Can a Cold Water Plunge Really Help Your Mental Health?
We all enjoy a nice relaxing wind down soak in the tub after a long day, but have you ever thought of trying the opposite — taking an ice bath for stress relief? It may sound like a shock to the system, but submerging oneself in cold water has gained a lot of traction as a method to boost the immune system, treat inflammation, chronic conditions, and numerous other health benefits.
When it comes to cold plunges, we think “Iceman” Wim Hof said it best: “If we always choose comfort, we never learn the deepest capabilities of our mind or body.” Wim Hof, an extreme athlete famous for breaking numerous records related to cold exposure, has driven widespread attention to the many benefits of cold water plunge, especially for mental health. So with May being mental health awareness month, we decided to dedicate this blog to the subject with tips on how a routine of icy cold dips can help, plus a few options to try if you’d like to cold plunge at home.
What is Cold Water Therapy?
Have you ever taken a plunge in cold ocean water, or a river? Maybe even turned your shower to the cold setting to reinvigorate your system? If you have, you’ve practiced something called cold water therapy.
To break it down, cold water therapy is a practice where you take time immersing the body in water that’s 59 degrees fahrenheit or lower either to treat a health condition or to simply reap its health benefits. Some common forms of practicing cold water therapy are by taking an ice bath, cold shower, or an outdoor open-water swim. No one method is better than the other — most people choose their preferred cold plunge method based on their schedule or surroundings.
If you’re going to take a cold plunge, one thing to keep in mind is temperature vs. time of exposure. The lower the temperature, the less time you need to spend in it, and the higher the temperature the more time you should be exposed. For example, if you’re in a 40 degree river, we’d recommend just three minutes of exposure. If you’re in a warmer, 50 degree ocean, push your exposure to about 5 minutes.
Cold Water Immersion Benefits for Mental Health
Mental health illnesses take many different forms with symptoms and effects ranging from mild to severe. In the United States alone, nearly one in five adults lives with a mental health illness — that’s roughly 53 million people.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking medication for these illnesses, we like to lean into healthy alternatives that can provide benefits for both mental health issues and the entire body too. And cold water therapy is one of our favorites.
Cold water immersion, in all its various forms, has been used to help treat depression, mental health issues, and mood disorders for years. One study was done on a 24-year-old woman who had battled depression since the age of 17. After the birth of her daughter, she wanted to be medication-free and symptom-free, so a regimen of weekly cold water swimming was used as a scientific trial. She felt an immediate improvement in her mood after each swim and had a sustained and gradual reduction of depression symptoms which led to her being less reliant on medication. In a follow-up one year later, she remained medication-free.
The Body Effect
If you’re wondering how exactly cold water therapy works for mental health, here’s the gist.
Taking a cold shower or an ice bath creates a “shock” effect on the body. This cause and effect process activates electrical nerve impulses that go from the brain to the nervous system and has been shown to mimic similar effects to antidepressants. The jolt to the body increases alertness, clarity, and even energy levels. Endorphins, known as the happiness hormones, are also released which leads to feelings of well-being and optimism. These benefits, and the similarities between cold water therapy and antidepressants on the body, are why water exposure is gaining popularity among those seeking to find a healthier alternative to medication.
Ice bath therapy or cold water therapy in general also lowers stress levels, a culprit for many mental health issues. Being immersed in cold water can positively affect stress by lowering the body’s cortisol levels.
Interested in Learning More About Cold Water Therapy? Here’s What We’re Listening To.
If you’re new to this topic or just want to learn more, we’ve put together a list of our favorite podcasts on cold water therapy for you to check out. Happy listening!
The Huberman Lab gives a rundown of how cold exposure can enhance mental health, physical health, and performance.
The Wim Hof Podcast invites people from all walks of life for a series of mutually enlightening conversations. It all starts by breaking the ice.
Why Ice Water Immersion And Your Breath Is The Key To Health And Happiness, is an episode on The Doctor’s Farmacy where Dr. Mark Hyman sits down with Wim Hof to talk about the benefits of cold therapy and what happens to the body when we’re exposed to extreme cold conditions.
Want to try a cold plunge for the first time? Come see us for a bathhouse visit at Sauna House!