Do you have a friend that’s been raving about the benefits of cold showers? Or maybe you heard about cold conditioning on a podcast or something? Well, I’m going to get deep into it for you. Here’s everything you need to know about cold showers and cold conditioning.
If your friends told you to go jump in a frozen lake, would you do it? If you’re like most people, the very idea creates an instant recoil.
Nothing could be more pointlessly painful. Yet, this type of cold conditioning (and more recently, cold showers) has been used throughout much of human history as a potent tool for health.
Today, science is backing up those ancient traditions with studies showing that cold conditioning might just be one of the simplest and most effective methods to positively shift your health and your approach to living.
And believe it or not, it’s actually enjoyable (after a while).
In this article, I’m going to give you then rundown on the physical and mental benefits of cold showers and exposing your body to temperature variations and equip you with some homework to help you get started.
Hopefully you’ll have a positive experience and make cold conditioning a consistent practice in your life.
The theory behind cold showers and cold conditioning.
Like exercise, short-term, intense cold exposure creates stress on our body. And as is true with exercise, our bodies adapt to this stress in a number of ways.
These adaptations happen to create a range of health benefits. We’re talking fat loss, mental and emotional benefits, and even a positive shift in the type of body fat you carry (more on this in a moment).
Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t about taking a single cold shower, or even a few. Cold conditioning must be practiced regularly to create the adaptive responses you’re looking for.
But “regularly” can be as simple as a few minutes in a cold shower once a day, and the benefits go far beyond just feeling warmer in the cold and increasing our ability to thermoregulate.
One Big Benefit of Cold Showers & Cold Conditioning: Brown Fat
All fat is not created equal.
All of us have a ratio of white fat to brown fat, with infants and lean people having a better ratio of brown.
People battling obesity? Almost pure white.
White fat is the stuff we’re familiar with. Each cell is basically a container of oily goop that doesn’t metabolize easily.
Brown fat, on the other hand, is brown because it is bursting with mitochondria, the little powerhouses of our cells that spit out ATP and give us energy.
And brown fat does just that. It metabolizes with ease, providing us with heat energy at a moment’s notice.
While it’s burning calories to produce heat, brown fat does us a couple other favors: it uses triglycerides as fuel, removing substances associated with metabolic syndrome and it gobbles sugars, an ability that is being studied by researchers as a possible counter to type 2 diabetes.
Cold also activates a gene that is activated every time we exercise (are you noticing all the parallels between exercise and cold conditioning?).
That gene is UCP1, which works to transform white fat into beige fat, in effect infusing it with mitochondria and nudging it on its way to becoming brown.
In other words, both exercise and cold exposure (and even better, both) work to increase the brown fat in our bodies, and that brown fat is some lean, mean, white-fat burning stuff.
Are cold showers and cold conditioning a health panacea?
Cold conditioning won’t replace the core six pillars of human health. But for less than five minutes a day there is probably no other activity that will reap you such impressive results.
Let’s begin with immunity. It’s becoming clear that daily cold conditioning increases both the activity and numbers of natural killer cells in your body.This backs up the anecdotes you’ll hear from cold-conditioning aficionados. They just don’t get colds. In fact, many claim that they rarely get sick at all.
Then there is circulation. In addition to exercise, cold conditioning has been shown to increase circulation to the extremities, and has even been used therapeutically for people with reduced blood flow.
The kicker? Three weeks of this therapy worked better than the standard treatment, and the results lasted for over a year.
If you enjoy the benefits of antioxidants, you might give cold conditioning a try. It has been shown to significantly increase blood levels of certain antioxidants.
Cold exposure is also being studied as a treatment for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, for pain reduction, as a testosterone booster and sperm enhancer, and as an aid in white-fat weight loss.
If all of that isn’t enough, there is small but growing evidence that cold showers can act as an anti-depressant, increasing blood levels of beta-endorphins (this happens during exercise as well). And those anti-depressant effects are only a hint of the greatest gift cold conditioning has to give us – a new way of approaching life itself.
More real benefits of cold showers and cold conditioning…
Physical benefits aside, you’ll notice one thing when you talk to people who make cold conditioning a regular part of their lives. They’re fanatical about it. You’ll hear statements such as:
- “I feel so invigorated!”
- “I’m less stressed.”
- “I don’t really like warm showers any more.”
- “They make me feel alive!”
Scientific studies have a tough time quantifying things like feeling great, becoming more patient, or achieving a Zen-like calm. But these are all things I have heard people report after they’ve spent a few weeks taking cold showers.
I think it may be a result of psychologically adapting to the “cold shock,” which hits people during the first few moments after immersion in cold water.
It’s a powerful reaction that includes a dump of noradrenaline and cortisol, effectively creating a brief but intense stress on the system.
For many people, this reaction feels a bit similar to the overwhelming way in which they react emotionally to stressors or frustration.
It’s overwhelming in the same way that we get overwhelmed with anger or with trying to prove a point. But after a few days to a week of cold showers, the cold shock doesn’t hit as hard.
You find that you can experience the same external stressor but meet it with a sense of calm or even enjoyment. And for whatever reason, that seems to translate for people into the rest of their lives.
Things that might have caused an adrenal response, such as swerving to avoid a driver who pulled into your lane, or reacting to someone’s snap judgement, just don’t get you upset in the same way.
You’ve learned to “read” stress reactions with a less reactionary approach, and since the cold shock is so intense, most of “real life” stressors pale in comparison.
But I know what you might be thinking. If the cold shock is that intense, then how in the world do I make myself do this?
Start your cold adaptation practice in the comfort of your shower.
Today, most of us have easy access to a tool that allows us to reap the benefits of cold conditioning on a daily basis: our shower.
Warm showers have become one of the hallmarks of comfort in our culture, so converting our showers to cold might seem unthinkable.
But what if you knew that taking cold showers could enhance your immune system, increase circulation, strengthen your metabolism, increase your antioxidant count, act as an anti-depressant, improve your relationships, and make you feel vibrantly alive?
You’d at least experiment with it, right?
At my wilderness school, ReWild University, students routinely experience cold conditioning such as barefoot walks in the snow or “low-clothes hikes” in winter.
One of the most intense experiences is an ice breakthrough after which students try to start a fire before they enter hypothermia.
My wife Rebecca has been watching these activities from the sidelines for years, shaking her head. A self-professed “comfort person,” she insisted that she would never, ever willfully fall through ice.
Yet, this year, she has not only purposefully broken through the ice and performed a self-rescue, but she is taking cold showers every morning, and even rolling naked in the snow.
What happened, and how did she get here? She’d tell you that if she can do it, anybody can.
First, she began to learn about the benefits of cold showers. As a super health-conscious person, she got intrigued.
But she also knew that her first cold shower was going to be intense enough to convince her that she would never take a cold shower again.
So she made a vow.
She did it in front of a group of her friends (you could do it at get-together, or through social networking), and she vowed to give it a try for eight days. So her first step was harnessing the power of her peers.
Secondly, she knew that she was likely to sneak out of it if she could put it off each day. Cold showers are ripe for procrastination. So she vowed that she would take one first thing in the morning. Not after her glass of tea. Not after brushing the kids’ teeth. Not after breakfast. Her feet hit the ground as she gets out of bed, and she walks straight to the shower.
Third, she gave herself full permission to do whatever she had to in order to make it through the experience. Scream, shout, cry, sing, dance, thrash . . . and that first time, she opted to sing. Loudly and vibrantly. It was indeed as intense as she had imagined, but when she got out, she said, “That was AMAZING!”. And so her adventure began.
After the first eight days, she renewed her vow (it was easy at that point, because she was enjoying the cold showers), and now it is just a regular part of both our lives.
Two weeks in, she asked me to hack a hole in the ice of the pond so that she could start taking winter dips. She walks outside in winter with short-sleeves, and has gone from avoiding the cold at all costs to enjoying it.
There’s one last benefit of cold showers that might intrigue you.
When people take warm showers, they usually say they feel cold after getting out.
But one of the first things people notice when taking cold showers is that their body feels warm when they’re done.
It’s not just contrast. It’s physiology.
A study on people who swim in icy winter waters found that they changed the way that their body responded to cold.
Most of us have conditioned our bodies to be inefficient in dealing with cold, because we’ve constrained ourselves to a tiny range of temperature gradients.
We’ve trained our bodies to stop producing core heat, and instead to shiver. When confronted with cold, the non-cold-conditioned subjects in the aforementioned study soon began shivering, which warms our extremities through muscular contraction.
But winter swimmers didn’t start shivering as quickly, and displayed “non-shivering thermogenesis”, meaning that their core temperature increased to deal with the cold.
At the same time, their heart slowed, which the researchers suggest may slow heat loss by keeping blood in the core’s internal heater longer. They also produced heat metabolically, through adrenaline.
What this all boils down to is that in our efforts to keep warm, we teach our body to generate heat peripherally, which is right where heat is lost.
Over time, we lose our ability to effectively thermoregulate, and spend more and more time being cold. Conversely, if we cold condition, we re-awaken our body’s natural ability to generate inner heat.
Let’s Do It! A Cold Adaptation Challenge!
The recipe is simple. Turn your shower as cold as it gets, step in, and remain for at least a minute.
After a few showers, increase that time to at least two minutes.
Within that two-minute window, you’ll probably discover that the sensation suddenly shifts, and the shower doesn’t seem as intense any more.
Here’s a breakdown of the steps so you can get started yourself:
- Make a public vow to take cold showers for eight days.
- Vow to do it first thing every morning, no excuses, no delays.
- See how you feel!
The benefits of cold showers can truly change your life.
Arguments with a friend or spouse won’t get you so upset anymore. You’ll be more patient and relaxed.
I’ve had people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) say that their depression evaporates.
Adrenaline won’t “zap” you any more. And you’ll be empowered to know that cold, which everyone else cringes at and avoids, is your friend.
You’ll reverse the usual decline in cold tolerance that most of us fall prey to, and you’ll find that your hands and feet don’t get chilled as easily.
Under your skin and in the crannies between your muscles, brown fat will be growing, eating and transforming white fat, increasing your mitochondria count, delivering more energy, and mopping up triglycerides and sugars from your blood.
Because of the mechanism of cold shock, check with your health practitioner before you take your first cold shower. You’ll want to know that your heart is healthy, and that you won’t be adversely affected by a short spike in blood pressure.
After you get the thumbs-up, you’re ready to go. And once you’ve made cold showers a regular part of your life, you’ll never look back. It’s the most health you can get out of two minutes’ time. Enjoy the cold!
Do you accept the challenge? If so, leave a comment below and let us know!
Founder of Rebooted Body and host of The Rebooted Body Podcast. Kevin helps men and women finally get a body and life they love with his unique blend of real food, functional movement, and psychology. To work with him personally, choose a program.