In recent years, the trend of sitting in ice baths has taken social media by storm. You may have seen pictures of friends sitting in tubs of ice or running into freezing cold bodies of water for a “Polar Plunge”. Maybe you’ve even tried it yourself!
If I hadn’t experienced the benefits of cold plunging first hand, I would seriously question if it was necessary to go to such extremes. But the more experience I get with this practice, the harder it is to deny the benefits and there is plenty of research (beyond this case study of one) to back it up. I wanted to share some of my own experience and the science behind cold exposure therapy in case you too might feel inspired to brace the cold.
My experience with cold water immersion
About four years ago while I was living in Indonesia, I started experimenting with getting into the cold plunge at a local spa by my house, which also had a sauna, steam room and hot tub. There was one day in particular that stands out in my memory, where I was feeling a lot of deep sadness. Feeling that down was abnormal for me, and left me somewhat frustrated because even with plenty of practices and resources to lean on, I couldn’t seem to pinpoint where it was coming from or how to move past it. Seeking some form of relief, I went for hydrotherapy at the spa, and saw a sign on the side of the freezing cold plunge that said, “makes you happy!” I remember laughing to myself assuming the people who worked there had just made a quirky, fun attempt to minimize the torturous experience of sitting in freezing cold water. Despite not really take it seriously at first, the spark of energy and elevated mood I felt afterwards did leave me questioning if there was something to their claim. It did make me feel happier!
As I continued testing myself by jumping into the cold plunge between hot tub, sauna and steam room sessions, I noticed my discomfort tolerance for the cold was beginning to grow. There was something about the mental challenge that was continuing to draw me in, even despite the physical discomfort. Thanks to my addiction recovery, I was well aware of the benefits of growing my discomfort tolerance as opposed to jumping for immediate relief, and this was yet another opportunity to strengthen that muscle.
Overtime, this practice became a daily routine and went from an occasional challenge to a staple in my self-care routine. The wide-ranging mental health benefits of cold exposure therapy have supported me through everything from minor daily stressors to major grief and divorce. I’ve become passionate about sharing this practice because it’s not only well-researched, but it’s also free, widely accessible and if you’re my kind of crazy, you might even find it to be fun.
So what are the benefits of cold exposure therapy?
Below are just a few of the major benefits. I’ve included additional resources below for those who want to dive deeper into the research.
Mental well-being: Deliberate cold exposure can increase the release of dopamine by up to 2.5x baseline. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that contributes to motivation, elevated mood, increased focus, attention and more. Unlike drugs which can cause a dramatic spike in dopamine followed by an unpleasant “come down” effect that leads to cravings, ice baths cause a sustained release of dopamine without a crash.
Increased Stress Tolerance: Cold water provides a safe environment to build resilience and increase our capacity to be with discomfort. When we use the power of our mind to override the body’s impulsive instincts that make us want to immediately flee from discomfort, ice baths help us train in exerting “top-down control”. This mental strength-training provides enormous benefits for working with cravings and addictions.
Deep Relaxation: Cold water therapy activates the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us into deeper states of relaxation. This response counters the “fight-or-flight” stress response.
Muscle Recovery: One of the reasons it’s common to find ice baths in gyms, is that they have been shown to help accelerate muscle recovery and alleviate post-exercise muscle soreness. Cold water immersion may help decrease inflammation in the body by constricting blood vessels and limiting the release of pro-inflammatory substances. This can aid in the recovery process after intense physical activity or injury.
Improved Circulation: Cold exposure from ice baths can cause blood vessels to constrict and subsequently dilate when warming up, which may improve blood circulation. Enhanced circulation can facilitate the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles and organs, aiding in their overall function.
Enhanced Immune Response: Some studies suggest that regular cold water immersion might stimulate the immune system. Cold exposure could potentially activate certain immune cells, leading to an increased production of immune factors, which might improve overall immune function.
Bonus: Community!: This is more of a secondary benefit to cold exposure, as it doesn’t directly relate to the cold, but still feels worth mentioning! As cold exposure therapy has gained in popularity, people have been gathering in communities around the world to embrace the cold together. This is not only the safest way to get started, but it’s also a great way to connect with others who share an interest in health and wellbeing.
How to get started
If you don’t have access to a cold plunge or don’t feel ready to invest in your own backyard ice bucket, there are many ways to get your feet wet – or better yet, your whole body! I recommend starting with a cold shower. Next time you finish showering, before you get out, turn the dial all the way to cold. I personally like to set a timer and put one of my favorite songs on to make the process a little more bearable. As with all cold immersion training, it’s important to avoid pushing yourself to extremes. You might for example, begin with 15-30 seconds and slowly work your way up to four minutes.
I also recommend finding a certified Wim Hof Trainer, or other cold exposure experts in your area who can guide you safely through the process. As mentioned earlier, seeking out workshops, trainings or community events is a great way to connect with others in the process.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are very real health risks associated with extreme temperature change, and it is not advised to begin cold exposure therapy in ice baths or natural cold bodies of water on your own. That said, with the proper guidance and training, it can be a truly life-changing practice that I highly recommend exploring!
If you want to learn more about how cold exposure can support sobriety, listen to Episode 26 of the Sun & Moon Sober Living Podcast where I interview Certified Wim Hof Instructor Justin Weiss.
If you’re interested in learning more about a holistic approach to sobriety, check out the Sun & Moon Community Membership for live weekly meetings, training and opportunities to engage in conversations with a like-minded community.