Cold therapy is currently popping off, but what’s interesting is that it isn’t something new! Cold therapy has been around for centuries.
Everyone from famous philosophers like Plato and Hippocrates to A-list celebrities like The Rock and Kendall Jenner has tried it.
But why? And how has it stood the test of time?
Well, this old technique has provided value.It’s been used to build mental resilience, improve overall health, reduce muscle pain, and even treat athlete’s injuries.
But, here’s the catch – with all the hype in the media, it’s become a bit tricky to separate what exactly is a proven benefit and what’s a bit of an overkill.
No worries though; you’re in the right place! By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll understand the benefits of cold therapy and exactly how you can apply them now to reach your wellness goals.
But before we talk about cold therapy benefits, we need to define what cold therapy is.
Table of Contents
What is Cold Therapy?
First things first. What is cold therapy?
Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is a treatment where the body is exposed to ice cold water temperatures (≤ 15 ˚C/59 ˚F) for physiological and psychological benefits.
It triggers natural responses in the body, such as reduced swelling, relieving pain, and improving mood. Cold water exposure can be done through various methods, like cold showers, cold water immersion, cold heat therapy, cryotherapy chambers, and open water swimming.
What Are The Top Cold Therapy Benefits?
1. Enhanced Recovery
You know that feeling after an intense leg day when even getting up from the toilet seems like a daunting task?
Yep, that’s DOMS– put technically, delayed onset muscle soreness.
Research has shown that exposure to cold temperatures within 24 to 72 degrees after exercise can stimulate blood circulation and decrease inflammation, leading to faster tissue repair and recovery.
Wow, that was a mouthful. What does that mean for you?
A few cold therapy sessions a week could aid in accelerated muscle recovery if you’re dealing with sports injuries, recovering from surgery, or simply muscle soreness.
How? Well, several factors come into play. It mainly comes down to reduced core temperature, reduced swelling, vasoconstriction, and even the placebo effect.
Let’s talk timing.
Studies suggest that if you’re focused on building muscle or sculpting your physique (think bodybuilders), it’s best to wait a few hours after exercise before engaging in cold therapy. They recommend this because cold water immersion therapy immediately after weightlifting may dull the long-term effects of hypertrophy (a type of inflammation) and muscle-building.
On the other hand, if you prioritize performance over muscle-building (imagine soccer players or military personnel), cold therapy right after exercise is the way to go.
This is also why you always see ice baths or cold plunges in sports medicine.
2. Reduced Pain
Have you ever wondered why doctors often apply something cold before giving you a shot or working on your tooth?
It’s because cold temperatures help to numb pain.
The secret lies in how cold therapy works. It helps constrict blood vessels, decreases swelling, and tame inflammation – which are common culprits behind pain.
Again, this is why you see athletes cold plunging after training or right after a game.
A study conducted in 2020 concluded that local and non-local cryotherapy can be low-risk and easy treatment options to add to chronic pain management in specific patients. This shows us the efficiency cold therapy may have in treating pain, such as musculoskeletal soreness, arthritis, and postoperative pain.
We still need more research on this topic, but a cold shower post-workout may be worth a shot!
3. Increased Resilience
Another benefit of cold therapy is how it enhances the body’s adaptability to stress (not just cold stress), which in turn increases your resilience.
Why the heck would you ever want to increase stress?
Well, there are two types of stress: chronic (bad) stress versus hormetic (good) stress.
You know that feeling when you have about 100 emails waiting to be opened by you, customers complaining, ten meetings, and it feels like you can’t catch a breath – Yeah, make this feeling last a couple weeks, months, or even years, and you get chronic stress.
Hormetic stress, however, is that “sweet spot” where a little stress can work wonders for building resilience.
Enter cold therapy.
When you do it right, it becomes a dose of hormetic stress. Think of it like a muscle: when working out, you put it under a certain amount of healthy stress, and it expands, grows, and adapts.
I have personally been able to grow my “resilience muscle” significantly. It is a mental and physical challenge, but what amazes me is how the body responds. Something incredible happens when you embrace the temporary discomfort. You stick it out, start to build confidence in yourself, and the resilience bleeds into a ton of other areas of your life.
4. Boost Immunity
About a year ago, my brother started incorporating cold plunges into his routine, and the results were insane. While the rest of us would get super sick, he would be fine.
This may be the reason why-Exposure to cold temperatures may increase the production of white blood cells.
