Taking the plunge

A growing body of research that suggests an icy plunge might just have various health benefits.
Henriette Lamprecht
It might have been the muscular tattooed body of a Spice Girl’s footballer husband rising from a tub filled to the brim with blocks of ice or the group of middle aged women who at the break of a Saturday’s dawn seem to find their mojo in the icy waves of the ocean. Why replace warm and toasty with shiver and cold?

Cold water therapy, a form of cryotherapy which includes cold water immersion and applying ice or cold to the skin has become a popular health trend all over the world with a growing body of research that suggests an icy plunge might just have various health benefits.

Some studies show it can lead to decreased stress levels and induce significant physiological and biochemical changes in the body, such as improved blood pressure, metabolism and peripheral blood flow. The secondary effects that follow the above changes can include metabolism and heart disease by reducing body fat and improving insulin resistance. Both are associated with chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. According to research it was ancient Greece who coined the idea of using cold water therapy for health and muscle recovery which means the Spice Girl’s footballer husband has the right idea. To get the cold kick, you have three options. Cold water immersion means you have to submerge your entire body from the neck down in water not warmer than 59 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 15 minutes. This can of course be in the privacy of your bathtub, but an icy lake of the ocean will also do. The most obvious is taking a cold shower lasting about 15 minutes and if that is not your fancy, there is the contrast bath therapy. This is similar to cold water therapy, but involves switching from cold to warm water for varying amounts of time, lasting mostly 30 minutes in total.

As with all things natural and exciting, more research is needed to come to a definite conclusion that cold water is a gateway to good health. However preliminary studies have shown the potential mental and physical health benefits of cold water therapy. A 2016 study published in Medicine found that participants who took part in a set amount of exercise and who immersed themselves in a pool with cold water afterwards, stated they experienced less muscle soreness compared to those who didn’t undergo hydrotherapy. The reason could be that the body regulates temperature through the same nerve pathways that signals pain and why icing injuries could help moderate pain and help with muscle recovery. It can also work to alleviate pain by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow to peripheral body parts. According to research, this blood flow redistribution may improve oxygenation of muscles and enhance exercise performance..

That splash of cold water on your face or dip in the ocean or swimming pool may just be a rude wakeup call after a strenuous night, but it also stimulates the vagus nerve which is the main nerve of the autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating breathing and heart rate. You instinctively draw a deep breath when the cold water hits you, but sitting in an ice bath or swimming in a cold ocean can help you learn to regulate intense emotion and essentially breathe through it.

“No controlled trials exist to support the theory that cold water therapy may decrease stress and improve mood, however case reports and anecdotal evidence does suggest it can be beneficial for mood, treat depression, increase libido, reduce stress and improve stress regulation,” said Sid Khurana, M.D., a board-certified adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of outpatient services at Nevada Mental Health. In 2023 adults who took part in a small study said they felt more alert, inspired and attentive after a single session lasting five minutes in a cold bath. Part of the study were brain scans taken before and after cold water therapy which showed an increased connection between the regions of the brain controlling attention, emotion and self-regulation after cold water immersion.

Similarly, adults in a small 2023 study in Biology noted feeling more alert, inspired and attentive after a single five-minute session in a 68-degree bath. In the study, brain scans taken before and after cold water therapy revealed an increased connection between the regions of the brain controlling attention, emotion and self-regulation after cold water immersion. Again more research is needed to see the long term effect of cold water on mood and focus. Then there is the issue of its impact on metabolism, including body fat percentages and weight loss. Referring to its effect on metabolism, it is linked to brown adipose tissue, a type of fat in the body that can produce heat when exposed to cold, burning more calories. The question however remains if cold water therapy does indeed support long term and significant weight loss.

As with most things in life before you start using only the cold water tap in your shower and attempt the cold Atlantic Ocean, it is always a good idea to speak to your doctor who knows your medical history. According to the American Heart Association the most dangerous time is within the first 60 seconds until your gulps turn to more regular breathing. If you are set on trying cold therapy, do build up your tolerance to cold exposure gradually and don’t stay submerged for more than 10 to 15 minutes to avoid complications.

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Namibian Sun 2024-07-17

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