Get Chilly- Not just athletes!
If you've been on Tik Tok or Instagram recently there is a good chance you've run across a post reporting on the life changing benefits of ice baths. This miserable modality actually has some merit. Let's dive into the
why, how and when to see if this is something for you.
Why- The purported benefits of cold exposure are as follows- mood increase through dopamine channels, increase in metabolic rate, decreased inflammation and improved recovery, development of mental toughness and a few other minor benefits.
What does the science say?
Mood elevation- There has been a growing litany of research to support cold exposure as a mood elevator. Various studies have reported anywhere from %200-%500 increases in both Dopamine and Norepinephrine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter the brain uses as a reward. Essentially, it is a feel good chemical. Norepinephrine is a bit more complex as it is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It is an integral part of our "fight or flight" response, elevates heart rate, improves focus and blood pressure regulation during stress and plays a role in sleep cycles. If your goal with cold therapy exposure is to improve your mood and focus, it does appear to be an effective means to do so.
Metabolic Rate- Let's be honest. Fat loss sells. People pay attention to anything that reports dramatic increases in metabolism or fat loss. Companies that sell Ice Baths and influencers receiving percentages of sales through affiliate marketing are quick to sensationalize anything that may make them a dollar. Here's the rub. While shivering through cold exposure will have an immediate effect on your metabolism, it is negligible. The excess calories burned are unlikely to add up to any amount of real weight loss. The other system reported to aid in reduction of fat reduction is the uptick in Brown Fat(BAT). BAT is adipose tissue that assists in thermoregulation. Essentially it can be activated to keep us warm when we are cold by burning fat as heat. Studies have shown consistent increase in BAT activation have led to lower rates of obesity and diabetes in animals as well as humans. Here's the kicker- particularly in humans it appears that duration is important. Short term cold exposure does not seem to elicit enough activation to make a dent. Long term cold exposure is both miserable and comes with safety concerns( I am not endorsing long term cold exposure as a means for fat metabolism, there are far better means)
Recovery, Inflammation, and Athletic Performance- Cold therapy has been used forever in sports. Recently there has been a push for using cold plunges, ice baths, or cold shower as a means to mitigate soreness and boost athletic performance. The science in this area is murky at best. Reports on decreased inflammation are subjective and near impossible to control. From a data driven standpoint, I have yet to come across a study demonstrating improved athletic performance as a direct correlative of post workout cold therapy. Contrarily- there are studies demonstrating cold therapy as an inhibitor to improvements in muscular hypertrophy( cold exposure stealing our gains!!). Expounding on this, there does appear to be a window to avoid with cold exposure if your goal is gaining mass. Avoid utilizing cold showers, tubs and such for a minimum of 4-6 hours post workout. If you enjoy the other benefits of cold therapy, use them before your workout, or many hours post. Food for thought- While cold is an effective means at temporarily removing pain, it is also extremely effective at reducing blood flow. All the systems in the body that actually repair damaged tissue are delivered via the bloodstream. Exposing sore muscles very well may actually delay recovery!
How and how much?- If you haven't experienced an ice bath or true cold plunge I would be lying if I told you it "wasn't so bad." It is. It's miserable, especially if you are just beginning to utilize them. They do get better. You become more resilient against lower temperatures and a bit "tougher." For Dopamine release all that is required is that you are truly uncomfortable. Everyone is different. You may be struggling at 60 degrees while someone else struggles at 45. Over time this temperature will lower and you will get better at the cold! Norepinephrine appears to need the lower temperatures to respond. The good news is that short duration works! 11-13 minutes per week is all that is needed to reap the rewards.
For beginners- A great method for newcomers is the gradually decrease the temperature at the end of each shower. Turn the water to lukewarm, wait 30 seconds, drop the temperature to brisk, wait 30 seconds, drop the temperature to cold, perform 4 box breaths( Box Breath- Navy Seal breathing method- in thru the nose- 4 second inhale- hold 4 seconds- out 4 seconds- hold 4 seconds=1 Box) . Turn the shower off and wait a few minutes to towel off.
Is it for you?- If your goal is to enhance your mood, focus, blood pressure and sleep cycles, or simply to test your mental fortitude routinely, go for it! Cold exposure is excellent for this. If your goal is to enhance your athletic prowess, there just isn't the science to support it, although it is admittedly difficult to control studies in this realm. That said, if you've used the cold before and it made you feel better, do it. The mind is powerful and absolutely has influence on how we feel and perform.
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