for nearly 12 months after completing a Wim Hof Retreat in November 2021 – we have found it very beneficial for general health wellbeing. After the plunge our skin is so soft, we feel invigorated, tranquil and so relaxed. Even though we have have been “icing” every week, it doesn’t get any easier to lower yourself into the ice bath – its still very challenging. Having said that, we will continue as we feel the benefits outweigh any negatives.

    Our two adult sons and their wives also do the plunge and now its become a weekly ritual/tradition for our families- they are also experiencing an improvement for hay fever, sinus and also anxiety. We are all completely sold on the idea.

    • Wow, thank you so much for sharing your experiences Nina – that all sounds absoutely amazing. I can well imagine that it never gets any easier to get into ice water, but it sounds like the benefits are very clear.

Please, let me know what you think.

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