Curious about Cold Water Therapy? Here’s How it Works, and Why You Should Try it.

Curious about Cold Water Therapy? Here’s How it Works, and Why You Should Try it.

The rise of cold water therapy has quickly emerged as a popular wellness trend in recent years with celebrities and athletes alike showcasing their ice bath routines and well-known scientists, like Andrew Huberman, praising the practice for its numerous health benefits.

As cold therapy continues to gain traction in the wellness space, a growing body of academic research is also emerging that supports the health impacts cold water therapy can have on the body, including decreasing pain, regulating the nervous system, and supporting the immune system.

So, what is this practice all about and what can it do for you? In this blog, we dive into what cold therapy is, its history, the science behind cold water immersion benefits, and a few different ways you can practice it.

What is Cold Water Therapy?

Cold water therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is an immersion process where you allow your body to spend time in cold water that’s below 58 degrees fahrenheit. This type of therapy activates the body’s natural healing abilities and helps relieve chronic illness — promoting better health and overall well-being.

History of Cold Water Therapy: A Modern Day Tool with Ancient Roots

Let’s rewind for a minute.

If you’re a history buff, you might be interested to learn that cold water therapy has been around for millennia. Hippocrates is often credited as the first person to document the health benefits of cold water therapy in medicinal practices — using it as a way to treat swelling and pain. However, this method was also used by ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations.

Fast forward a few thousand years to the modern era, and cold water therapy is at the forefront of  wellness practices as a natural remedy. Today, it just may look a little different than it did for the Greeks or Romans thanks to modern innovation.

Different Types of Cold Water Therapy

As a type of cryotherapy, cold water immersion, in its various forms, has the ability to remove heat, reduce the body’s core temperature, and change blood flow in the human body [1]. This process impacts on the parasympathetic nervous system largely translates into its health benefits that can be utilized whether you prefer to hop in a cold shower or plunge in a tub.

Cold water immersion: Ice bath, cold plunge, or outdoor swim

Like its name suggests, this form of cold water therapy consists of immersing oneself in cold water up to neck level. Ice baths and cold plunges are a popular option due to the ability to control water temperature. The great thing about ice baths or cold plunges is that you have the option to take them right at home too.

Read our blog to find out our top four picks when choosing a cold plunge tub to enjoy at home.

For our team here at Sauna House, the cold plunge is one of our favorites for bodily wellness. We set our plunge pool to 53 degrees fahrenheit to rejuvenate your body from head to toe. If you want to try it, we recommend sitting in heat for 10-15 minutes before getting in the cold plunge for 3-5 minutes. Relax until you feel hydrated and ready to go again.

For the adventurers out there who prefer to opt outside, there are also ways to practice cold water therapy outdoors. If you live in a colder climate or are visiting an area with access to outdoor water sources, a swim in a river, lake, or swimming hole can be a great way to practice cold water therapy too.

Read our blog for our favorite outdoor places in Asheville to practice cold water therapy.

No matter what method you choose, keep in mind that cold water therapy works best with the right combination of time and temperature. For example, if you’re in a 38 degree mountain river, we’d recommend a three minute session. Maybe you’re at the beach? In a 50 degree ocean, we’d recommend making your session a bit longer. Try five minutes.

Cold shower

Hop in the shower and crank the temperature down. While it may be uncomfortable at first, frigid showers offer a way to ease into cold water therapy, especially if you’re a beginner just getting started.

Here are a few tips for taking a cold shower and implementing your cold water therapy practice at home:

  • Keep the water lower than 60 degrees.
  • Take it slow by starting with 30 seconds of exposure to the cold water. Work your way up to a minute, then two, then three as you get more comfortable.
  • Work contrast therapy into your cold shower routine by taking a hot shower for three minutes and then switching to a cold shower for one minute. Repeat the cycle three times, making sure you always end on cold.

Whichever cold therapy method you choose, listen to your body and what feels best. It all comes down to what works well for you.

Cold Water Therapy Benefits for a Health Boost

Whether you want an immunity boost or you’re looking for a way to treat your muscles, cold water therapy works wonders on the body.

