Cold water therapy, using cold water for health benefits such as improving mood and energy, reducing anxiety and decreasing inflammation and increasing circulation, is big news. First came cold water swimming, with fans reporting improvements in energy, mood and sleep.
Now it's all about ice baths - so now you don’t even have to leave your house to find a river, lake or bay in which to freeze your bits off. Instagram is littered with celebrities and wellbeing experts trying out the best ice baths. But for those of us still wedded to our hot baths, that may be still too much of a leap. This is where the cold shower comes in, taking a few moments at the end of your usual shower to reap wellness benefits, as wellbeing entrepreneur Liz Earle, with her beautifully clear complexion, demonstrates below in her cheat's guide to cold showers.
Wim Hof, the Dutch endurance athlete fond of sporting Speedos in the snow, has a lot to answer for. It was he who really took the cold shower trend mainstream. Loved by everyone from Oprah to Tom Cruise to David Beckham, his BBC TV Show, Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof last year, saw him coaxing a group of celebrities, including Gabby Logan and Tamzin Outhwaite into mountain-side ice-baths.
Without £3k to drop on an at-home ice bath, I wanted to know if I could reap the benefits of cold water therapy at home for free. I signed up for the free Wim Hof cold shower challenge.
How to do the Wim Hof cold shower challenge
It takes four weeks and here's what it involves:
- Turn your normal shower cold daily and stay under it for a set amount of time.
- Week 1: start with 15 seconds of cold at the end of your shower
- Weeks 2-4: gradually move up to one minute.
Short of time, 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, founder of women's supplement brand MPowder menopause supplements, who says a daily cold shower helps tackle her perimenopause symptoms such as brain fog and low mood. “It shifts my mindset. I find clarity. I feel less anxious,” she says.
Before getting started, I wanted to find out what it could do for me. Was there science behind the shivering?
What is cold water therapy?
“It’s the use of water that’s less than 15 Celsius for health benefits,” says Dr Miriam Adebibe, co-founder of Victor and Garth clinic in Shoreditch.
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.
What are the health benefits of cold showers and cold water therapy
"Forcing your body to experience very cold temperatures helps to decrease inflammation which can minimise, or eliminate pain," adds Dr Jonathan Leary, an holistic doctor and 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,” he adds.
One study showed that by combining meditation, breathing exercises and cold water therapy, 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.
"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," says Dr Noel Young, clinical innovation associate at blood-testing company Thriva .
Hormetic stress is good for us, agrees Anna Marie Gough, breathwork coach and cold water therapist. “Short, controlled doses of placing ourselves into discomfort and navigating our way through that with our mindset and breath is very powerful and makes us more adaptable to our normal daily stressors.”
"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 but both Dr Adebibe and Dr Leary agree they 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.”
Is cold water therapy good for weight loss?
There aren’t any actual studies to prove this yet but Dr Adebibe says 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). This could mean that cold body treatments have a role in weight management.
The benefits of cold water for your immune system
Dr. Michael Mosley, founder of the Fast 800 Keto Diet and self-experimenter on all things health, is also a cold shower aficionado. He dives in (literally – you hear the gasping noises) in the Cold Shower episode of his Just One Thing BBC podcast. Among the benefits he cites is the potential impact on the immune system: “A randomised controlled trial carried out in the Netherlands in the winter months, showed that volunteers asked to have a 30-second cold shower every morning took 30 per cent fewer days off sick from work, than a control group who had warm showers.”
Dr Adebibe adds 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”. 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." 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. "
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 benefits 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 boost energy, metabolism and mood, deepen sleep, support circulation and immune health and reduce inflammation.
How do you take a cold 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. “Practise 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 dancing the hokey-cokey while you're taking a cold shower, as a distraction method.
Can anyone try cold water therapy?
Always check with your doctor 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.
Verdict: 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.
I started with 15 seconds and by day seven I was standing under the icy cascade for one minute 20 seconds. And it was hell. I had to do some kind of weird running on the spot (my version of the hokey-cokey) to get me through. I didn't do any breathwork as it was, frankly, too much to think about.
I can’t claim that I found the experience life-changing or even that I noticed massive improvements to my mood, energy or circulation.
I did, however, feel a certain buzz after each shower, which I don’t get after my usual warm one. 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 and the surge of endorphins can promote a feeling of euphoria. I can see how it could be helpful for shocking your body into being more energetic after a long flight or even in tackling a hangover.
I wouldn’t describe my buzz 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. Brrrrr.
GET MORE GLOSS: Wild swimming could be the answer to clearing brain fog