A cold shower in the morning might seem like an excessively austere wake-up call, but the pain isn’t without gain. Cold showers may even be better than warm showers in the long run. Cold hydrotherapy has been considered a holistic medical practice dating back to ancient China. Not a lot of research has been dedicated to cold showers to date; nevertheless, cold shower enthusiasts cite benefits ranging from increased alertness, increased blood circulation and lymph drainage and increased immunity through to reduction in aches and pains (which makes sense when you consider that ice packs are a common treatment for injury).
A 2016 study from the Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, demonstrated a link between cold showers and overall health. Participants in the study who took a cold shower every day were, on average, 29% less likely to be sick for work during the study’s follow up period of 90 days. Participants in the study also noted an increase in quality of life and overall energy levels. It should be noted, that adherence to the study itself proved difficult, with only 79% of the 3018 participants able to complete the shiver-inducing 30-day cold shower regimen.
2008 research from Virginia Commonwealth School University of Medicine looked at the effects of cold showers as a potential treatment for depression. The idea behind the study was that, as primates, we need to experience strong stress factors to help keep our brain functioning properly. Our primate cousins in the wild experience this all the time in the nature of their basic survival. The modern human (us), on the other hand, do not experience a lot of external shock in our day to day lives.
Exposing ourselves to cold showers has been shown to activate our sympathetic nervous system, releasing endorphins and adrenaline. Cold receptors are activated and our peripheral nervous system sends an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses to our brain, which, the study hypothesised could help to treat depression. The results of the study found that taking regular cold showers has a significant effect on depression. An unexpected finding was that taking cold showers also acts as an effective pain reliever. So in one sense, at least, cold showers = less pain, more gain.
Another interesting effect of cold water exposure is the reported increase in brown adipose fat in our system. Essentially when we are too cold this brown fat is produced or activated to create reserves of energy to help regulate our body temperature. Blood flow increases within the lower intestine and we begin to burn calories at an increased rate to maintain our core body temperature. The increased brown adipose tissue has been linked causally to weight loss. It’s not cold showers per se that cause the increase in brown fat, but exposure to cold in general. Jumping into a cold lake for a nice swim will also do the trick. Professor Wayne Hayes at the University of California has even created and began to market an invention he calls the “ice vest”. The wearable vest is filled with ice that, based on the idea that exposure to cold increases brown fats, he claims could burn up to 250 calories per hour.
You may not want to stick your face under the icy cold tap first thing in the morning, and there is no problem with that. The best way to get into cold showers is to start for 2-3 minutes with warm water, around 20 degrees Celsius. Then slowly start to turn down the temperature to around 10-15 degrees. At first, you might not be able to last very long, but stick with it! We all start to adapt within a few days of repeated exposure.
Sticking with a cold shower regimen can also help us to develop a great life skill: discipline. By forcing ourselves to take a cold shower every morning we are deliberately undergoing stress. Each time we do this, other external stress becomes less significant. Filing tax returns, returning e-mails, going out and exercising, practising our hobbies; all of these become easier because the relative level of stress seems lower after we’ve taken our cold shower. When we do this we end up in the perfect state to get more productive, achieve more in our day, and slip comfortably into a sense of self-satisfaction.
Overall, it seems that a cold shower shock to the system is ideal for starting the day and contributing to overall wellbeing. One word of caution – cold showers are not recommended for those with high blood pressure though.