Increases a positive immune response

A strong immune system is something we all strive for, especially when it comes to flu and cold season.

Cold water immersion stimulates leukocytes — white blood cells that help fight off sicknesses. It also causes the lymphatic system to contract, forcing fluid through the lymph nodes. This process provides detox benefits, as well as added immunity support. Here are two research-backed examples.

In this study, researchers tested whether people could alter their own immune response by practicing meditation, deep breathing, and cold water immersion techniques. When the participants were exposed to a bacterial infection, researchers found that the group that used these techniques produced more anti-inflammatory chemicals and fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines in response to the infection [2].

A study done in the Netherlands found that people who took a cold shower for 30, 60, or 90 seconds for a 90 day period called out sick from work 29% less than people who took warm showers [3].

Say Goodbye to Sore Muscles with Cold Therapy

Have you ever woken up the morning after a day of hard exercise with sore muscles? We certainly know the feeling.

Athletics can take a toll on your body, whether you’re playing at a competitive level, building muscle, or just trying to stay in shape. Weight training, running, and game play can all strain your muscle fibers and make them tender.

Soaking in cold water for short periods of time after exercise can help relieve soreness, which is why you see a lot of athletes taking ice baths after practice or game play. The immersion in cold water squeezes out any lactic acid build up and inflammation that’s caused during exercise.

This small study, which took place in 2011, found that cyclists who completed intense training sessions had lower levels of soreness after they practiced cold water immersion therapy for 10 minutes [4].

If you’re weight training or endurance training, we recommend reading this blog post on the ins and outs of training and ice baths.

Increases energy and focus and supports a positive mood

Cold water therapy can help support the sympathetic nervous system – the control station for the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. In a podcast episode by Andrew Huberman,  “Using Deliberate Cold Exposure for Health and Performance” he says:

Deliberate cold exposure causes a significant release of epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline) in the brain and body. These neurochemicals make us feel alert and can make us feel agitated and as if we need to move or vocalize during the cold exposure. Cold causes their levels to stay elevated for some time and their ongoing effect after the exposure is to increase your level of energy and focus, which can be applied to other mental and/or physical activities [5].

Researchers have also found similar findings. A study was done with a group of swimmers to examine how mood changes after cold water immersion are associated with brain connectivity. The researchers found that participants felt more active, alert, attentive, proud, and inspired and less distressed and nervous after having a cold-water bath [6].

Ready to Get Your Cold Water Therapy Routine Started?

New routines can be hard to start and stay committed to. We get it. We’ve been there.

If you’re in need of a little extra motivation, we invite you to jumpstart your cold water therapy routine with us at Sauna House. You’ll have access to saunas, cold showers, and of course, the cold plunge.

Whether you’re seeking a health change or a wellness boost, we hope you feel more confident getting started.

Citing our Sources:

1. Allan, R., Malone, J., Alexander, J., Vorajee, S., Ihsan, M., Gregson, W., Kwiecien, S., & Mawhinney, C. (2022). Cold for centuries: a brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery. European journal of applied physiology, 122(5), 1153–1162.

2. Kox, M., van Eijk, L. T., Zwaag, J., van den Wildenberg, J., Sweep, F. C., van der Hoeven, J. G., & Pickkers, P. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(20), 7379–7384.

3. Buijze, G. A., Sierevelt, I. N., van der Heijden, B. C., Dijkgraaf, M. G., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. (2016). The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial.

4. Stanley, J., Buchheit, M., & Peake, J. M. (2012). The effect of post-exercise hydrotherapy on subsequent exercise performance and heart rate variability. European journal of applied physiology, 112(3), 951–961.

5. Huberman, A. (2022). The Science and Use of Cold Exposure for Health and Performance. Huberman Lab Newsletter.

6. Yankouskaya, A., Williamson, R., Stacey, C., Totman, J. J., & Massey, H. (2023). Short-Term Head-Out Whole-Body Cold-Water Immersion Facilitates Positive Affect and Increases Interaction between Large-Scale Brain Networks. Biology, 12(2), 211.

September 01, 2021
By: Sauna House
  • Phil Jacobs

    Thanks both interesting and helpful