March 4th 2022
I took a freezing cold shower every day for a week and this is what happened
April 14th 2022 / 0 comment
From wild swimming to ice baths, braving freezing water is this year's coolest wellness trend. Celebs are going all in too with the new BBC show 'Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof'. Verity Clark dips her toe into cold water therapy
Cold water therapy, using cold water for health benefits such as improving mood and energy, reducing anxiety and decreasing inflammation and increasing circulation, has shot up in popularity of late. Who'd heard of Dryrobes two years ago? Now, the cold water swimming cloak is a staple of freezing lidos and lakes up and down the country. Fans of a bracing dip report improvements in energy, mood and sleep.
But you don't need to be a bather to experience cold water therapy. A simple dunk in an ice bath or a douse in a freezing shower will do. Now there are venues, gadgets and courses sprouting up like Siberian geysers to show you how – and even a celebrity TV show.
We have one man in particular to thank/blame for taking chilling out to sub-zero levels: Wim Hof, a Dutch endurance athlete aka the Iceman, beloved of everyone from Oprah and Tom Cruise to Justine Bieber, David Beckham and Joe Wicks. He shot to fame for his love of wearing speedos in the snow. He earned his nickname for performing modern medicine-defying acts such as lying in an ice bath for almost two hours (don't try this at home) running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in just his shorts.
Hof claims that exposure to freezing temperatures can help strengthen the mind and body. Now, the ice bath fanatic has filmed a new BBC TV show, Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof which debuted this month.
It's hosted by Wim Hof superfan, Holly Willoughby, who was left feeling "totally spaced" after Hof put her through his breathwork cycle (breathing is a key part of ice bathing) live on This Morning, and comedian Lee Mack. The show sees a group of celebrities, including Dianne Buswell, Gabby Logan and Tamzin Outhwaite put through their paces in some of Europe’s harshest conditions, including – you guessed it – sub-zero temperatures.
Images Instagram: (left) @hollywilloughby (right) @iceman_hof
In the sunnier climes of LA, the Kardashians and actress Lucy Hale head to social wellness club Remedy Place for an ice bath and breathwork session when they need perking up. The club hosts ice bath classes involving ten minutes of guided breathwork followed by six minutes submerged in icy water. The USP? You can do it as a group. You're in a bath on your own (steady on!) with a small group of other baths in the studio. Videos of the classes have racked up more than 100 million views on TikTok.
@remedyplace Did they make the 6 minute club? #remedyplace #socialselfcare #icebath #socialwellnessclub ♬ original sound - Remedy Place
Miranda Kerr and Ferne Cotton are said to start their day with a cold shower, while Joe Wicks climbed into a tub filled with 170kg of ice cubes as part of an ice bath challenge that went viral. Wicks described the experience of an at-home ice bath as 'exhilarating' and 'energising'.
Hotels too are adding ice baths to their 'luxury' experience. The Standard in London has added ice baths to the room service menu. Guests staying in a Junior Suite Terrace are able to order one of the outdoor tubs to be topped up with ice for a truly chilled out hotel stay. Or, if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your home you could join the waitlist for Monk a smart temperature-controlled ice bath that will set you back an uncomfortable £2,999. Monk is also set to launch an at-home cold water therapy app this summer. Hundreds have signed up to the waitlist.
Without £3k to drop on an at-home ice bath, I wanted to know, could I get the benefits of cold water therapy at home for free? In the name of hard-hitting journalism, I signed myself up for the free Wim Hof cold shower challenge. Another viral Instagram phenomenon, the at-home challenge requires participants to turn their shower cold every day and stay under it for a set amount of time. Week one starts at 15 seconds before gradually moving up to a whole minute by week four. As I was on a deadline I decided to condense the challenge into one week starting at 20 seconds and eventually embracing the big freeze for what felt like an interminable one minute 20 seconds.
I was inspired by entrepreneur Rebekah Brown, who takes daily cold showers and swears by them. The 48-year-old founder of women's supplement brand MPowder menopause supplements says it's now become one of the main tools for tackling her perimenopausal symptoms of brain fog and low mood. After doing the challenge herself, she was so impressed with how much more 'alive' she felt that she signed up for a one-day in-person cold water therapy workshop with Wim Hof Method trainer Heather Gordon Athie.
“Following the workshop, I was genuinely on a different plane for about seven days,” says Brown. “I felt invincible and strangely optimistic. I'd just suffered a massive loss so was in the early stages of grief and yet I could feel hope again. And energised. Now, taking a cold shower each morning or after a sauna or hot yoga at the weekend simply shifts my mindset. I find clarity. I feel less anxious.”
She suggests that I keep it separate from my usual shower. “This is a ‘practice’, not part of your morning hair wash!” she says. Read on to find out how I got on. Spoiler alert, it was not my favourite week.
