I can’t stand the cold. And if someone had told me a year ago that cold showers would be a regular part of my morning routine, I would’ve told them they were crazy. But here I am today, writing about why I’ve incorporated this practice into my daily routine... and why you may want to consider it as well.
One quick contextual note before we continue... my entire shower is not cold - I’m not a masochist after all. I start with a normal, hot shower, but once I’m done and about to get out, I turn off the hot water tap and end my shower with 30 - 60 seconds of pure cold water. Brrrrrrrrr.
Why do such a thing? To understand the science behind - and the power of - this practice, it helps to take a look back at the historical uses of water as a therapeutic treatment.
What is hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is simply the use of water as a natural medicine or treatment. Leveraging water in its various forms, such as ice or steam, and at various temperatures, from ice cold to practically scalding, has been used to treat various maladies since the beginning of time.
Ancient Romans used natural spring waters to heal their aches and pains, while ancient Greeks leveraged cold baths for health benefits, despite having already invented water heating systems. Various cultures in countries including India, China, and Egypt have practiced and embraced hydrotherapy as part of their naturopathic treatments. And both ancient and modern Japanese embrace a practice known as Shinto, which includes a ritual called Misogi where they stand under an icy-cold waterfall and allow the water to cleanse their spirit.
Fast-forward to the present day and we see continued evidence of water’s use as therapy all around. Sports doctors use ice baths to heal athletes, general practitioners recommend steam to relieve nasal congestion, and chiropractors recommend heating pads which, before modern conveniences, consisted of hot water in a rubber bag applied to the sore area. But how does all of this equate to kicking off your day with an ice-cold blast of water?
Can cold showers improve health?
Research published in the North American Journal of Sciences (NAJS) revealed some interesting findings regarding the consistent use of cold showers as a form of therapy. For one, cold showers result in a significant increase in dopamine concentrations. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates learning, attention, emotional responses, and physical movement.)
In addition, recent research has found a link between low dopamine levels and the brain’s ability to form new memories, prompting additional research into dopamine’s impact on Alzheimer’s disease. The correlation between cold showers and increased dopamine has the potential to positively impact natural approaches taken toward preventing cognitive decline.
Another benefit of cold showers reported by NAJS is the reduction of cortisol production, also known as the dreaded stress hormone. When our cortisol levels are at their best, this hormone plays a role in regulating our metabolism, reducing inflammation in the body, balancing the salt and water equation within our bodies, maintaining healthy blood pressure, and helping with memory formation.
But when cortisol levels are excessive, it often leads to belly fat, high blood pressure, and mood swings which show as anxiety, depression and/or irritability. Additional clinical research studies affirmed that cold showers not only decreased inflammation in study participants but also showcased two additional benefits. Study participants reported significant analgesic effects as well as substantial benefits associated with improved sleep patterns.
But the scientifically-reported benefits of cold showers don't end there. The skin, which is the body's largest organ, is laden with cold receptors. When the skin is shocked by the sensation of cold water, it sends an astounding number of electrical impulses from the peripheral nerve endings to the brain, a process that has been shown to decrease depressive symptoms.
Most notably is a study conducted in the Netherlands with more than 3,000 participants which revealed that consistently ending a shower with 30+ seconds of cold water resulted in a 29% reduction of self-reported sick leave from work.
In addition, the researchers found that when a regular exercise regime accompanied the cold shower practice, the sick leave reduction increased to 54%. Upon completion of the study, the most commonly reported beneficial effect was an increase in perceived energy levels, with many of the participants reporting comparisons equivalent to the effect of caffeine.
If cold showers have the potential to benefit the brain, reduce belly fat, serve as a pain reliever, AND increase energy levels, then what’s the catch? Does it require a plunge into the arctic?
How cold does a cold shower need to be?
While research shows that there are benefits achieved at 32o C (89.6o F), the results are far more substantial at 14o C (57.2o F). As an example, dopamine concentrations increased by 250% at 32o C, but saw a 530% increase at 14o C.
And while you’re likely not going to measure the temperature of your water, getting it as cold as possible is ideal. I currently live in Denver and in the winter our water can get pretty cold. I’ll admit that the first few seconds often take my breath away, but at about the 12-second mark my body adjusts and the cold shower starts to feel invigorating rather than torturous.
And (knock on wood), after having faithfully practiced this regimen for the last 90-days, I have yet to get sick or catch a cold. Considering its winter, I commute on public transit, and I spend a good bit of time on planes, I call that a victory.
How long should a cold shower last?
Thankfully, this too was measured in the Netherlands study. They assigned participants to three different “timed” groups: 30-, 60-, and 90- seconds. While common sense may lead you to think that longer is better, the research revealed that those in the 30-second group received benefits equal to those in the 60- and 90-second groups. So, 30-seconds is all it takes to reap the many rewards associated with consistently taking cold showers.
Bringing it all together...
Enjoying the benefits of cold showers is easy. Start with your normal hot shower, then end with 30-seconds of pure, cold water. Do it consistently - daily, if possible - and preferably in the morning due to its energizing aspect. Then...
Enjoy the 7 science-backed benefits of kick-starting your day with a cold shower:
- Increased dopamine
- Reduction of cortisol
- Improved sleep patterns
- Pain-relieving effects
- Improved sleep patterns
- Fewer sick days
- Increased energy levels
And the best part? No known side effects and no prescription needed. Just a healthy, all-natural way to treat your body with kindness and caring.
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