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Cold Exposure: 10 Science-Backed Benefits

Cold Exposure: 10 Science-Backed Benefits

Recent research has repeatedly demonstrated the profound benefits that regular sessions of controlled cold exposure can bring. Just a few short years back, these ideas were profoundly controversial. While the Dutch pioneer Wim Hof was singing the praises of ice baths and demonstrating a remarkable ability to thrive despite being exposed to the most extreme cold, mainstream science preferred to dismiss his feats as showmanship and not of serious scientific interest. Fast forward a few years and everything has changed. Modern science is now diligently investigating these phenomena. Thanks to this, we now know that the benefits of cold exposure can be both profound and enduring.

wim hof method book  on cold exposure and breathing

Types of Cold Exposure

There are many ways that can be usefully employed to benefit from cold exposure. The simplest, and easiest to initiate, is simply walking out on a sufficiently cold morning whilst wearing minimal clothes. For this to work though, the temperature needs to be somewhere near freezing, therefore it is only really suitable if you live in cool climates such as the North of the US, Canada or Northern Europe.

Fortunately, in my case, the UK is quite cold enough from November to mid March. My own practice involves getting up just prior to dawn and enjoying the winter sunrise along with the cold exposure. This morning was a chilly -7, which was quite challenging enough for the 15 minutes I spent in the back garden.Winter swimming in lakes and rivers is another method that comes with a long tradition in the UK. Much the same conditions exist in Northern Europe and in the Northern United States.

In more recent times ice baths, as popularized by Wim Hof, have become extremely popular, as any visit to YouTube will amply demonstrate. Cold showers are also quite effective, although quite challenging. This is my preferred method in the spring and summer when temperatures in the UK are normally too warm for simply sitting out in the garden.

Finally, in very recent times, cryotherapy has become all the rage. Although effective, it seems to this writer to be unnecessarily expensive and something of an overkill. In my opinion, there are sufficient and effective (and much cheaper) ways of achieving the desired effect without the need to utilize such elaborate equipment.

How Long?

The answer to this question, by its very nature, has to be somewhat inexact. Temperatures change in nature, and as they do so do the effects of the cold exposure on your body. Any guidelines that involves the local environment necessary necessitates a guess. That having been said, at least we can be fairly exact with plunge pools/baths and cryo chambers.

For ice baths and plunges, 3 minutes is considered sufficient for a goodly amount of benefit. Some folks suggest that it is wise to use cold showers as preparation. A 2 minute cold shower to start, building up to 5 minutes prior to, quite literally, taking the plunge.

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For sitting outside in near freezing temperatures, I would suggest starting with just 5 minutes and gradually building up until you are comfortable with a 15 minute exposure. This is my current practice. It normally takes half an hour to an hour to completely warm up again afterwards!

With cryotherapy, simply follow the instructions given at the establishment. Different systems will have different criteria.

Benefit 1: Fights Inflammation

In my case, one of the main reasons for commencing a cold exposure program is exactly the same as the reason I started on keto: to fight inflammation. Bother are effective, but both are not overnight cures. You have to persevere to really benefit from these changes in lifestyle.

There are various pathways through which exposure to cold works in our bodies to reduce inflammation. For example, it increases the effect of adiponectin. This protein is known to help reduce inflammation through the modulation of signaling pathways in cells. Cold exposure can also reduce nerve activity and hence dial down pain. It has long been known that such things as cold compresses help to reduce pain. Cold exposure uses this same idea but applies it to the whole body.

Benefit 2: Weight Loss

This will doubtlessly appeal to those who got into keto for the weight loss benefits. Cold exposure is also a great way to shed those extra pounds. In fact, it is such a simple, relatively foolproof, technique that I am surprised it is not far more popular. It works well as an adjunct to keto as well.

There are a couple of reasons for cold therapy’s utility as a method of keeping weight down. Firstly, there is the creation of brown adipose tissue (BAT), and secondly, cold exposure will also tend to boost metabolism in the short term, thus helping to shift those pounds.

One of the most obvious reactions to cold exposure is shivering. Our body’s use shivering to try to counteract the effects of the cold and maintain core temperature. All this uses energy, hence the increase in metabolic rate. The energy needs to come from somewhere so the body will burn through its fuel sources. If, as strongly advised, you are in a ketogenic state, then it will be fat that your body is burning. Hey presto…fast weight loss! This study demonstrates the effect.

Brown adipose tissue is known as such because it takes on a slightly darker shade than the normal white adipose tissue, or fat, that many of us carry around our waists. Babies have BAT to protect them from cold as they have not yet developed the shivering mechanism. It was thought until recently, that adults could not gain BAT, but this proved to be incorrect. The really lovely thing about BAT is that it literally burns fat for energy to protect you form the cold, hence the effectiveness of cold exposure as a weight loss mechanism.

Benefit 3: Neurological Improvements

Cold exposure has been shown to have profoundly positive effects on our brains and general neurology. In one study, levels of release of the crucial hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine were shown to increase significantly. Norepinephrine as a neurotransmitter plays a vital, excitatory role in the sympathetic nervous system. It helps with our ability to maintain focus and attention. It is also thought to have a positive effect on mood. As a hormone, it’s released into the bloodstream by the adrenals where it works alongside adrenaline.