First, I wanted to find out what it could do for me. Was there science behind the madness?
What is cold water therapy?
What it says on the tin. “Coldwater therapy is the use of water that is less than 15 Celsius for health benefits,” says Dr Miriam Adebibe, co-founder of Victor and Garth clinic in Shoreditch which combines traditional aesthetics with health, wellness and nutritional treatments.
It's actually a traditional practice widely used as a naturopathic treatment in cultures such as Egypt, India, and China, Dr Adebibe tells me. It's only recently that it’s become a modern wellness technique. "Forcing your body to experience very cold temperatures helps to decrease inflammation which can minimise, or eliminate pain," adds Dr Jonathan Leary, founder of Remedy Place. This explains the use of ice baths by athletes, such as tennis player Andy Murray, as a recovery method.
“When you are submerged in cold water, all of the blood vessels in the body will narrow, decreasing blood flow and inflammation,” adds Dr Jonathan Leary, a holistic doctor and founder of Remedy Place.
"Cold exposure is an example of 'hormesis', a biological process where exposing yourself to a mild stress can give you overall health benefits. Intense exercise, such as HIIT, intermittent fasting and heat exposure are other examples," details Dr Noel Young, clinical innovation associate at blood-testing company Thriva.
What are the health benefits of ice baths and cold showers?
The theory behind this is that cold water exposure sends electrical impulses to the brain, says Dr Leary. Effectively this floods our brain with happy hormones, he says.
"Consistently higher blood levels of [neurotransmitters] dopamine, serotonin and B-endorphins [known to have pain-relieving effects] have been measured after cold water immersion,” says Dr Adebibe.
There are currently very few scientific studies on the benefits of cold showers and ice baths and those that do exist are, she says, “often based on small numbers of participants who vary greatly in their physical ability, from unfamiliar subjects to professionally trained athletes".
However, both Dr Adebibe and Dr Leary agree that the benefits of cold water therapies do seem to increase if it’s something that you do on repeat. “Just like all of the other muscles in the body, as you start training them they will get stronger and improve endurance,” says Leary. “This not only helps all the pumping systems that push the blood throughout your body, but it will also improve circulation.”
Other health benefits of cold showers are thought to include supporting the immune system and increased metabolism. One study in the Netherlands showed that by combining meditation, breathing exercises and cold water therapy, a la our old pal Wim Hof, the sympathetic nervous system was activated, which released adrenaline and suppressed inflammation. "These findings are promising for those suffering from auto-immune conditions where inflammatory processes are excessive and damaging, such as rheumatoid arthritis," notes Dr Adebibe.
Freya Broughton, the founder of the anti-inflammatory recipe and guidance platform @freyalouisecookery, credits her daily three-minute cold shower with reducing her chronic eczema. "I got into it via Wim Hof and as well as leaving me with an incredible buzz, I've also noticed that by cooling my body regularly my eczema has been helped considerably."
Can cold water therapy help you lose weight?
There aren’t any actual studies to prove this yet but Dr Adebibe tells me that our metabolic rate increases by 350 per cent when we are immersed in water below 14 Celsius, which activates our brown fat (the bit that we rely on to keep us warm) and could mean that cold body treatments have a role in weight management.
The benefits of cold water for your immune system
Dr Adebibe tells me that we have "higher levels of white blood cells after cold water immersion," which could help to "improve the body’s defence against microbial illness." While there aren't concrete studies to prove that cold water swimming does bolster your immune system, habitual cold water swimmers have reported milder and fewer respiratory infections than previously experienced. However, Dr Adebibe notes that we should be careful when entering colder temperatures than we are used to as, "excess cold exposure may cause physiological stress that leads to suppression of the immune system. The optimal 'dose' of cold will be different for different people."
Is cold water good for muscle recovery?
Ice baths, cryotherapy and cold showers are well-known post-workout techniques for athletes, and even your average jogger." The cold constricts blood vessels and decreases circulation to the area," says Dr Adebibe, "this reduces both pain and swelling." Hence the reason a cold compress or ice pack is often used after sprains or muscle injury. "However, the correlation between cold hydrotherapy and performance is unclear," Dr Adebibe continues, "though many studies report a reduction in perception of fatigue and muscle aching, there is no evidence that cold-water immersion changes blood markers of muscle damage and inflammation."
Is cold water swimming better for you than a cold water shower or bath?
The added benefit of going for a dip is that you receive the health benefits of the exercise itself, although in winter you'll most likely need a wetsuit, and neoprene hat and gloves and shoes to stay in for any length of time. However, it’s important to note that a cold shower may be much safer if you are not being supervised than cold water swimming or an ice bath since you have more control over temperature, speed of cooling and how long you’re immersed.