White blood cells are essential for fighting diseases and infections. In a scientific investigation, the impact of immersing individuals in cold water for 1 hour at 14°C was examined over six weeks.
This study focused on the immune system and revealed that cold water immersion activated T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes. Additionally, it resulted in increased levels of IL-6, CD3, CD4, and CD8, indicating heightened immune system activity.
Long story short, cold therapy may benefit your immune system by increasing red and white blood cells.
5. Combat Depressive Symptoms
Throughout my eating disorder treatment, I met a diverse range of people. I met a girl who struggled with depression, self-harming, and ruminating thoughts. We started talking, and the subject of coping mechanisms came up.
She shared how she had tried everything to help her feel better, and nothing seemed to help. Until she started cold showers… I’m serious!
Exposure to cool temperatures in the form of ice baths and cold plunges triggers the release of endorphins and dopamine, neurotransmitters that can significantly enhance your mood.
The shocking water temperature on the skin can also cause your brain to stop ruminating thoughts and shift its focus completely to the physical sensations.
While cold therapy does not replace professional treatment for depression, It can positively impact someone’s mental health. (take my friend as an example.)
One of the most underrated benefits of cold therapy, in my opinion.
Research suggests that cold therapy releases norepinephrine which directly correlates to symptoms of depression. Cryotherapy also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.
6. Increased Metabolic Health
Yup! Cold exposure can help you out in your weight loss efforts.
One study tested cold therapy’s effects on 11 young men’s metabolic health.
They measured resting energy expenditure, substrate metabolism, skin temperature, superficial muscle activity, thermal comfort perception, heart rate variability, and hemodynamics of the forearm and abdominal regions. They measured the variables across four periods: warm period, at 31%, and 64% of individuals’ cold exposure time until shivering occurred.
All that to say, resting energy expenditure increased by 31%.
The body activates thermogenesis when exposed to cooler temperatures, generating heat and burning calories.
There are two types of thermogenesis:
The muscles contract (shiver) to generate warmth. Our bodies also undergo a process where white adipose tissue converts into brown fatty tissue cells.
Why the heck should you care about these different colored fats?
Well, white fat is the typical fat you think of, the one that in excess can be detrimental to your health. Brown fat, is a good type of fat, it is similar to muscle. It is full of Mitochondria (the good old powerhouse of the cell) and can actually burn fat when exposed to cold. It’s main purpose is to keep your core temperature stabilized and is usually located around your vital organs! So when you are exposed to frigid temperatures this fat activates in attempts to keep your body warm.
This activation allows us to burn more fat as fuel and possibly turn beige fat (not white and not brown) into brown fat. The greater amount of brown adipose tissue we have, the more fat-burning potential our bodies possess.
If you want to learn more about brown, beige, and white fat I recommend listening to this episode of Susanna Søberg and Andrew Huberman:
Kind of self-explanatory; this refers to generating heat in the body without shivering. This form of thermogenesis occurs through the activation of brown fat, which is controlled by the release of norepinephrine (fight-or-flight hormone) when exposed to cold temperatures.
Now, this doesn’t mean binge-watch Gilmore Girls, down three packs of Oreos, and hop into the ice barrel to counteract your previous decisions.
Cold therapy is merely a good ADDITION to a balanced diet and lifestyle and can help your weight loss attempts.
7. Reduced Inflammation
If you’ve ever sprained your ankle or fell on your wrist, you’ve most likely had someone put ice on the affected area. Why?
When cold temperatures are applied to an inflamed area, blood vessels constrict, limiting blood flow and reducing the release of inflammatory molecules.
This is why mini-you felt relief when that bag of frozen peas was on your ankle after spraining it. Cooling helps alleviate swelling, pain, and discomfort associated with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis or sports injuries.
A study published in 2021, suggests that drastic temperature changes (hot or cold) can cause an increase in white blood cells.
Increased white blood cells = Less inflammation + Healthier immune system.
8. Increased Mental Clarity
Cold exposure is great for everyone looking to increase mental clarity and concentration (so… most people).
Something interesting happens when you take cold showers or dip into cold water. Your body releases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter known to enhance attention and mental sharpness. In fact, the levels of norepinephrine can increase by a significant 200-500%!
Not only that, but cold therapy also activates the sympathetic nervous system, which plays an essential role in overall brain function and keeping you wide awake.
Personally, I’ve experienced a noticeable improvement in my mental state after taking cold showers, especially when I’ve been sitting at my desk for a long time. It’s quick refreshment that helps me stay on top of my game.
