For as long as I can remember I’ve had one steady ritual for the winter months. I’m not talking about making snow angels or last minute shopping for Christmas presents. Instead I was in the habit of getting sick. For a minimum of two or three times every winter, the flu or common cold would knock me out for at least a week. I would spent those days in the fetal position, complaining in a nasal voice and re-watching Friends and Disney movies.
This year, while pretty much all of my friends, family members and coworkers had to take days off work and snuggle up in their beds, I didn’t get sick (and as a direct result forgot the lyrics to hakuna matata). What changed? I attribute most of my newly acquired indestructibility on one new habit: cold showers.
Showering cold -Are you f*cking crazy?!
Treatments with cold water, which to many sounds like a mild case of masochism, is actually a practice with long traditions in many cultures. The fierce Spartan warriors are said to only have taken cold baths in order to strengthen their bodies and minds. In Japan there are cleansing rituals called Misogi that involve sitting or standing under a waterfall. During the 1800s, the German priest Sebastian Kneipp propagated the use of alternating baths as a therapeutic measure against tuberculosis.
Were they on to something? The cold truth seems to be yes. Turning the shower knob from red to blue has numerous health benefits.
Strengthens the immune system
Studies have shown that “stress-inducing noninfectious stimuli” such as repeated cold water immersions increase the number of white blood cells. Those are the guys that fight bacteria, viruses and pathogens, which is why it’s nice to have them around. Furthermore, cold showers help to improve circulation, thereby promoting cardiovascular health and better general performance.
Author Tim Ferris has successfully experimented with cold water immersion as a trigger for sleep onset. In the 4-Hour Body (4HB) he suggests10-minute ice baths for “elephant tranquilizer”-like effects. For a less drastic measure and those without a tub like me, starting with cold showers might be an alternative.
While the thought of turning the heat in the shower from warm to cold might be enough to shoot some people’s adrenalin level through the roof, it might actually be a good idea if you want to reduce overall stress. The theory behind this is that taxing the nervous system in such a way leads to adaption. This means it gets used to coping with a certain level of stress, resulting in greater resilience toward it. One sign of the adaption process is the gradual desensitization to cold over time.
Exposure to cold water shapes up to be a cheap home remedy for depression. A study suggests that “certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution, such as brief changes in body temperature” are a factor in preventing the mood disorder. It further states that “exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline” all of which make you feel good and put a kick in your stride.
You read correctly, dousing yourself with cold water can help keep you lean. This is because it activates your BAT, your brown adipose (read, fat) tissue. The function of BAT is to transfer energy from food into heat. When the tissue is active, high amounts of lipids and glucose are combusted in it, which is good news for your waistline. The 4HB suggests concentrating cold exposure on the neck and upper triceps area for their high amounts of BAT.
Boost for hormones and virility
Male readership listen closely. It’s no secret that a man’s testes are situated outside the body in order to keep their temperature low. Intentional and regular cold exposure has the potential to improve sperm count, sperm motility and testosterone production. Especially the latter is also very important for peak athletic performance.
Besides the metabolic benefits of cold exposure, it also just plainly wakes you the f*ck up. Hard to feel lethargic with your heart pumping like you just tried to outrun Usain Bolt. If you ride out the initial shock what you are left with a zen-like tranquility that will last for several hours.
Ready to plunge in?
If you are thinking about giving it a shot, I recommend adhering to the principle of small steps: After taking a normal shower and rinsing yourself off, step away from the stream of water and turn it to cold. Then, for a minute or two, let it run over your feet and calves as well as your hands, wrists and forearms. That should be enough for the beginning. Over time, work your way up to the rest of the body.
There are some contraindications for taking up this habit. If you suffer from heart disease or high blood pressure, are overheated or feverish or already have a cold you should abstain. When in doubt, speak to your doctor. But hey, you are reading a blog and there’s no MD attached to my name, so you probably already knew that. For everyone else cold showers are a great, cheap and quick way to do something for your well-being.