Ice Age: harness the power of cold, cold water
Reducing stress, improving your focus, and gaining energy… just add water
image William Sheepskin
words Lotte Bowser
These days, Instagram is awash with videos of influencers, celebrities and Olympic athletes plunging their near-naked bodies into bathtubs full of ice. The movement has amassed 261,000 hashtags and counting. Lady Gaga and mixed martial artist Georges St Pierre swear by it. Bonkers? Totally. The probability of your privates falling off? Cross your legs and hope for the best.
That being said, out of all the wellness trends lauded in recent years, this is one that I can actually get behind. Unlike Gwneyth Paltrow’s infamous vaginal cleanses and ‘harmonising’ body stickers, the physical and mental benefits of freezing our nips off are in fact substantiated by some scientific evidence.
I decided I’d see what all the fuss was about, and have a crack at it myself. I’d dabbled in the cold shower challenges led by Dutch athlete and cold fanatic Wim Hof before, but I wasn’t consistent. This time, I promised myself I’d go all in. This time, I meant business.
I had just touched down in Tulum, an influencer’s paradise on the eastern coast of Mexico. With the effects of jetlag and airplane food in full swing, I made a bee-line for the local ‘Jungle Gym’. As I walked past reception, I noticed a group of Americans in their swimming togs, rambunctiously back slapping each other as they took it in turns to sit in the Flintstones-style ice barrel.
“It’s freezing!” one of the men screamed.
‘He’s not wrong,’ I thought to myself as I descended into the tub. It felt like thousands of needles puncturing my skin all at once. The pain was searing. Unbearable even, and I immediately wanted to quit.
But as I grappled with my mind, my thoughts drifted to my late fiancé Ben, who had endured months of the most aggressive chemotherapy regimen available. If he could withstand chemo, then I could withstand some ice cubes, for God’s sake.
I held on for 60 seconds with the aid of long, laboured breaths and motivational pep talks from my team of tiny-trunked cheerleaders, before leaping out of the water.
Jelly legs aside, I felt invigorated, high, unstoppable. I had set out to do something, and I had bloody done it. In the words of Joe Rogan, I had “conquered my inner bitch”.
But was it actually good for me? What does the data say about it?
Some of the proven benefits of cold water exposure include an improvement to our immune response and immune function, an increased resistance to certain illnesses and infections, a faster recovery rate from physical activity and positive changes to our mental health, to name a few.
Let’s take a closer look at the research. According to Stanford University professor Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, putting our bodies under short-term stress can enhance immune-protection, as well as physical and mental performance.
Exposure to the cold initially induces a stress reaction, which activates our sympathetic nervous system and triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline.
Professor Mike Tipton of the University of Portsmouth states that we develop an adaptive response to this stress after just six cold immersions. An increase in our ability to withstand the stress of the cold can help us adapt to and manage other, unrelated stressors in a process known as ‘cross-adaptation’.
In one study, the incidence of upper respiratory infections in a group of German swimmers who regularly participated in cold water swims was 40% lower compared to a control group.
In another, a group of Finnish swimmers who suffered from diseases such as asthma, arthritis and fibromyalgia reported a significant improvement in their symptoms after cold water dips four times per week over a period of four months.
And that’s not to mention the proven benefits to our mental health.
Several studies have reported increases in brain chemicals responsible for regulating our mood, such as the ‘happy hormone’ dopamine - in some cases, up to 250%.
Other reports have recorded increased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, our ‘rest and digest’ mode, which prompted increased relaxation.
Finn, a 27 year-old musician from London, turned to cold water showers after struggling with anxiety during the national lockdowns.
“The cold gave me moments of calm and clarity”, he tells me. “Those moments slowly turned into hours, and after a while, I found myself going days without experiencing a single anxious episode or anxiety attack. I feel much more at peace now - I don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Does cold exposure come with risks? Yes, like everything. It is always advisable to do your own research and to consult a medical professional, especially if you suffer from pre-existing conditions. If you want to test the waters and it's safe for you to do so, we’d suggest starting small and gradually building up your tolerance.
When he lost his wife, Wim Hof turned to cold water as a way of finding respite from his grief. It has become a kind of therapy for me too, in the face of my own loss. When I’m immersed in ice, the cold takes over. The only thing I’m thinking about is how to get from one moment to the next. There is something wild and primal about it. I’m in survival mode - and I do survive it.
I’m beginning to realise that there is no such thing as ‘can’t’ anymore. The cold is like a curriculum for life. It has reminded me that, despite what my inner bitch tells me, I am capable of doing difficult things - and so are you. When it comes down to it, the strength of the human spirit is truly without limit.