9. Improved Lymphatic Function
Cold water immersion and other forms of deliberate cold exposure have been shown to improve lymphatic function. The lymphatic system is crucial in the following ways:
- Maintaining your body’s fluid levels
- Reducing edema/swelling
- Maintaining healthy blood pressure
- Fighting off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens
- Absorbing fats and proteins from your intestine.
Interestingly, studies suggest that combining cold therapy with applied pressure can boost your lymphatic function. Let me explain,
A study found that people had a significant increase in lymph flow (p < 0.01); when they tried combined cold therapy and pressure. Yes, it’s a big deal.
It means that toxins can be flushed out efficiently, muscle fatigue reduced, and excess fluid from the body drained. The benefits of cold water just keep on going!
10. Improved Sleep
How can cold therapy improve your sleep? Wouldn’t it make you feel more alert and awake?
Yes and no. Your welcome!
Ok, but it seriously depends on the person and how cold adapted they are.
If you are someone who has built up a high tolerance for these extreme environments, it can help transition your body from alertness (sympathetic state) to relaxation (parasympathetic state), resulting in a slower heart rate. You have probably heard how keeping your room cooler at night can aid in a better night’s rest—same concept.
Now, if you are a newbie or your physiology is more impacted by these cold temperature, you want to engage in cold water therapy earlier on in your day.
Dr. Andrew Huberman has some valuable advice on this topic. He suggests that engaging in short-term cold exposure in the morning or early afternoon is the best approach to avoid interfering with your circadian rhythm. Since your core body temperature is the coldest in the morning time, it won’t shock your body as much, nor interfere with that natural cycle.
11. Improved Skin Health
There is still research to be made on the correlation between cold exposure and skin appearance.
Cold temperatures tighten cuticles and pores (this prevents them from clogging) and can prevent the skin from being stripped of natural oils. These two things already significantly impact your skin’s appearance.
As discussed previously, cold can also reduce inflammation. So If you struggle with puffiness or redness, face cryotherapy may be something to consider.
12. Increased Will Power
Building and maintaining willpower is challenging, especially regarding new habits. I mean, those Oreos are calling your name and it’s a little bit too cold to go to the gym, just go tomorrow!
No shame; we all have struggled with this at some point. There was a period in my life when I dealt with binge eating. I tried everything to stop myself from engaging in the urges, but none of them seemed to work for me.
I committed to taking a cold shower every time I would get an urge to overeat.
Let’s just say, that urges subsided. Then I started doing cold exposure voluntarily, it gave me a great start to the day, and also helped me increase my resilience in other areas of my life.
Though research is lacking in this area, many people, including myself, have benefited firsthand from this tool to help break habits and cycles.
13. Wound Healing Acceleration
Cold water immersion may help your wounds and heal faster and accelerate the overall recovery process. How?
When cold temperatures are applied to a wound, blood vessels constrict, increasing blood flow, and minimizing bleeding. The cool temperatures can also relieve pain and overall numb the wound temporarily.
Cold therapy may also stimulate the release of immune cells (aka, help regenerate tissues and close the wound.)
15. Reduced Muscle Spasms
I have never personally dealt with muscle spasms, but I can imagine they are no fun.
Luckily, cold therapy may be a natural and effective solution for some to help reduce those spasms. Exposing your muscles to cool temperatures has a calming effect on the nerves that cause excessive contractions.
So, by using cold packs or trying out ice massage techniques, you can relax your muscles, ease those spasms, and restore normal muscle function.
Whether you’re dealing with exercise-induced muscle spasms or chronic conditions, cryotherapy can be a beneficial technique for effectively managing muscle spasms.
16. Improved Circulation
At some point, you have probably heard of the importance of circulation. Get the blood flowing, improve heart health, accelerated wound healing, etc. So I won’t bore you with the details.
A study conducted by researchers in the Journal of Athletic Training observed ten healthy adults who underwent a 30-minute contrast water therapy session.
One lower leg was submerged in cold water while the other remained above water.
The study showed that contrast water therapy enhanced circulation and increased oxygen levels in the muscles of the submerged leg.
Enhanced circulation means more waste gets eliminated from the body. As a result, organs, muscles, and tissues benefit from improved blood flow, leading to better overall health. What are you waiting for? Get plunging! Just kidding… check with your doctor first.
17. Improved Mood
This has worked for me!