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Controlled cold exposure has also been demonstrated to turn on cold shock proteins. These are found not only in the brain but throughout the body. One CSP in particular, RBM3, helps to protect the brain from the deficits associated with several neuro-degenerative diseases. This is a powerful intervention which requires the ingestion of no pills or potions, simply sufficient exposure to the cold.

Benefit 4: Psychological Effects

Psychological benefits for such things as cold showers or immersion techniques tend to be more difficult to quantify. As ever, psychology is a science that does not lend itself so easily to exact measurement in the same way as say, chemistry. Many of the conclusions have to be taken with a pinch or two of salt. That having been said, it certainly can supply some great insights.

A recent Dutch study into the effects of cold showers indicated that the participants were less likely to take time away from work and generally reported a sense of well being. Another study indicated that 5 minute cold showers taken over an extended period may help to lift depression.

Simply to have the will power to willingly submit yourself to the cold is likely beneficial in itself. One realises that one isn’t limited by the body’s preference for comfort and warmth. This realisation has a tendency to carry over into over areas of life. One realises that one is capable of pushing oneself beyond the perceived challenges, if one really wishes to.

What Doesn't Kill Us book

Benefit 5: Helps Repair Muscle Tissue

Cold water immersion following competition has become more or less standard practice in recent years. Tennis players in particular have adopted this intervention as they go through the rounds of a tournament. The cold seems to assist in tissue repair and generally reducing the levels of soreness. Naturally, this is of great assistance when faced with another match in the next day or two.

This has now migrated over to other sports such as basketball and football as the evidence for the benefits of cold water immersion has built.

Benefit 6: Decreases Blood Sugar Levels

Cold water therapy can help to decrease blood sugar levels. It seems to do this by increasing the levels of adiponectin. This is a protein that plays a key role in glucose regulation, low levels being indicative of insulin resistance. Adiponectin levels can increase by up to 70% following adequate cold exposure.

Cold seems to increase the amount of glucose uptake in peripheral tissues. If you are someone who enjoys intermittent fasting, cold may work well in combination with that intervention, as fasting has been shown to increase peripheral insulin resistance in some cases.

Benefit 7: May Increase Lifespan

This is straying into more controversial areas, but it does seem likely that controlled cold exposure may well increase lifespan. It has clearly been shown to do so in studies involving mice, whether that carries over to humans is yet to be clearly demonstrated.

Controlled exposure to cold is thought to activate the body’s own powers to heal itself, such as the pain and anti-inflammatory effects mentioned above. If practiced consistently over a period of time, controlled exposure to cold may result in profound and enduring changes to the body’s lymphatic, circulatory and digestive systems. This is likely to affect healthspan (the period of life during which one enjoys good health) as well as lifespan.

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Way of the Iceman Cold Exposure book

Benefit 8: Healthy Appetite

As one would expect with the haemostatic nature of the body, it compensates for periods of cold in winter by increasing our appetite. Much the same effect seems to occur on a smaller scale. Cold exposure tends to increase metabolic rate generally, hence it leads to an increase of appetite.

This is not something to be concerned about if you are using cold therapy to assist your efforts to lose weight. Overall, the increase in metabolism and development of BAT will tend to result in weight reduction.

Benefit 9: Good for the Skin

Controlled cold exposure tends to be good for the skin, probably because it constrains blood vessels in the epidermis. Because of this, the skin is less prone to swelling and redness. The cold acts in ways similar to an astringent, thus it keeps the pores less visible. Finally, the cold also reduces the oiliness of the skin, hence there may be a reduction in problems such as acne and spots in general.

An old and much utilised method of tightening the skin on the face is to simply splash it with cold water in the morning. A recent study confirmed this effect. Much the same could be said of a shower, though in this case the benefits extend over the whole body.

Benefit 10: Mitigates against Oxidative Stressors

In recent years, studies have been conducted into the benefits of regular cold water swimming. Though I personally have enjoyed sessions of wild swimming in the summer, I have not yet tried something similar in the winter. In one study, people who indulge in cold water swimming on a regular basis were shown to have heighten the effectiveness of several antioxidative systems in the body.

Cryotherapy seems to elicit a similar effect to that experienced by the cold water swimmers. Studies on mice using cryotherapy have also demonstrated clear gains in regards to increased levels of antioxidants follow treatment.

The Ice Bath Cold Exposure Logbook

Conclusion

It seems clear from a range of studies that many benefits are bestowed via the various forms of cold therapy. In this blog I have only examined some of the more obvious, and scientifically examined, advantages of these practices. Several more areas could have been added without straying too far from solid, scientific support.

For some people, the practices themselves can be challenging. We live in a world that values comfort for its own sake, but this can be a problem in itself, a subject I examined in a previous blog. I will admit that getting up before dawn to enjoy the sunrise in an ambient temperature of -7 C (my current record), wearing only a pair of shorts, has its challenges. But … you do quickly adapt. Much the same could be said of cold showers or ice baths.

The gains, for those willing to step outside their comfort zones, are certainly worth the relatively modest sacrifice.

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