Wellness trends are changing faster than the tide. These days, one of the hottest topics among wellness experts, researchers and self-experimenters is cold shock therapy, be it in the form of cold showers, ice baths or cryotherapy.
UFC commentator and podcasting heavyweight Joe Rogan raves on a regular basis about the benefits of his cryotherapy sessions. He spends three minutes at a time in a full-body cold chamber, chilled with liquid nitrogen to a pinching -156 degrees Celsius (-250 degrees Fahrenheit). The magical benefits in his own words: “Aches and pains dissolve, and you feel like you can jump over the moon.”
Tim Ferriss covered cold shock therapy already in his book, The 4-H Body, mainly focusing on potential influences on fat reduction through the hormetic response and build-up of brown fat. Together with his buddy tech-investor Kevin Rose, he recently aired an “Ice Cold Edition” of their Random Show podcast, talking about the benefits of cold shock therapy and calling out to Kickstarter geniuses to invent an ice bath machine for private bathtubs.
Meanwhile, the godfather of all cold therapy evangelists, “Ice Man” Wim Hof, is breaking into mainstream media, puzzling researchers and journalists alike with his ability to control his immune system and his capability to withstand extreme cold unfazed. For Hof, cold is the “great teacher,” and together with his meditation and breathing technique, it’s also the recipe for health and happiness.
Even my favorite poker podcast, 2plus2 Pokercast, has its own segment dedicated to cold showers, courtesy of MMA fighting poker player and co-moderator Terrence Chan.
The Science Behind The Ice
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence on the benefits of cold shocks out there and increasingly also a lot of available research. My go-to expert, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, wrote a pretty dense report on the topic called Cold Shocking the Body (free to download via FoundMy Fitness). Contrary to my expectation, Dr. Patrick begins her report by talking about the effect of cold shocks through cryotherapy or cold-water immersion (ice bath) on the brain. By increasing the release of the hormone norepinephrine to the blood, cold shocks seem to have a positive influence on focus, attention and mood.
According to Dr. Patrick, norepinephrine is also the main driver behind the anti-inflammatory effects of cold shock therapy. In terms of benefits to the immune system, research has shown that long-term cold exposure leads to higher counts of white blood cells.
Dr. Patrick’s report also covers the effect on the metabolism, burning fat though thermogenesis. Thermogenesis comes in two different forms, as shivering thermogenesis, when muscle increases the metabolism by contracting, and as non-shivering thermogenesis, which is achieved by increasing the number of mitochondria, the effect described in Tim Ferriss’s book as building brown fat.
Another effect mentioned in the Patrick report is increased antioxidant enzyme activity.
Challenging Showers and Shower Challenges
While the brown fat magic would be more than welcome, my main interest in cold shock therapy is the anti-inflammatory effects. As mentioned in previous Life-Sparring rounds, I battle fairly frequently with all kind of inflammations, mainly of the tendons. I also sometimes have problems recovering. After an intense hike, my calves sometimes stay tensed up and sore for nearly a whole week.
I tried my luck with ice baths last summer. However, ice baths in subtropical Hong Kong pose logistical challenges. First of all, only a very few convenient stores actually carry bagged ice cubes (I can’t blame them, as retail space in HK is valuable). And if you are lucky to find a 7-Eleven that carries ice cubes, you have a very limited time window to rush home and reach your bath tub. On my last attempt at a post-hike ice bath, I produced a handy water trail in my building’s lobby. So unless somebody really comes up with an affordable and usable ice bath device, as demanded by Tim Ferriss and Kevin Rose in the abovementioned podcast (hell yeah, I would back this on Kickstarter), or I move to more ice bath-friendly territory, I have to get my cold shock through different means.
At the end of March of this year, I decided to introduce cold shock therapy to my life on a daily basis simply by taking both of my daily showers (morning and evening) with the faucet cranked to the minimal temperature possible.
The first week was horrible. As a lifelong hot shower enthusiast, limiting myself to cold water felt like pure torture. I was barely showering at all, keeping the showerhead in my hand instead of stepping under it, wetting essential body parts and then turning the shower off for a gel and shampoo routine before reluctantly flushing most foam away. It was a fairly different experience to the ten-minute, uninterrupted, steaming hot shower pleasure I was accustomed to.
The weather in HK this March was fairly cold at about 12-18 degrees Celsius. (Here in HK, we pretty much live without isolation and heating, so unless you buy a radiator or run the air conditioner, room temperature equals outside temperature). I also spent one extended weekend in wintery Germany, which definitely added to the experience.
About a week into my cold shower experiment, I saw the announcement for a 21-day cold shower challenge for charity, initiated by fitness guru Ben Greenfield. Participation required a US $29 minimum donation for brain trauma research and came with access to a private Facebook group, were the participating cold shower enthusiasts posted tons of motivational selfies.
Strangely, donating a few dollars for a charity and being part of the small community was enough to get me over the hump to turn my reluctant cold shower attempts into a regular habit. Despite March 31 and April 1, when I was down with a stomach flu, I have only showered cold since mid-March.
It’s hard to judge the effects of my experiment. Most scientific studies analyzing the benefits of cold shock therapy look at ice baths of 20 minutes or longer or cryotherapy at less than -100 degrees Celsius. Compared to this, my 5-minute showers at approximately 10-12 degrees Celsius are, medically speaking, a micro-dose.
While it is unlikely that there was significant thermogenesis (I rarely shivered and don’t think I built up significant amounts of brown fat), my more than two months of cold showering coincided with a weight loss of two kg. So it’s safe to say that my shower did not harm my attempts to lose weight without a formal diet.
I also survived a major coughing epidemic that plagued pretty much my whole office and my significant other for multiple weeks. So again, that serves as confirming anecdotal evidence for a positive effect on the immune system.
It might be a placebo effect, but overall, my impression is that I feel more alert, more energetic and less foggy in the morning since picking up the cold shower habit. In terms of recovery times and inflammatory problems, I sadly could not really feel a significant difference.
So I guess the only certain effects of my cold shower experiment are on the psychological side. Getting used to the cold showers felt like an achievement, a proof that I can literally leave my comfort zone and establish healthy habits. This gives me hope for my other "construction sites", such as my nutrition and meditation habits I am working on. Additionally, switching to cold showers also should have helped my environmental footprint, so I guess I scored a brownie point there.
So where to go from here? At the current point in time, I have no intention of returning to warm showers. I am not missing warm water at all and now that Hong Kong is entering the hot and steamy season, I am really looking forward for my cold showers.
I am also still extremely curious to try more extreme cold shock therapy, to see if I can feel a stronger effect. Coincidentally, the very first spa offering full-body cryotherapy just opened in Hong Kong. Let’s see if their rates are affordable. Expect a follow-up to this post if I manage to hit the nitrogen tank.
So how about you? Have you dipped your toes into ice water yet? Or was your only experience the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? If you tried cold shock therapy, what was your experience like? Did you feel the benefits?