kyletothemoon holistic health blog

Ice Baths – The Health Hack That Nobody Wants to Do

cold plunge kyletothemoon health blog ice bath

Table of Contents

In my recent blog on chronic inflammation, one of the five ways that I mention to fight inflammation is to expose yourself to cold temperatures through ice baths, cold showers, or polar plunges. It is possible you may have heard of the “Ice Man”, Wim Hof, who has set numerous Guinness World Records for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. Although people have been practicing cold exposure for the history of time, people like Wim Hof and Paul Chek are largely responsible for bringing awareness back to this sacred practice. Now we have pioneer health practitioners like Troy Casey the “Certified Health Nut” and Ben Greenfield who are avid evangelists of the power of the cold, and their exuberant health is a testimony that they do practice what they preach. 

Benefits of Cold Exposure

There are several examples of how cold thermogenesis, the creation of body heat when the body is exposed to conditions significantly below its optimum temperature, enhances our human experience. I will list the most common:

Increased production of brown adipose tissue (BAT) & improves insulin sensitivity

Brown fat, unlike white fat, is considered our “good fat” and is primarily responsible for converting food into body heat. It is often found in newborns and hibernating mammals, making them more efficient with their energy. In a study published by the Journal of Clinical Investigation, scientists found that “10-day cold acclimation protocol in humans increases BAT activity in parallel with an increase in nonshivering thermogenesis (NST).”

Along with chronic inflammation, insulin sensitivity is linked with nearly every deadly disease out there. Several scientific studies have illustrated that deliberate exposure to the cold will remove glucose from the bloodstream and enhance insulin sensitivity. One example of this is a study performed by Nature Communications, which discovered the following:

“Cold exposure may be a potential therapy for diabetes by increasing brown adipose tissue (BAT) mass and activity. Here we report that 10 (days) of cold acclimation (14–15 °C) increased peripheral insulin sensitivity by ~43% in eight type 2 diabetes subjects. Basal skeletal muscle GLUT4 translocation markedly increased, without effects on insulin signaling or AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) activation and only a minor increase in BAT glucose uptake.”

Decrease inflammation, boost detox & aid athletic recovery

Ice baths can decrease your inflammation and aid athletic recovery/healing largely due to the way that they affect your blood flow. Once submerged (or exposed to via cold shower) in cold water, your blood vessels will contract. Once your body begins to regulate its core temperature when you get out of the water, a rush of blood and nitric oxide rush through your veins. This concept was explained in a paper published by Science Direct:

“On exposure to cold, there is a marked increase in the affinity of the postjunctional α-adrenoceptors for norepinephrine. This results in a powerful constriction of the blood vessels and a cessation of blood flow to the distal tissue. As the temperature of the tissues rapidly falls, sympathetic nerve conduction is interrupted and vasodilatation occurs, due to the cessation of norepinephrine release and the depressor action of cold on the contractile machinery. The resultant return of blood flow rewarms the tissue, nerve conduction is reestablished, and this combined with the increased affinity of the α-adrenoceptors for norepinephrine leads to renewed vasoconstriction.”

It is my and many others belief who have practiced cold thermogenesis that such a shock to our vascular and circular system boosts healing within the body and aids in detoxification. While I am very satisfied with all of the other benefits that ice bathing has brought me, this one stands alone as my favorite.

Improved immune system & combatant of auto-immune disease

While there is still much research to be done on cold exposure therapy in general, one of the more eyebrow-raising claims nowadays is that consistent exposure to cold temperatures can improve your immune system. Growing up, I was always told to “bundle up” in colder temperatures so I wouldn’t get sick. While complete shock your body’s systems at once may cause weakened immunity in the short term, there are huge gains in the long term when we build up our tolerance of being “content with the cold”. A research study in 2016 published by PLOS ONE concluded in finding that a “routine (hot-to-) cold shower resulted in a statistical reduction of self-reported sickness absence, but not illness days in adults without severe comorbidity”. In this particular study, notice how they are looking at “hot-to-cold showers” instead of just throwing yourself right into ice water. I believe that reflects the importance of building up your tolerance slowly.

Increase cell longevity & restore blood-brain-barrier

With such an intense increase in blood flow and the ability for your body to delivery more nitric oxide to your brain, cold exposure is another tool to rebuild and strengthen the integrity of our BBB (blood-brain-barrier) and protect ourselves from BBB degeneration. This is one of the many examples I give to people struggling with their mental health, that physical health translates to mental wellbeing. There is tons of fascinating research on the BBB, but I’ll save that for another time.

Appetite regulator & better stress management via vagus nerve stimulation

As I touched upon in my post Gut to Brain: How Our Food Controls Our Behavior, our vagus nerve is responsible for communicating between our gut and our brain. The vagus nerve is also accountable for regulating our appetite, which is shown to be put into balance through proper stimulation. In a paper published by the National Library of Medicine, researchers analyzed 61 participants in a laboratory chair and with cold stimulation on the right side of their bodies. “A thermode was placed on the neck, cheek, and forearm. We recorded and subsequently analyzed participants’ electrocardiograms. The cold stimulation was applied in 16-second intervals over 4 trials per testing location.”

The results confirmed their main hypothesis that “cold stimulation at the lateral neck region would result in higher heart rate variability and lower heart rate than in the control condition. This sets the stage for further investigations of stress reduction potential in the neck region by developing a wearable prototype that can be used for cold application.”

Wim Hof’s website adds that “exposing your body to acute cold conditions, such as taking a cold shower or splashing cold water on your face, increases stimulation of the vagus nerve. While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity declines, while parasympathetic activity increases.”

Different Ways to Expose Yourself to the Cold

Assuming you are convinced of the benefits of cold thermogenesis and you also have the discipline to do one of the least desirable health and wellness hacks out there, kudos to you. Luckily, there are several different ways you can start exposing yourself to the cold and build up your tolerance to it. I’ve been practicing cold exposure through various methods off and on for about six years now. I would definitely recommend beginning by ending your shower with a few minutes of cold water. Try to embrace it and calm yourself down as much as possible so that you can really tap into a parasympathetic state.

If you have the budget and the space for it, some remarkably excellent companies like Plunge and Morozko Forge build personal ice baths that are just downright exceptional quality. If you don’t feel like spending that type of money and enjoy DIY projects, there are increasing resources online to build your own ice bath for relatively cheap. Check out this article by Ben Greenfield, The Ultimate Guide To DIY Cold Thermogenesis: The Cold Tub Secrets Of Some Of The Top Biohackers On The Planet & How To Make Your Own Cold Tub Setup, where he details the way that Luke Storey started a movement by converting a 19.8 cubic feet freezer into his own ice bath.

Personally, my wife and I travel full-time in our RV, so it’s kind of difficult to bring an ice bath along the road. I take cold showers almost every day and try to “polar plunge” into as many cold lakes and rivers as I can. Whenever we stay at my mom’s house in California, I will buy two 20 lbs. bags of ice a few times per week and have myself a seven-minute ice bath to reset my mind and body. I do look forward to the day I can jump in my ice bath before entering my sauna each morning, but as long as we continue the gypsy life I will keep it simple. The point being, no matter where you are at in life you can add a little more cold into your life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *