Valuable Contrast Showers Benefits: What You Need to Know [2024]

Cold showers this, cold plunge that, and have you tried the ice barrel yet? Look, We may not all be up to taking a freezing-cold shower.

A nice hot, steamy shower  is definitely my cup of tea. Maybe jazz music playing the background and a warmed up towel waiting for you outside. But frankly, we know that cold therapy (cold water) offers a ton of benefits like elevated mood, higher concentration, and reduced inflammation.

SO, what if we combined both?

Contrast showers are the perfect way to benefit from cold exposure without it being to harsh for beginners. It is also a great, easy way to start cold therapy at home with high convenience and low cost. After you get used to that, you may even be able to work up to Joe Rogan style cold plunges.

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Woman doing contrast therapy in hot tub and snow

What are Contrast Showers?

Contrast showers, aka contrast hydrotherapy, is a mixture of hot and cold showers. It’s the process of switching between hot and cold temperatures.

Contrast showers usually consist of alternating between hot water (the hottest setting) and the coolest setting.

When you alternate between hot and cold water, it causes your body to shift its priority – from staying hot (more blood to the core) to staying cool (more blood to extremities). This, in turn, causes interstitial fluid to “move.”

Interstitial fluid is what conducts nutrients from your intestines into your bloodstream, as well as cleaning your lymph nodes.

But hold on, we’ll talk more about the benefits later on!

How do Contrast Showers Work?

Contrast showers are just one form of contrast therapy. Contrast therapy  can be done through sauna use, jacuzzi, ice barrels, and more.

When talking about contrast therapy as a whole it can be done targeting specific and individual body parts as well (Hands, Knees, Wrist, Ankle, etc.).

Contrast showers have been shown to increase blood flow and oxygenation by dilating and contracting blood vessels.

This helps reduce inflammation, delayed onset muscle soreness, and sports injuries. Hence, many athletes use contrast water therapy.

So let’s go ahead and dive into all the ways contrast hydrotherapy can improve your health.

What are The Benefits of a Contrast Shower?

1. Increased Alertness

three cups of coffee

If you struggle with drowsiness in the morning, a contrast shower could be the energizing shock to the system you need to wake up. The sudden shock of the cold water hitting your skin triggers the release of norepinephrine and cortisol. These catecholamines increase alertness and focus.

Multiple studies show that cold water sends signals to your sympathetic nervous system, which primes you for action. Blood circulation increases to deliver oxygen and glucose to your brain and muscles. Your heart rate also goes up as your body works to warm itself back up.

Together, these responses to brief cold exposure may support higher energy levels, especially first thing in the morning. So for those unwilling to give up their caffeine fix, a brisk contrast shower might provide a healthier, more refreshing, and sustainable alertness boost.

2. Boost Your Immune System

Girl blowing her nose

Regular contrast showers may support an immune boost. A 2016 study on cold shower regimens took a sample group of various ages to see the effects of contrast water therapy on sickness. The results ended in a 29% reduction in sickness absence, which could indicate a correlation between contrast showers and illness reduction.

Researchers think that cold water exposure causes metabolic and hormone changes that activate certain white blood cells. The uptick in sympathetic nerve activity also releases norepinephrine, which stimulates immune system cells.

Another theory is that when done regularly, the cold shock and vasoconstriction of contrast showers may increase immune system function. The enhanced blood circulation also allows disease-fighting cells to travel around your body faster.

There is still research ongoing on these specific key benefits.

3. Prevent Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Girl in sports attire stretching

A study done on recreational athletes tested the individuals after leg press-induced DOMS. The groups were separated into two. One used a contrast therapy post workout while the other test group had no air in their recovery. This specific study found that “Contrast water therapy was associated with a smaller reduction, and faster restoration, of strength and power measured by isometric force and jump squat production following DOMS-inducing leg press exercise when compared to PAS.” PAS is passive recovery.

Hot and cold practices are very common forms of treatment for sport-related injuries and physical therapy. Some use targeted contrast therapy, cold therapy machines, or even contrast therapy machines. But how does this exactly work?

Well, we still don’t know all the semantics that go into it, but it’s been around for thousands of years and helping many people. We do know that cold therapy on its own has been shown to constrict blood vessels and aid in muscle recovery. The cold temperatures alleviate inflammation. DOMS is a form of inflammation therefore it would make sense why the cold showers in contrast therapy alleviate DOMS. Hot water causes vasoconstriction, meaning the blood vessels open up. This opening and closing of the blood vessels can also cause increased blood flow aiding healing and recovery as well.

Other studies suggest that cold may just increase the perceptions of recovery. This isn’t proven, but hot water may also cause relief and relax the muscles which may play a role in this benefit as well.

Although there is lots of speculation, we know that it has been very helpful for sports-related injuries, athletes, and many other anecdotal testimonies.

4. Reduce Inflammation

Medical board with "inflammation" written on it

As mentioned above, the cold water portions of a contrast shower can help reduce inflammation throughout the body. We’ve all experienced the nurse icing a sprained ankle or putting a cold compress on a black eye growing up. The cold constricts blood vessels, slowing circulation to the area and alleviating swelling and inflammation.

 The same reasoning applies to inflammation in other areas of the body. Some anecdotal stories attest to experiencing massive improvements in chronic inflammation when using contrast showers, but the studies are still ongoing.

5. Build Mental Resilience

Woman on leg press machine

Look. It is not easy to step into a cold shower every single day. Or when you turn the nob to the hot side it takes mental resilience to turn it back to the cold side.

Building a habit that keeps you challenged and consistent builds mental resilience. It usually motivates you to be resilient in other areas of your life. When I started cold therapy at home this was true for me. I started taking contrast showers, then cold showers, and eventually ice baths. But When I started pushing myself in this tiny way I also started pushing myself in workouts and other beneficial habits.

6. Increased Vascular Resistance 

Person with blood pressure machine

The contrast between hot and cold water during a shower helps increase vascular resistance and blood circulation. Warm water causes blood vessels to dilate and expand, increasing blood flow. Then the rush of cold water causes vessels to constrict, pushing blood back towards the center.

These cycles of hot and cold create a pumping effect that strengthens blood vessel walls over time. Alternating between hot and cold also increases shear stress, which triggers the release of nitric oxide. This compound further widens blood vessels, improving overall circulation.

Multiple studies confirm that the contrast in temperature increases vascular resistance and endothelial function. Simply put, regularly using hot then cold water forces a beneficial adaptation in your circulatory system. Enhanced blood flow ensures oxygen, nutrients, and inflammation-fighting white blood cells reach tissues faster.

7. Increase Cold Tolerance

Woman with scarf and hat covering half of her face

Exposure to cold water is not for the faint. I think many try to start at level 100, Wim hof style, and then aren’t consistent. When I first started cold exposure, I began with contrast showers, which helped me build up my overall tolerance to the cold temperatures.

Your body starts to become accustomed and eventually, you can switch to cold showers alone if desired. Contrast showers are a more gradual way to improve cold tolerance before transitioning to full cold exposure.

How to Take a Contrast Shower:

There are many methods and intervals when it comes to contrast shower therapy. 

When taking a contrast shower, start by setting the water temperature to hot and take a regular shower for a couple of minutes.

Then turn the temperature down to cold for around 1 minute. The cold water shock will be intense at first, but try to stay under the cold water for at least 30-60 seconds. After a cold burst, switch the temperature back to hot for 2-3 minutes to warm your body back up. Repeat this cycle of switching from hot to cold 2-3 times, ending on cold.

  • 2-3 minutes of warm water
  • 1 minute of cold shower 
  • 2-3 minutes of warm water
  • 1 minute cold shower 
  • 2-3 minutes of warm water 
  • Finish off with 2 minutes of cold water

Aim to spend longer intervals in the hot water (2-3 minutes) and shorter bursts for the cold water (30-60 seconds). Get into a rhythm of hot, cold, hot, cold. The cold portions typically range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes max. As you acclimate, you can increase last longer than the cold but don’t exceed 4 minutes per cold burst. 

The entire contrast shower should last 10-15 minutes in total. Always end on a round of cold water for the stimulating benefits.

Practical Tips for a Hot and Cold Shower:

  • Massage your skin: When you are doing the cold and hot intervals, try massaging your skin and scalp during the hot shower. It helped me alleviate the tension. During the cold showers, you can feel your scalp tighten up, so massaging can be beneficial.

 

  • Breathing techniques:  Deep and controlled breaths help you tolerate the cold better and allow you to really dial in and slow down.

 

  • Do what you can and build up: The blast of cold water can be a lot for people with low cold tolerance. Hence, it is important to start at a pace that is challenging but not harmful. The goal is to stay consistent and build up your tolerance. Consistency compounds!

Who Shouldn’t Try Contrast  Showers?

The benefits of contrast showers are amazing, but maybe not so amazing for everyone. Before you consider trying a contrast shower consult your doctor especially if you fit under one of these categories: 

  • People with dry skin
  • Those with cardiovascular diseases
  • People with respiratory diseases
  • Pregnant women
  • Individuals with hypersensitivity to the cold
Woman in hat and coat with steam coming out of her mouth because of how cold it is

Long Story Short:

Contrast showers provide a ton of science-backed benefits – from accelerated muscle recovery to enhanced mental strength. By alternating hot and cold water, they stimulate your circulatory system and strengthen blood vessels.

Using contrast showers can be the ideal way to build up cold tolerance before progressing to more intense cold plunges or ice baths. However, consistency is crucial to seeing results, so aim to incorporate the hot/cold cycles into your daily routine.

Personally, contrast showers served as my gateway into cold water therapy. I’m now able to handle so much more cold exposure thanks to gradually acclimating with a simple hot and cold shower habit.

Give contrast therapy a try – you may be surprised by the results you start to feel. Contrast therapy’s ability to push your body and focus your mind make it worth the momentary discomfort. Lean into the alternating warmth and chill to build mental grit alongside physical strength. Hot then cold, tension then release – a set of contrasts that forge a resilient you.

Contrast Showers: FAQ

What is the science behind contrast showers?

Contrast showers, also known as contrast hydrotherapy, work by stimulating your circulatory system. The hot water increases blood flow, while the cold water reduces inflammation. This alternating exposure to hot and cold water has been found to have numerous health benefits.

How long should I switch from hot to cold water during a contrast shower?

The ideal time to switch from hot to cold water during a contrast shower is around 1 minute. This allows your body to adapt to changing temperatures and reap the benefits of both hot and cold water exposure.

Do contrast showers have any benefits besides reducing muscle soreness?

Yes, contrast showers have a range of other benefits. They can strengthen your immune system, improve blood circulation, and even enhance your mood. The contrasting temperatures also heighten your senses and provide an “awake” sensation.

How often should I take contrast showers?

The frequency o your contrast showers will vary depending on physical goals and considerations. Usually it is encouraged to take them 3-7 times a week post-workout or in the morning.

Consult with a doctor before starting any contrast therapy routines.

Can I just take cold showers instead of using contrast showers?

While cold showers alone can provide some benefits, contrast showers may be the first step.

Depending on your cold tolerance you may want to consider beginning with contrast showers.

There is still research being done regarding the differences  of cold showers vs contrast showers.

About the Author, Sophia Victoria
About the Author, Sophia Victoria

Sophi is a health, wellness, and lifestyle blogger who uses, research, and tests products and theories to help others improve their mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. With her own eating disorder journey, regulating her hormones, and working with 10+ nutritionists, she deeply understands the health and wellness. Sophi is also well-knowledged in self-development and committed to sharing her knowledge, experience, and expertise with her readers.

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