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5 Shocking Health Benefits of Cold Exposure [Plus How You Can Start]

It feels like we live by social media trends lately, but this latest one has us all intrigued (and chilly). When you think about the purported benefits of cold exposure, it actually seems pretty impressive. Early research supports the notion that exposure to cold water (even for 30 seconds) might even ease stress, diminish pain, and mellow out signs of depression. Despite this, the research remains inconclusive.

Here, we break down the early science of cold exposure, and what it can do for you. You’ll also get a deep dive (pun-intended) into its top benefits, how to begin yourself, and some tips for best practices. 

What is Cold Exposure Therapy?

According to UCLA Health, cold therapy–also known as cryotherapy–is a practice that uses exposure to cold temperatures to cool the body’s tissues for various therapeutic reasons. In fact, this practice has been used for health purposes dating as far back as 3500 BC. It’s been found in records from the Ancient Greeks, Hippocrates, the Romans, and many other civilizations over thousands of years.

Cold exposure methods

The easiest way to practice cold therapy is with a cold shower, notes Dave Asprey, host of The Human Upgrade Podcast, 4X New York Times national bestselling author, founder of Upgrade Labs, and most well-known in the health industry as the father of biohacking. Asprey also mentioned two other popular ways people practice cold exposure therapy.

Common cold exposure methods:

  • Cold showers – simply jumping in a shower set on the coldest setting
  • Cold plunge or ice bath – sitting in a tub or large tank of ice-cold water
  • Cryotherapy sauna – standing in a chamber chilled to about −270 degrees F

5 Health Benefits of Cold Exposure

Even if embracing almost freezing water may seem unpleasant at first, the health benefits of cold exposure seem promising. From increasing energy to reducing pain, here are some of the most common reasons people practice cold exposure therapy.

1. May boost energy

Temporary stressors, such as extreme cold, send a powerful signal to your body’s operating system that it must become stronger, explains Asprey. Looking at it on a deeper level, the American Physiological Society notes that exposure to cold weather activates a compound called PGC1-alpha. This compound tells your body to create more mitochondria and remodel new healthy muscle tissue. It’s known that mitochondria generate most of the chemical energy needed to power your cells. So essentially, this means healthier cells, stronger muscles, and more energy for you.

2. May reduce stress and boost mental health

Your vagus nerve is part of your body’s nervous system–running from your brain to your large intestine. One of its jobs is to balance your fight or flight system by triggering a relaxation response in your body when stressed. One way to stress or stimulate the vagus nerve is by immersing your face in cold water. This wakes up the vagus nerve, and it goes to work decreasing your heart rate–giving you a relaxed feeling and peaceful mind.

3. Can help pain

Asprey also told us people who practice cold exposure often benefit from reduced pain. In terms of body physiology, cold water restricts blood vessels on your skin, then signals your brain to release endorphins–or hormones that help relieve pain. Basically, exposure to cold releases pain relieving hormones, which in turn soothe your body. To prove it, one cold water immersion study found that a group of fishermen with hand pain reported less pain after cold water hand therapy sessions.

4. Aids in fat loss

“[Cold therapy] stimulates your body to create more ‘brown fat,’ which is a type of fat that burns a lot of calories,” says Asprey. But first, let’s take a step back. When it comes to losing weight, there’s a term you should be familiar with–brown fat. It’s a type of body fat that helps keep you warm when cold. As Asprey mentioned, brown fat is also great at helping you burn the extra calories stored in your body. And guess what? It’s activated by exposure to cold.

5. Supports athletic endurance

Asprey suggests athletes can also benefit from cold exposure because it helps increase endurance and strength output. While more research still needs to be done, previous studies show that within rodent models, cold exposure proved to enhance muscle capacity and endurance. This is why many athletes practice cold exposure therapy right after exercise. 

How to Do Cold Exposure Therapy at Home

Great news–the most common and easiest way to practice cold exposure therapy at home is in the privacy of your shower. And it’s actually quite simple. Asprey lists the following steps. 

  1. Turn your shower on as cold as it can go
  2. Let it run and “cool down” for one minute
  3. Get in the shower and focus the water on your head and chest (this is where most of your cold receptors are)
  4. Stay in the water for at least 30 seconds, and you can eventually work your way up to 3 minutes maximum

Cold Exposure Best Practices

If you’re new to cold exposure therapy, you’ll want to know a few tips before starting. And as with anything new in your health routine, it’s best to know all the information before beginning to avoid adverse health complications.

  • First off, take it slow. “Studies show that it takes three days for your mitochondrial membranes to change and get used to cold therapy. The first three days will be rough, but magically on the fourth day it should be much easier,” says Asprey.
  • Secondly, don’t overdo it. Some enthusiasts go all in with ice baths and try to push their bodies more than necessary. Asprey warns that you can actually get hypothermia if you stay in too long. Never cold plunge for more than 10 minutes.
  • Lastly, if you try a cryotherapy sauna, keep this in mind. “You’ll want to cover your hands, feet, and head for maximum comfort and wear a mask because the cold air can irritate your lungs,” notes Asprey.

Cold Therapy and Exercise

Research on cold plunging has primarily focused on its potential benefits for performance and muscle recovery. And while research is still inconclusive on the benefits for athletes, experts at The Ohio State University Medical Center note that ice baths used as a muscle recovery method may be worth trying due to their ability to reduce swelling, minimize tissue breakdown, and move lactic acid away from the muscles.

Moreover, studies also show that cold therapy may help reduce adipose tissue–a type of body fat that can aid in excessive weight gain. Because many athletes wish to reduce their fat mass and increase their muscle mass instead, it’s common for people who exercise to add cold water therapy to their workout routine.

A Note on Cold Exposure Safety

While it seems there are many health benefits of cold exposure, there are some instances where you should skip the intentional cold shock. If your immune system is feeling run-down or you’re sick, Asprey recommends avoiding cold exposure until you’re feeling back to normal again. And of course, if you have a medical condition, always talk to your doctor first before trying anything new with your health routine.