Cold water therapy: my journey from avoiding the cold to embracing it

by | Mar 16, 2023

Key takeaways

  • Cold water therapy has a number of health benefits including reducing inflammation in the body, strengthening the immune system, increasing circulation and improving cardiovascular health
  • Cold exposure can also enhance mood, improve focus and build resilience to future stress and anxiety
  • Sometimes if we are brave enough to approach change with curiosity and an open mind we can be treated to a plethora of unexpected benefits

“I’m cold”.

“Are you too? Or is it just me?”

I’m starting this story on a cool winter’s evening in Melbourne about 18 months ago. The house is quiet, and my husband and I are about to settle into the next episode of our favourite Netflix series.

I already have my Ugg boots on as well as being wrapped in a giant blanket. And I’m STILL cold.

This is not the first winter I have felt the cold more so than others around me and I’m starting to get rather annoyed by it all. I know I shouldn’t be feeling this cold or need the heating on another 3 degrees higher!

This is but one scenario of my discomfort with the cold – there are many others including a preference to sweat it out on the sandy shoreline during summer beach days rather than go in and swim in the refreshing swell.

So, I dislike the cold. Well, with humble pride I can now safely say I did dislike the cold.

It was that winter evening 18 months ago I decided it was time to do something about it.

Facing fears

 

I had a feeling that part of the solution to this problem could be the old adage of “facing your fears”. Maybe I could fix this cold aversion by getting more comfortable with it through deliberate cold exposure?

For years a handful of friends had gently spruiked the benefits of cold-water dips and winter swimming in our local bay. (Personally, I thought they were slightly mad. How could that be in any way enjoyable?! That type of behaviour is for slightly crazy people or thrill seekers, neither of which is me).

But, without much preparation, I decided to go for it. A friend agreed to take the journey with me and we started in the still balmy mornings of summer in 2022. After our early morning walks on a Wednesday by our beautiful bay, we would simply walk straight into the clear waters and with a count of 3-2-1 we’d bob down to our necks, sometimes heads under and then spend a glorious five minutes in the salty water, chatting without rush as we watched the new day dawn.

A simple mechanism

 

I’d never been someone that could just get straight into the water, usually it was a 2-5 minute affair of waiting till the immersed part of my body had acclimatised and I was ready to inch in further. But with our 3-2-1 method, we just made it very immediate. Psychological principles back up this simple method to going ahead with a new challenge and backing up that famous 2017 Ted Talk by Mel Robbins who explained her 5-4-3-2-1 method:

 

“When you feel yourself hesitate before doing something that you know you should do, count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and move towards action”

– Mel Robbins

Watch Mel here explaining in easy speak what’s going on in the brain that back’s up the success of this simple technique:

YouTube video

 

Consistency, accountability and reward are key

 

January, February, March passed and we kept up our new weekly ritual of the Wednesday morning walk then dip. The weather turned from warm to fresh during autumn yet we persisted. April, May, J-J-June – yes, June was cold. This was the hardest month by a long shot as the bay’s waters plunged to a mere 8 degrees Celsius.

Post-dip warm showers at home and a hot drink over a steamy hot savoury breakfast became a real delight and proved to be a powerful reward motivator to wake up early to brave the cold walk before the cold plunge.

A non-negotiable and pre-agreed day with a friend is a great way to start a habit of exercise and cold plunging. The fewer decisions your brain needs to make when creating a new habit, the more likely you are likely to have in sticking to it. Pair that with an accountability buddy and you will really be on your way to the new habit a success – some studies show by up to a whopping 95% more.

So if you think cold plunging is something for you to try this year, remember to set yourself up for success using an accountability buddy, set the day and time and reward yourself.

