Cold showers might seem dreadful, but they’re growing in popularity. And after reading the science behind this health trend, you might start turning the temperature of your showers all the way down, too.
Ready to take the plunge? Here’s why frigid water can do your mind and body good, and how you can get started. (Just be prepared for some shivering!)
What Qualifies as a Cold Shower?
Just how cold does your shower need to be in order to have an impact? Well, most people like to take warm, cozy showers that generally land between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit (which is roughly the temperature of a hot tub). Meanwhile, the cold showers (and other types of cold immersion) used in scientific studies typically range from about 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, in order to be beneficial for your health, you should aim to stand in a cold shower that’s below 60 degrees for two to three minutes total.
5 Health Benefits Of Cold Showers
Research shows that cold showers affect the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), a part of the larger autonomic nervous system, which is a network of nerves that span throughout the body. Activating the SNS triggers your “fight-or-flight” stress response, which is responsible for preparing the body to handle threats.
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While we usually hear bad things about the fight-or-flight response—and about feeling stressed in general—coping with small, controlled amounts of stress actually benefits our body by making us more resilient to stress overall. (Exercise is another good example of this.) With repeated exposure to the cold, your body adapts and learns how to handle cold temps better. This process of adaptation leads to benefits for your immune system, brain, and more. Here are a few of the impressive effects cold showers have to offer.
1. May Lift Your Mood and Make You More Alert
When cold water hits your skin, nerve receptors quickly respond, sending chemical messages to your brain that you may be in trouble or need to act quickly. Your brain then pumps out higher-than-normal amounts of certain stimulating neurotransmitters, including noradrenaline (which can lift energy and focus) and dopamine.
As a result of this hormonal rush, you may feel more focused, clear-headed, and even more confident, much like you would when experiencing a “runner’s high,” explains Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. This is one major reason why people keep coming back to cold showers, even if they’re uncomfortable in the moment. To further back this up, one study found that people who swam in the cold during wintertime experienced improved mental well-being and memory, as well as less tension and fatigue. Meanwhile, another small study suggests that cold showers can help reduce some symptoms of depression.
In the words of Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete nicknamed “The Iceman” for his incredible cold plunges and advocacy for the benefits of cold exposure: “It gives you the feeling that you are alive.”
2. Temporarily Boost Your Metabolism
In one European Journal of Applied Physiology study, participants who immersed themselves in cold water for an hour experienced a 350 percent boost in their metabolic rate. An hour is obviously far longer than the duration of your average shower, but even short bursts of cold exposure can benefit your metabolism.
Cold showers are thought to stoke your “metabolic fire” by causing your body to fight to increase your body temperature, Blakely says. It takes energy to produce heat and stay warm—and while those effects won’t last all day long, this kickstart can have a notable impact. In fact, cold exposure has also been shown to activate brown fat, a type of body fat that helps regulate your body temp by generating heat, burning calories in the process, adds Blakely.
Of course, showering in the cold isn’t enough to cause weight loss on its own, but it may help you fight weight gain when paired with other healthy practices like eating well, exercising, and managing stress.
3. Support Your Immune Defenses
The hormonal and neurochemical effects of cold showers can support immune system functions, potentially helping you become more resilient against illnesses, according to naturopathic doctor Dr. Olivia Rose, N.D. Evidence suggests that cold water supports the immune system in several ways, including by boosting the production of immune cells and beta-endorphins, as well as decreasing cytokine production (which contributes to inflammatory processes).
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In one study, adults who showered in the cold every day for a month logged 29 percent fewer sick days compared to the control group that didn’t take cold showers. Study participants ended their daily showers with 30, 60, or 90 seconds of cold water, and all three groups reported similar decreases in sick days.
4. Minimize Inflammation
Ever wonder why athletes sometimes soak themselves in ice baths following a tough competition or intense workout? Research shows that exposure to very cold temps has natural anesthetic-like effects, meaning it helps reduce pain. This is because cold showers cause constriction of blood vessels near the surface of your skin and send blood away from your limbs and toward your vital organs, Rose explains. This can help minimize inflammation that contributes to aches, minimizing discomfort after exercise and helping you stay fresh for your next workout. One study found that when athletes practiced cold immersion after competitive soccer matches they experienced less fatigue and soreness.
While the average exerciser may not need to go hard day after day, this benefit can come in handy if you’re participating in any sort of athletic competition or when soreness from yesterday’s workout is making it uncomfortable to move through the housework on your to-do list for today.
5. May Support Long-Term Metabolic Health
Turns out, the temporary metabolic boost cold showers produce can have health benefits that extend beyond burning calories and supporting a healthy weight. According to an article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, “repeated exposures can lower fasting glucose and insulin levels and improve dietary fatty acid handling, even in healthy individuals,” suggesting that frigid water may offer longer-term metabolic health benefits such as some degree of protection against insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
How To Get Started With Cold Showers
Kris Gethin, founder of Kaged supplements, cold plunge connoisseur, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council recommends that cold shower newbies take things slowly at first. Instead of going straight to the coldest temperature possible for a full three minutes, start with just brief bursts of cold and work your way up from there.
One way to ease in? With a hot-to-cold approach, which involves alternating between warmer and colder temps while you shower, says Rose. Start with a comfortable temp for about 90 seconds, then go for about 30 seconds of cold water. Continue to alternate back and forth for several minutes and try to finish with a cold burst.
Another option: Start your shower off at a comfortable temperature and continually lower it as you acclimate. Your goal is to keep turning down the temperature until you’re uncomfortably cold, says Gethin. Once you’re there, hold out for as long as you can, ideally two to three minutes under the cold water. Try to end with a colder and colder final temp each shower, until you’re finishing at the coldest temp your shower can spit out.
Regardless of what approach you choose, remember to keep breathing in a slow and deep rhythmic pattern, which can help decrease discomfort, as that chilly water hits you, says Blakely.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, don’t pressure yourself to take cold showers all the time. Sure, the freeze-outs have a lot to offer, but steamy showers still need to have their place in your self-care routine. After all, hot showers can be very relaxing and loosen up tight muscles, plus they lower your core temperature, making them ideal before bed. Since cold showers are more stimulating, they’re likely best taken earlier in the day. Therefore, include both in your daily routine depending on the time of day, your mood, and your goals.
Anyone with a chronic health condition, such as heart disease or an impaired immune system, should be careful about taking cold showers, advises Rose. Additionally, if you’re underweight or tend to feel cold throughout the day, cold showers may not be a great fit for your needs. To be safe, it’s always a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider before adding new wellness practices to your routine, particularly when they involve frigid temperatures!