Exposure to cold temperatures stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals, which enhances your mood and provides a euphoric feeling.
Blasting your favorite song with the windows rolled down, laughing until you can’t breathe, and absolutely crushing a workout. That’s the euphoric feeling I’m referring to.
As we discussed above, cold therapy increases norepinephrine by 200-300%. The increased levels lead to a significant shift in overall mood and a greater sense of well-being. Cols showers ALWAYS leave me in a better mood!
18. Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels
Ever experienced that post-carb or sugar-rich meal sensation? Full of energy!
For about an hour- then you’re ready to hibernate for a couple of months.
This is all due to blood sugar levels.
Intermittent cold therapy has shown some benefits in stabilizing blood glucose. This makes sense, considering it also has positive impacts on metabolism! Again, research has been mainly tested on animals so we aren’t positive of all the effect this may have on humans.
But, worst case scenario, you gain many other benefits from cold therapy!
Can You start Cold Therapy at Home?
1. Cold showers:
This is my personal favorite form of cold exposure for beginners. You can do it whenever you want, save lots of money, and I just love the overall convenience.
Here’s how you can start:
- Begin with warm water for a few minutes.
- Gradually lower the temperature to a level you can handle for about 30 seconds.
- Repeat the hot-to-cold transition three times.
- Feel the refreshing effect on your whole body.
- Play your favorite songs and try to focus on them rather than the physical sensations you are feeling.
- Concentrate on your breathing and try to control its rhythm to the best of your ability.
2. Ice Barrel:
I believe this and cold plunge tubs are the best options once you’ve tried cold showers and are committed to sticking to them. You get a lifetime of cold therapy for the price of a few sessions at spas, and you have the convenience of being at home.
Also, cold showers are usually ok during the wintertime. Still, your shower may need to be cooler in the summer to see the effect truly.
Here’s how you can start:
- Set up the ice barrel in a stable location.
- Fill the barrel with water to a comfortable level.
- Add ice to lower the water temperature. (This step may vary depending on the ice barrel you purchase)
- Wait for the water to cool.
- Test the water temperature for comfort.
- Slowly immerse your body in the ice barrel, starting from the lower body and working up.
- Stay submerged in the ice barrel for a 1-5 minutes, gradually increasing as you get more comfortable.
- Focus on controlled breathing to relax.
- Repeat this 1-3 times.
- Warm up and dry off with towels or by taking off wet clothes.
- Due to the ice barrel setup, you can watch a youtube video or your favorite show to distract your mind from the physical sensations. (This is especially helpful at the beginning of your journey)
3. Ice baths:
This is my least favorite method from home. Due to having to wait for the tub to fill up, hoping it isn’t draining out, purchasing ice cubes, worrying that you aren’t splashing, and so on.
Here’s how you can start:
- Prepare an ice bath in your bathtub by filling it with water and adding enough ice to reach a temperature of 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Get into the ice bath and remain in the water for about three to five minutes.
- If you’re a beginner, begin with this time frame and exit the ice bath to gauge your comfort level and sensations.
- As you get more comfortable with cold water therapy, gradually extend the duration of your ice baths to reach a goal of eight to ten minutes.
Long Story Short
Cold water immersion benefits are numerous. Although more research is needed to fully understand its effects, adding cold therapy practices like ice baths and cold showers to your routine can improve physical performance, aid in recovery, and increase mental resilience.
Cold Therapy: FAQ
Is Cold Therapy for Everyone?
No, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional before you start cold therapy. The following individuals should usually avoid using cold therapy:
- Pregnant women, children
- Individuals with Reynaud’s syndrome
- Individuals who are pregnant
- Individuals with high blood pressure, heart disease, or other circulatory problems
- Individuals who have low body temperature at baseline
- Individuals who have a pacemaker (unless they have any medical clearance and/or direct medical supervision)
What temperature should an ice bath be?
Ensure that the temperature of your ice bath falls within the range of 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit, which has been mentioned in various studies.
However, it’s important to note that there are no universally established guidelines, and the specific time and temperature may differ depending on individual preferences and goals.
How often should you do cold therapy?
Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional. The information provided in this post for cold therapy exposure is based on general knowledge and should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for professional guidance. Cold therapy isn’t always recommended, especially for individuals with certain health conditions such as heart disease or during pregnancy. It is crucial to consult your doctor before starting a cold therapy routine to ensure it is suitable for your specific circumstances and to be done cautiously.