Reaping the rewards

 

Whilst the health benefits of cold water plunging were not my primary driver, I am thrilled to report that upon reflection I noticed the following changes in my mind and body:

  • Mood: Wednesdays by far were the days I had the most elevated mood states. I noticed this seemed to persist for many days after each dip
  • Heart health: I track my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a measure of my heart and nervous system health. During the winter and spring months when the bay was colder, I had better variability scores. (Impressive given HRV has been shown to lower in winter in some studies however, I was also doing another modality at this time called energy work which I may talk about in a future article)
  • Strong immune system: I hardly caught any of the bugs getting around in 2022. I know I was definitely exposed and had one common cold but it was over as quickly as it started. I felt resilient
  • Cognitive function and focus: On the days I dipped in the bay, I was able to take on a lot at work and operate efficiently because I noticed my focus and flow were improved. This meant fewer loose ends to take home and finish off later and more me time. Win!
  • PMS relief: A monthly hormonal fluctuation for women is completely normal albeit, at times more pronounced. Although I am not one to experience severe PMS, in line with my boosted mood state, I rarely experienced even the slightest hormonal lows during the luteal phase of my cycle in 2022 when doing my cold water dipping. After having to pause on cold dipping for four months when the local bay was too dirty after the Melbourne floods then taking a summer holiday, I can feel the pre-menstrual mood dip. I will be curious to see if the dipping this winter can blunt the monthly mood lows‍

 

What the science says about cold water immersion

 

Since noticing these benefits in myself, I became very curious to understand the science behind it all. I found cold-water immersion is a hormesis strategy offering profound and whole-body benefits that are available to almost anyone. Hormesis = positive body adaptation after ‘good’ stress and I talk about it more below.

Side note: The benefits of cold are shown to be much more powerful when the body is immersed in water, compared to say a cold shower which still has benefits but is not as impactful.

[Caution – some people with cardiovascular disease should discuss this type of hormesis with their GP or cardiologist before starting.]

Cold exposure enhances mood

 

People who have just been exposed to the cold show increases in the release of dopamine post exposure which continues for up to five hours post-exposure.

Dopamine is that famous and powerful molecule that can elevate our mood, focus, and attention and get us moving towards our goals. This is true of very short bouts of exposure.

 

A cold plunge can improve focus

 

Instead of reaching for your coffee the moment you wake, try a cold plunge instead. (I know, sounds completely insane 😉 ) But it has the same effect – it increases our production of adrenalin.

I found cold plunge and then coffee around one hour later meant I was able to hyper-focus on those days with the ‘double shot’ of adrenaline.

 

Cold water therapy builds resilience to future stress and anxiety

 

Cold exposure is a way to build your own Teflon barrier to repel future stressors. It builds our resilience to tough situations. In a way, it’s like a muscle of grit.

It helps us regulate anxious feelings quicker and some studies show significant improvements in scores of depression and anxiety states – with up to over 90% of participants reporting experiencing improved states.

This effect is more reliable than any pharmaceutical or natural drug on the market. With zero negative side effects and is a whole lot cheaper. Win. Win.

Please note that the effects of this benefit are enhanced when done with others (social element of it) and in a natural body of water like a lake, river or ocean.

 

Cold exposure helps with weight loss and improved metabolism

 

This has been shown because cold exposure can stimulate your body to make a rare type of good fat, also called brown fat or brown adipose tissue.

Having more of that stuff means a host of awesome things for your body like:

  • The bad, white fat being shed by the body
  • Being better able to regulate your body temperature in either hot or cold weather
  • Being able to improve your tolerance to sugar (glucose). This is a VERY good thing given the sugary food we are usually surrounded with and mostly tend to eat too much of
  • New research has shown in men that simply immersing in cold water once a week and having a few cold (only 30 sec) showers and all other things like diet being equal can drop centimetres off their middle (ladies, let’s cross our fingers they can see this same result for us in a future study, in this study the women got a host of benefits but no fat reduction results that were measured!)

A key hack to enhance these benefits is to let your body warm slowly (with only the help of either movement, clothing or blankets) for 10 minutes after exposure. So wait 10 mins before you jump in that hot shower or sauna.

 

Regular exposure to cold helps build cold-tolerance

 

Hooray, there is scientific evidence behind my experience.

Brown adipose tissue is one of the key ways our bodies can thermoregulate so it is no surprise that people who expose themselves to the cold tend to be able to regulate their body temperature better.

Cold water therapy is a good pre-operative protocol

 

Have an operation coming up? It could be worth preparing your body for the physical stress of that.

