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Chill Out: The Cool Conversation on Cold Showers and Their Hot Benefits

Chill Out: The Cool Conversation on Cold Showers and Their Hot Benefits  

October 15, 20237 min read

Let’s be honest, cold showers are not that enticing to the average human.  We may already know that there are some benefits to taking cold showers — or doing cold exposure therapy of some sort — but we may not actually know why.  

When it comes to all the chatter of health nuts and science geeks alike, sometimes our ears, eyes, and mind get oversaturated with all their “you should”s and “you shouldn’t”s.  I find that when I actually understand the WHY behind their “should”s, I can appreciate their passion for the subject at hand, and I’m much more likely to implement it on my own, in my own way.

So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the magic of cold exposure, particularly, the cold shower.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

There are two different kinds of stress: 

  • Distress: “bad” stress that is the result of/can result in anxiety, irritability, emotional stress, insufficient sleep, chronic muscle tension or inflammation, poor gut health, and other no-goods.

  • Eustress: “good” stress that can trigger cellular responses that have a net gain of greater adaptability, endurance, resilience, and other superstar positive results because they are presented in lower doses, rather than if the same stressors were presented at higher doses.  Think intermittent fasting vs. starving to death. 

* Examples of eustress: physical exercise, cold exposure, hot exposure (like saunas), fasting, certain breathwork, and even social stressors like job interviews, getting over rejection, learning new skills, staying on track with personal development, etc. 

When you stress a muscle (in a healthy, mindful way), and give it time to recover, it grows.  The same is true with other acute stressors like cold exposure.  Not only do you get a nice mental victory when you power through something uncomfortable, but your body responds positively too.  As long as you are not submerged in ice water 24 hours a day, and you give your body a chance to be stressed and get out of it, then you will begin to see vitality and resilience in a multitude of ways

Before I go any further… 

I want you to get a feel for the incredible benefits (which are all proven) of cold exposure, so you can see whether or not reading on is even worth your time.  (SPOILER: it is).

  1. Increases mood and alertness

  2. Aids in weight loss

  3. Reduces anxiety and depression

  4. Increases testosterone in men

  5. Boosts immune system

  6. Excellent for brain health

  7. Strengthens will power

  8. Lowers inflammation; reducing pain in the body

  9. Helps muscles recover more efficiently

…and more.

The WHY:

Now, let’s get into some basic science, so we can actually understand why we would put our sweet, tender, luscious bodies through 30 or 60 seconds – or several minutes –  of cold water.

When the body is cold, all it wants to do is get warm. It wants to stay alive.  The body’s natural reaction to the cold is to produce more energy so it can generate enough heat to keep us from freezing to death.

Our good ol’ pal norepinephrine uses its signaling molecules to create more mitochondria in the fat tissue, since that is where you have your energy reserves and is how you stay insulated.  

If you’re not totally clear on what norepinephrine (as a neurotransmitter) does, or how it relates to adrenaline, aka epinephrine (as a hormone), check out this 3-minute video of an Australian man with a fantastic mustache explain it in simple terms here.

Norepinephrine is increased

It sends signals to the fat cells 

Fat cells activate a gene called UCP1 (uncoupling protein 1) which causes mitochondria in the fat cells to make more mitochondria

Having more mitochondria allows you to metabolize more fat to generate more energy, and thus more heat, keeping you alive and burning more fat.  

This is the science behind “take cold showers to lose weight”.  Clearly, you gotta eat right, move enough, sleep decently, etc., all to actually lose weight, but cold showers can be another tool in your tool belt on this journey. if you so choose.

Increased mood, energy, and willpower

Personally, this is the area that is enticing to me.  Sure, it’s cool (<-- see what I did there) to know the physical health benefits of cold exposure; but what draws me toward the cold time and time again is the rush, joy, and sense of accomplishment after withstanding the cold for even a short period of time.

Here’s the low-down:

Norepinephrine and dopamine are exponentially increased when you expose yourself to the cold. 

Both norepinephrine and dopamine are depression-fighting forces.  It is suggested that cold showers can be used to prevent and treat depression“Due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an antidepressant effect.” – Nikolai A Shevchuk

Cheaper than coffee, and you’ll sleep better too!

When you shock your body with something like cold water, you can’t help but wake up and stop thinking about your to do lists, or how that person hurt your feelings, or what you’re doing for dinner, or where your life is going.  You have no choice but to FEEL and be completely present, at least at the initial shock.  

Though your body might be in panic mode, your mind is very clear — or, just focused on one thing: the NOW, the cold.  After you end your shower (or finish dipping in one of Earth’s cold liquid playgrounds), your heart has been pumping faster than normal, oxygen has been flowing at a greater rate through your body, and your skin (hello, largest organ) and brain have been shooting all kinds of “holy sh*t” signals back and forth to wake you up and make you THRIVE.  How could you not feel more energized?

If that’s not enough for you, how about that glorious, triumphant feeling of unwavering discipline when you did something you didn’t want to do? 

The HOW:

Breathe and get wet, baby!

There are a plethora of ways to do the cold-shower thing, and honestly, the best way is the way that you’ll actually do it.

  • The main thing is BREATH.  You don’t have to go all Wim Hof on ‘em — though many people have found success with using his method to prepare for the cold — but the ideal scenario is for you to do some kind of breathwork before you turn your knob or jump right in.  It could be anything really, but the idea is to bring more oxygen into your body so you adapt easier.  All it has to be is just a minute (or 2, or 5) of sloooooowww breaths.

  • You can start with a hot shower, then do some breathing right before you turn the knob — all the way — or you can start cold and go hot after.  If you’re a total beast, you can just do straight-up cold!  Play around and see what you like.

  • We want the benefits of cold exposure, but if you force yourself in a not-so-loving way to stick it out and now you never do a cold shower again… well, that’s not the point.  The point is to find a way to make it a doable (and hopefully consistent) practice, while simultaneously pushing your own limits.  Start with 30 seconds.  Then try a minute.  Work up to a song or two: Epic, cinematic scores always help, but so does disco.  Soon enough you’ll be wanting more, believe it or not.

How cold is “cold” anyway?

40 degrees F. for 20 seconds, or 57 degrees F. for a few minutes is what Mr. Science/Facts/Stats says.

Honestly, cold is cold when you’re currently under a warm showerhead.  I don’t take a thermometer to the water when I crank it to the cold side.  When you’ve committed to “cold”, all you need to do is DO IT, and then when you start feeling a little more confident, see if your knob will go further.  

Curious for MORE?

Dr. Rhonda Patrick is an INCREDIBLE source for so many health topics, but today we are looking specifically at cold exposure:

Other videos on cold showers that I found useful:

It’s uncomfortable.  It’s cold.  It’s not "fun" by traditional definition.  But if you’ve made it this far in the Cold Water Chronicles, you know now that there is so much GOOD in store for you if you just jump in and get chilly widdit!!

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