Sometimes a slight change in our lives can have huge impacts in our health and fitness. For many of these changes, initially, we may perceive a bit of discomfort in our lives.
We can all agree that while it’s probably more convenient to stop off at McDonald’s on the way home from work, that convenience comes at a price. In this case, a price to our health. There are even times where actively choosing a bit of discomfort can have beneficial effects to our health in the short and longer term.
Comfort Isn’t Actually That Healthy
Surprisingly enough, only a certain amount of “comfort” and “recovery” is actually good for us. We’re made to grow by having stressors in our lives. While it’s true that many of the chronic stressors that we experience, like chronic lack of sleep, have a negative effect on our lives, other short terms stressors, like breaking down muscle from working out, actually give our bodies cues to become stronger and more resilient.
What if I told you there was a way to naturally fight inflammation and release hormones that help to improve focus and mood? What if I told you that this same method could increase fat burning potential and aid in recovery from workouts? It would seem magical, right? Too good to be true? When if I told you that it could even be free?
This amazing therapeutic behavior is so simple it’s going to blow your mind. You can even start today.
So what is this amazing trick that sounds too amazing to be real?
Here’s the deal: the next time you turn on your shower, leave the hot off. Yeah, that’s right—take a cold shower on purpose.
The Benefits of Cold Showers
I know you’re probably thinking, “That’s it?”
This is one of the oldest Paleo paths to health, and you literally need nothing but the stuff that comes out of your faucet. Peoples ranging from our own Native American tribes, to the Nordic ice plunges, even to the royal family in Great Britain have made use of the health benefits of cold water. (1)
Before you click off the page, take a deep breath and read on to see why something as simple as a cold plunge can have wonderfully positive effects on your day and your health.
Hot Water is a New Thing
In our Paleo history, even living in the most gentle of climates would have exposed us to regular differences in temperature. Our lives today are, for the most part, bereft of any major environmental stressors. A quick flick of the thermostat keeps us comfortable in most places on the planet. To get us back to our more drastic roots, having a cold shower a few times a week, or even daily, can allow us to hack our bodies into a whole new level of health.
I’m going to take a second and acknowledge that initially, this can be an uncomfortable undertaking, but I have personally found that the rewards far outweigh a few minutes of discomfort, and I’ve even found that there’s a victory in getting “tough.”
Cold Water, or Cold Air?
While we’ll focus on the easily accessible cold shower as a means to controlled cold exposure, there are cold exposure chambers, called cryo-chambers, that are popular with athletes and others in the world of cold exposure.
Cryo-chambers utilize super cold gases like liquid nitrogen to cool the air immediately around the body down to as low as -280 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are fortunate to have one of these chambers locally, it is a fun modality to try. While I personally have tried it a few times, I don’t seem to notice a huge difference between cryo and cold water immersion/cold showers. Cryo does have a small risk of frostbite. Some people swear by cryotherapy, saying they can really notice a difference when using it. Your own experience may vary.
One of the largest reasons for considering cold exposure is norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is interesting as it serves as both a neurotransmitter and a stress hormone and is released in the body to help it handle periods of stress. (2)
Studies have shown that even short bouts of exposure to cold can double or triple norepinephrine levels. (3) Though yet to be studied directly, cold exposure could be a tool in the treatment of depression, due to this effect. Pharmaceuticals that deplete norepinephrine often list depression as a side effect, which could potentially suggest that boosting norepinephrine through cold exposure or otherwise could be a viable treatment option. (4) Of course, more research is needed.
In addition to its effects on the brain and nervous system, norepinephrine is also a potent anti-inflammatory substance in the body, inhibiting select inflammatory pathways, specifically tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). (5) While TNF-alpha has utility in the body, excess TNF-alpha has been implicated in numerous diseases ranging from arthritis to asthma. (6,7) While treating these conditions with a pharmaceutical TNF-inhibitor may be effective, what if we could get the same result by giving our hot water heater a break?
Cold exposure can also lead to the constriction of blood vessels, which is another way that it can be beneficial for reducing inflammatory responses. (8) The reduced blood flow is what can lead skin to look more pale during exposure to cold. Athletes often turn to ice baths and other cold therapy to reduce inflammation following injury as well as delaying and reducing overall muscle soreness, but this practice can extend well beyond sports medicine.
Depending on your health goals, the timing of your cold therapy is important. If you’re trying to increase muscle, for example, you’ll want to wait awhile after exercise to expose your muscles to cold, since exposure directly after exercise can actually prevent your muscles from increasing in strength. (9) There is a time and a place for inflammation, and sometimes, it’s a good thing in the short-term.
Did you know that you have two kinds of fat in your body? One type is generally used as a long term calorie storage medium, while the other is much more active on a day to day level. This active fat is referred to as brown fat because it has enough of an increase of mitochondrial activity to make the tissue look darker under a microscope. (10) Mitochondria are the energy-producing powerhouses of the cells, so this brown fat has an increased capability for energy metabolism.
Since this brown fat is more metabolically active than its white fat counterpart, it works in our favor to be able to rev up brown fat metabolism. Exposure to cold can allow us to both produce more brown fat, as well as keep it metabolically active. (11) Burning this brown fat uses a good amount of fatty acids for energy and, by extension, lowers plasma triglyceride levels and helps to reduce obesity in general. (12) Both exposure to cold water and cold air in general will work for this purpose.
The more brown fat a person has, the more efficient that person will be at burning fat, as well as having less body fat in general. (13) Brown fat is fascinating in that its activation into the metabolic framework causes a cascade of wonderful biochemistry, including reducing plasma triglyceride and cholesterol levels as well as diminishing diet-induced atherosclerosis development and potentially protecting against developing thickened arteries. (14,15) One of the most amazing things about your body is that it can actually convert white fat to brown fat, setting itself up for a healthier, more efficient fat burning machine. (16)
Activating brown fat also has been shown to improve both glucose homeostasis, as well as insulin sensitivity, meaning that it points us in the opposite direction of diabetes. (17)
The bottom line is that by increasing your exposure to cold, you can increase the amount of brown fat in your body. Brown fat can, by its presence, activate not only positive effects for the calorie-burning aspects of metabolism, but also for a host of other biomarkers that have a profound impact on total body wellness.
Cold Exposure Can Give You a Mental Edge
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that nothing gets the sleepy fog out of your brain and gets you mentally on track more than a two minute cold shower first thing in the morning.
Every morning, right after I wake up, I turn on the cold water and step in. Most mornings there’s a fun little inner voice conversation that goes something like this:
- “Oh man, really?”
- “C’mon, GET IN!”
- “But I was so warm a minute ago in the bed…”
- “That’s nice, let’s do this!”
It’s honestly fun to witness my brain go complete monkey mode. Being able to push myself to step into that shower gives me an immediate win for the day, and sets me up mentally to be happier, more focused, and more productive.
When you know that you can do hard things and conquer the overwhelming desire to remain comfortable, you open yourself up for endless victories in your life, both big and small.
My suggestion? Give the cold shower a shot after your next workout. You’ll find it a wonderful way to cool off and feel invigorated.
A Word of Caution About Cold Exposure
Should everyone do the cold shower or cryotherapy thing? Not necessarily.
The changes that occur in our bodies during exposure to cold, and heat for that matter, can be quite taxing. You should always consult your doctor or practitioner before engaging in any form of therapy, especially if you have existing health conditions, have coronary conditions or are high risk for heart attack, or are pregnant.
Be especially cautious when it comes to immediate hot to cold exposure, such as sauna to ice bath, as this can have serious health consequences in at-risk individuals. (18)
Something as simple as changing up your morning shower routine could have dramatic impacts on your body composition, your inflammation levels, your glucose and insulin health, and more. Simple changes that introduce a little discomfort can have far-reaching effects, and may help you take your health journey to the next level.