One of the body’s non-stop jobs is to keep the core and vital organs in the narrow temperature range of 36.5-37.5 °C. Did you know that being anesthetised during an operation actually blocks parts of your nervous system that works hard to regulate temperature? This is often the reason hyperthermia is one of the biggest risks of going under the knife.

Anaesthetist and founder of chilluk.org, Dr Mark Harper has been curious about how pre-operative, deliberate cold exposure could help strengthen the nervous system and train it not to overreact to hyperthermia. He says “while this stress response has evolved to protect and heal us, following surgery it overreacts, which can exacerbate the adverse effects of hypothermia.” He suggests that in his experience cold sea immersion (swimming in his case) can improve surgical outcomes.

Stressful extremes (deliberate cold exposure) is a ‘good stress’

 

Poor old stress as a word has gotten a bad name of late. Stress is synonymous with bad, busy and overwhelmed. This is experienced when we are in “distress”. But not all stress is bad.

We live in a world of comfort like no other humans before us have – even in the last 100 years the advances in automated heating and cooling, gadgets that do all the household chores and the trusty laptop have made life far more sedentary. We now operate in a much narrow band of extremes.

But the thing is, stressful extremes can be good for our bodies. It’s how our bodies were built to thrive on this planet.

Lifting weights and exercising is one version of ‘extreme’ that we do that we know that is good for us. This type of stress grows our muscles and keeps our metabolism moving along. Good stress (also called “eustress” but not a word we regularly use) where the body adapts to become stronger and more resilient is called Hormesis.

To age well and increase our health span, not just our life span, we should think about how much good stress we are getting. Some examples of good stress beyond deliberate cold exposure are:

  • Challenging workouts
  • Breathwork (that includes holding your breath)
  • Heat stress like hot yoga, saunas and spas
  • Eating colourful plant foods – (a way to skip the hard work because a plant already went through it, we eat the plant and get the benefits of their hormesis. If this fascinates you, watch this video to learn more)
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Doing mentally challenging things – learn a musical instrument, take dance classes, learn a language, study again

Stress is a spectrum. Between eustress and distress. We don’t want to sit on the ‘distress’ end of the spectrum for too long. And we should be careful not to load these healthy stressors into our system if it has been in a long-term, chronically stressed state for too long. This is a REALLY BIG caution if you never stop or work is one constant endless series of stressful events. If this is you, remember to pepper in moments of slow into your days and weeks and get your nervous system and related chemical by-products, to a middle ground before adding in any of the protocols from the list above (with the exceptions being the inclusion of colourful plant foods and breathwork 😉).

Cold water therapy can improve a vast list of chronic health conditions

 

Cold water benefits are not just for healthy people to get healthier. It can help people with serious health conditions not only get back to baseline but to thrive. Cold water immersion and cold water swimming have been reported to:

  • Significantly reduce back pain
  • Reduce arthritis pain
  • Reduce depression
  • Help those with PTSD to function
  • Reduce the severity and incidence of migraines
  • Help manage autoimmune disease
  • Reduce episodes of fibromyalgia pain

Cold water dips in the ocean take you to another place entirely, it frees the mind and resets the body.

Nearly convinced?

 

If you’ve made it to this point, I’m guessing you might be open to trying this seemingly crazy recreational activity. If you do want to get going there are a few things you can do to get started:

  • Find one person who will join you
  • Agree on a weekly day, time and location to do it (even if you start at your local wellness centre with paid cold plunges)
  • Depending on the water temperature, immerse for 2-10 minutes
  • Commit upfront to do this for a minimum of 6 weeks in a row before you decide if it’s too hard or not
  • Be curious as to how tough you really are!

In change lies possibility

 

We are so much tougher than we give our body credit for. There is no way 20 or 30-year-old me would have ever thought that she’d be regularly dipping in cold water to feel good.

Sometimes if we are brave enough to approach change with curiosity and an open mind we can be treated to a plethora of unexpected benefits. And if it’s not cold-water immersion, I wonder what change is waiting for you to explore?

Further reading and podcasts

 

Podcasts

 

Book

Liv Brown

After spending 15 years in corporate life as a senior marketer it was stress-triggered health challenges, family priorities and a yearning for change that led her to leave her job, driven by a desire to heal herself and help others in a more profound way using her lived experience.