What temperature does your cold shower or bath need to be to experience the benefit of cold water therapy?
“Any cold temperature will have positive effects,” says Leary. He compares the practice to training for a marathon, saying that as your body gets better at adapting the longer you will be able to last. “At Remedy Place we have the ice baths at 3 Celsius and the goal is to get our guests to last up to six minutes.”
Dr Adebibe recommends trying to take a cold shower below 14 Celsius for five minutes two-to-three times per week since this has been shown in the European Journal of Physiology to activate the common health benefits such as boosting energy, metabolism and mood, deepening sleep, supporting circulation and immune health and reducing inflammation associated with cold water therapy.
Five minutes seemed pretty excessive to me! The full Wim Hof 20 Day Challenge thankfully starts with only seconds rather than minutes. I would have to turn the shower right down and work my way up from 15 seconds to one minute over the course of 20 days. As I was only doing it for a week I upped the ante and started at 20 seconds and added ten on each day. The longest 20 seconds of my life…
How do you take a cold water shower at home?
Leary suggests slowly lowering the temperature over time, starting with a short period and increasing it as your body adapts. “Breathing is everything,” he says. “Practice different breath-work techniques to not only build a faster tolerance but also to enhance your body’s ability to use oxygen in intense situations.”
The Wim Hof breathing method involves inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling via the mouth in short powerful breaths 30 to 40 times before you immerse yourself in cold water. He calls this 'fire breathing' as it warms you up from the inside out thus allowing your body to tolerate colder temperatures than you're used to.
Wim Hof trainer Heather Gordon Athie recommends doing the ‘hokey-cokey’ while you're taking a cold shower, says Brown, who adopted this technique at the start of her cold shower practice as a distraction method.
For Rebekah Brown, using the Wim Hof fire breath techniques was a key part of building up her cold water tolerance, as it can help you warm up from within. She recommends doing two minutes of fire breathwork before taking a two-minute cold water shower. Post-shower, repeat the breathwork for another two minutes before drying off and warming up.
Can anyone use cold water therapy?
Always check with your health practitioner before experimenting with cold water immersion. It can affect heart rate and blood pressure so isn’t recommended for anyone with a pre-existing heart condition or those who have hypersensitivity to the cold.
"It’s important to go at an appropriate pace, easing into it slowly. The water temperature by no means has to be ice-cold. Most of the scientific studies used a temperature between 10-15 degrees centigrade. There is no guidance on what temperature to use, what is important is that it has to be cold enough to feel a little uncomfortable, but not to the extent that it’s unbearable.
"How you perceive temperature depends on many factors like your metabolism, time of day, and how used to the cold you are. So it’s important to check in with yourself and decide acceptable limits," advises Dr Young.
I opted for a shower rather than a bath or swim as didn't think it was a good idea to plunge headfirst into very cold water without expert help (I've watched Titanic). What's more, I'm more of a take-me-to the beach rather than take me to a snowy mountain kind of girl. So, the shower challenge would be more than enough for me.
My week in cold showers
Every day for seven days, I turned my shower down to the lowest temperature at the end of my usual shower. This is probably not the most effective way of experiencing cold water therapy, but I can tell you that it was more than enough for me.
I started with 15 seconds and by day seven I was standing under the icy cascade for one minute 20. And it was hell. I did make myself stay under for the full length of time every time, but I had to do some kind of weird running on the spot to get me through. I didn't do any specialised breathwork alongside the challenge because again I think that as a beginner, it would be better to do this under some expert guidance.
I can’t claim that I found the experience life-changing or even that I noticed massive improvements to my mood, energy or circulation. However, I sleep well, don't suffer from brain fog and drink a lot of coffee so perhaps my body just doesn't need another burst of endorphins.
Freya, on the other hand, uses her cold shower to properly wake her up and as an alternative to a caffeine buzz and Rebekah is evangelical about its anxiety-lowering and brain fog banishing effects.
So, it seems that you may get more out of cold water immersion if you're not getting your energy fixes from elsewhere.
I did feel a certain kind of ‘buzz’ after each shower, which I don’t get after my usual warm shower. Dr Adebibe puts this down to the cold activating my fight or flight state. Apparently, post-cold shower I’d be more able to make a quick decision in a crisis plus there is a surge of endorphins which can promote a feeling of euphoria. I can see how it could be helpful for shocking your body into being more energetic post long flight or even hangover so there's definitely something in it.
I wouldn’t describe it as euphoria because I was very cold and conscious that I’d be happier once I’d warmed up. However, it is strangely addictive so I’m going to try and keep it up to see if I experience more benefits in the long term. Don’t hold me to that.
GET MORE GLOSS: Wild swimming could be the answer to clearing brain fog