Is cold water bad for you? 2 experts break down the latest findings

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  • As Wim Hof raves about the benefits, we ask three independent experts for their take.

    We’ve bought you guides to cold water therapy and ice baths, yet search for the question “is cold water bad for you?” is rising.

    Wondering why? Well, Freeze The Fear with Wim Hof hit screens last week – a BBC reality TV show that sees world-famous stars undertake icy challenges with the Iceman himself. That, plus over the last few years, icy immersion has garnered millions of devotees around the world who rave about the supposed physical and mental health benefits.

    That said, many still aren’t convinced. One 2020 study published in the Int J Environ Res Public Health. journal found that, while for more experienced cold water swimmers, the practice can bring benefits, for those who haven’t tried it before, there are clear risks.

    Yet more recent research indicates nothing of the sort, implying that cold water therapy could reduce chronic stress, battle depression symptoms, and even help to fight autoimmune disorders.

    Confused? Us too. That’s why we’ve chatted to Dr Nirusa Kumaran, medical director and founder of Elemental Health Clinic, and Laura Fullerton, CEO and Founder of Monk, to get their verdict.

    Keep scrolling.

    So: is cold water bad for you? 

    Short answer, according to both of the experts we asked? Not if practiced properly.

    “There are many health benefits of being exposed to cold water either via cold showers, baths, swimming and even cold water plunges,” shares Kumaran. These are mainly due to processes called autophagy and mitophagy, she goes on, processes where damaged cells are removed by the body allowing new cells to form or develop.

    So how do they work to boost your health? Well, by enabling autophagy and mitophagy, you can help to prevent many chronic diseases and conditions, shares the doctor, including:

    • Cancer
    • Chronic fatigue
    • Autoimmune conditions
    • Inflammation
    • Low energy
    • Slow metabolism
    • Weight gain.

    Not only that, but studies have found that it can improve mental health, speed muscle recovery, increase physical performance, strengthen immunity, protect brain function, and help with pain management, too.

    One study showed that ice baths increase norepinephrine (aka adrenaline) by 530% and dopamine (the reward hormone) by 250%. “The explosion of these two neurotransmitters make your happiness and focus soar, relieves pain and depression, and makes you feel on top of the world,” adds Fullerton.

    She adds that cold water isn’t a new trend – as much as it is currently being talked about – quite the opposite. “It’s been touted for its health benefits since 3500 BC,” the CEO explains. Fun fact: even Ancient Greek thinkers Hippocrates and Plato touted the physiological benefits of cold water in hydropathy, and the Ancient Romans had cool pools in their infamous baths.

    Fast forward to the present day and there’s incredible research in progress at the University of Cambridge, she shares. “So far, it shows that cold water therapy may be protective against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, which is just incredible.”

    Why is there a misconception about cold water being bad for you?

    Good question – because, for some, it’s not a benefit-touting-cure-all.

    Kumaran explains that, while short durations of cold water exposure (think a couple of minutes or less) should be fine for most, prolonged periods in cold water could be dangerous if you’re not acclimatised.

    Think about it: you wouldn’t run a half marathon if you hadn’t trained (we’d hope), so suddenly immersing yourself in cold water for a prolonged period of time doesn’t seem like the best of ideas, either.

    Not only may the initial cold shock cause muscle weakness, difficulties with movement and cramping, but the sudden exposure to cold could induce a shock response in your body in the form of hyperventilation (breathing too fast) or a heart arrhythmia (a fast or irregular heart beat), she warns. Of course, really prolonged cold exposure also runs the risk of causing hypothermia.

    While no one’s advocating for putting yourself or your health at risk – think low and slow – Fullerton points out that cold water immersion is meant to be somewhat uncomfortable.. “Unfortunately, depression is now the most prevalent mental health disorder in the world, and cases of anxiety have almost doubled since the pandemic began,” she goes on.

    “However, the silver lining is that people are more willing to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and try things like cold water therapy to experience the incredible mental and emotional benefits that come with it.”

    Bottom line: cold water immersion has often been thought of as dangerous because doing too much, too soon can be dangerous.

    Aim for: 20 seconds or so if you’re a beginner, and anything between two to three minutes after that for optimum health benefits.

    Kumaran also recommends speaking to a healthcare professional, if you have any doubts. Cold exposure is not recommended for anyone who’s pregnant or has a heart problem, high blood pressure, or asthma.

    What does cold water immersion feel like?

    Again, many who practice it regularly rave about the mental health benefits, more than anything.

    So how does Fullerton explain the feeling you get post-dip?

    “I first tried cold water therapy at a breathwork training and ice bath workshop, and I felt incredible afterwards. I fell in love with the soaring endorphins that follow each dip, and the effect it has on my mental state.”

    “For me, ice baths are like pressing the reset button: if I can survive two minutes in the cold, I can handle anything! They make me feel resilient, strong, and this mindset ripples out into all areas of my life.”

    How to try cold water immersion yourself, according to the pros:

    1. Start at a warmish temperature (between 10 to 15 degrees Celsius). You can fill your bath or even just stand under the shower.

    2. Start your timer and aim to stay under the cold water for anything from 20 seconds to a minute.

    3. Step out and try and notice the after-effects on both your mind and body – those who regularly use ice therapy note a tingling sensation in their limbs and mental clarity.

    4. As you become more experienced, you can change both the temperature and the length of time you try your immersion for.

    “Remember, this isn’t a punishment – this is radical self-care, and you deserve to meet the version of you on the other side of the ice. Stronger, more resilient, and in control,” advises Fullerton.

    Keen to give it a go?

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