This is What Happens to the Body During Cold Water Therapy, and it’s Pretty Amazing
People have been raving about the positive impacts of cold water therapy as a natural wellness remedy for centuries. In fact, its first known mention was in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an ancient medical text outlining treatments for various injuries and ailments, dating all the way back to around 3,500 B.C.E.
Today, cold water therapy has continued to gain popularity and traction as it sweeps the US and Europe as a pastime and an immunity booster, easily accessible to anyone. You could be taking a winter vacation by the ocean in Italy or adventuring in one of the Blue Ridge Mountains' natural swimming holes in the summertime, and you can have access to cold water therapy right at your fingertips, thanks to Mother Nature.
So, what’s the science behind the buzz and why is it so good for your body? We break it all down for you in this blog.
Different types of cold water therapy
First of all, if you’re not familiar with cold water therapy, let’s talk about what it is.
Cold water therapy is the practice of immersing oneself in water that’s at or under 59°F, used as a treatment tool for a number of health conditions including inflammation and muscle soreness. It also supports balanced brain chemistry to help with mood and anxiety. Some of the ways you can experience the benefits of cold water therapy is by taking an ice bath, cold shower, cold plunge in a mountain stream, or an open-water outdoor swim.
For athletes, it holds an important place (some might even argue a crucial place) in workout routines. It’s a common practice for fierce competitors to use cold water therapy following an intense workout to help speed up muscle recovery and reduce discomfort and soreness.
What happens to the body during cold water therapy?
Picture this: It’s the middle of winter, and you’re gearing up for a cold plunge to end your trail hike in Pisgah National Forest. You dip your toes in the cold mountain water and slowly start to wade in. You immediately feel the stark drop in temperature from your feet to the top of your head as your body tries to adapt to this new environment.
Here’s what happens next.
When you immerse yourself in cold water, receptors close to the surface of your skin are alerted by the drastic change in temperature. The shock activates your sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight-or-flight response, signaling the release of hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline into your system. The cold water exposure also increases endorphins (that ease depression and anxiety) and releases dopamine — the feel good hormone.
Then, as a response to the drop in temperature, you’ll experience rapid breathing, as well as an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
The next phase is what we like to call your body’s survival mode. Your body redistributes blood from its extremities and concentrates it around essential organs like your heart and lungs. This is the body’s way of conserving heat to keep its systems functioning properly.
So, what is the point of cold plunge anyway?
You may be asking yourself: “Why should I take on this adventure of plunging in cold water?”
When you’re immersed in cold water and your mind is focused on breathing and the water temperature (maybe evening imagining a tropical beach in this moment), your body is actually getting some pretty amazing benefits as it acclimates to its new, colder surroundings.
It’s probably fair to say that having a strong immune system is something we’re all guilty of taking for granted. But when our bodies come into contact with germs and we start feeling a little run down, we can’t help but feel grateful that we have the ability to fight back. By practicing cold water therapy, you can give your immune system a boost so it can keep doing what it does best — beating off those pesky germs. Being immersed in cold water stimulates leukocytes — white blood cells that help fight off sicknesses. It also causes the lymphatic system to contract, forcing fluid through the lymph nodes — a process that provides detox benefits, as well as added immunity support.
If you have a chronic condition, inflammation might be a part of life that you’re used to experiencing regularly or if you’re an athlete, you probably experience inflammation after a strenuous workout. The good news is, cold water therapy can act as a natural remedy to help ease inflammation and offer you some relief in both cases. A group of researchers from Hong Kong found that cold water immersion after exercise resulted in decreased pain and inflammation up to 24 hours after the workout. There are other studies that suggest cold water exposure relieves pain from conditions such as rheumatism, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, and other chronic conditions.
According to the Wim Hof Method, a technique that combines breathwork and cold water immersion, cold water therapy can also help cardiovascular circulation, which benefits the heart, supports mental health, and offers a high level of energy.
Ready to Get Cold? Take the Plunge.
If you’re not already a cold water therapy enthusiast, we hope this inspires you to try! Try it at home with a cold shower, take a cold plunge in one of our favorite outdoor places in Asheville, or come see us at Sauna House to take a dip in our cold plunge pool.
Whatever you decide, we’d love to hear about your experience and how cold water therapy has made a difference in your life.