by Amy Mercovich, D.C.
If you asked me two years ago if I would consider going outside in the middle of Winter to hatchet through ice in a 100 gallon trough and THEN CLIMB INTO IT, I would have laughed in your face. I am not a person who was ever thrilled to be anything other than toasty warm and cozy.
Enter the big, lovable Wim Hof and learning about his cold therapy method. He was my gateway to this concept of using cold baths to improve how one feels. At this time, I was starting to suffer from more and more joint pain…elbows, hips, and hands most notably. I thought, what do I have to lose to try out this cold thing?
I started the easiest way, which was ending showers with a minute of cold water. I progressed to getting INTO a cold-only shower. Then, I began sitting in my bathtub with cold water and all the ice from the freezer. Finally, I surprised my husband by asking him what he thought about having the permanent addition of a 100 gallon horse trough on our deck to use for daily ice baths. He was on board, of course.
Unbelievably, I now take a daily ice bath in said horse trough. In these Winter months, I have to break through the ice with a hatchet but then I hop in! My average cold plunge is 4-6 minutes and I decided early on that I wouldn’t set a timer or force it. Whenever I want out, I simply get out, towel off, and head to a warm shower or the sauna.
One important tip when you are taking a full body ice bath: press your hands firmly into your thighs as soon as you get into the water. This keeps your fingertips from freezing.
Much less joint pain and a feeling of mental toughness are my rewards. I actually crave the ice bath now! Was it easy to start? No. Does it still take a small pep talk to myself to get in? Yes. But, it is so worth it. And, after about 20 seconds of intense discomfort from the cold, it gets easier. Really. I promise.
Let’s take a look at the reasons why a daily ice bath is good for your health:
It’s a natural anti-inflammatory: Ice baths are known to reduce inflammation in the body, which can help alleviate pain and soreness. So, if you’re feeling like your joints don’t like you anymore, a quick dip in an ice bath could be just what the doctor ordered.
It boosts your immune system: Taking an ice bath daily is said to boost your immune system by reducing the levels of stress hormones in your body and potentially also increasing specific immune cells. Personally, I believe this may be the most exciting feature of ice baths for our health. More research needs to be done, yet so far, it looks promising for being a free, easily accessible way to boost your immune strength and to fight off or prevent illness.
It’s great for your skin: Cold water is known to tighten skin, which can help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. I’m definitely not mad about that.
Let’s take a look at some of the current research on cold therapy.
“Cold showering as a potential treatment for depression” by A.K. Thieden and R. E. Wright (Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2013) – This study found that taking cold showers can reduce levels of stress hormones in the body, which can improve feelings of well-being.
“The effects of cold water immersion on immunity” by M.A. Castell, D.A. Newsholme and A.M. Pahlavani (Journal of Applied Physiology, 1996) – This study looked at the effects of cold water immersion on the immune system and found that it can increase the levels of certain immune cells, such as leukocytes and natural killer cells, which can help to fight off infections and diseases.
“Brown-fat-mediated tumour suppression by cold-altered global metabolism” by Seki, T., Yang, Y., Sun, X. et al. (Nature, 2022) This study found that cold exposure was linked to tumor suppression in mice. The results showed that the cold exposure caused the mice’s immune systems to produce more cytokines, which are proteins that help regulate the immune response. This research paper explained in detail how it is likely the activation of brown adipose tissue from cold exposure that jeopardizes the tumor’s use of glucose, thereby essentially starving cancerous cells and diminishing them. Very interesting! This research is fascinating and hopefully will open doors to further study of this phenomenon and its uses for human cancer treatment.
“The effect of cold water immersion on knee joint pain and stiffness following exercise-induced muscle damage” by R.J. Hilton, et al. (Journal of Athletic Training, 2009) – This study looked at the effects of cold water immersion on joint pain and stiffness after exercise-induced muscle damage. The results showed that the participants who took a cold water bath experienced a significant reduction in knee joint pain.
“The effect of whole-body cryotherapy on anxiety and depression levels in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized controlled trial” by A. Członkowska, et al. (Psychiatry Research, 2016) – This study looked at the effects of whole-body cryotherapy, which involves exposing the body to cold temperatures, on depression and anxiety levels in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The results showed that the participants who received whole-body cryotherapy experienced a significant reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to those who did not receive the therapy. Wow! Think of all the people who might find this free, no ill side effect method to improve their moods and mental health helpful.
In conclusion, taking a daily ice bath has a wide range of benefits for physical and mental health. While more research is needed to fully understand the way all of this works and for whom it may work best, these findings provide a strong argument for incorporating an ice bath into your routine. (Certainly ask your doctor first, especially if you have any medical conditions that may preclude its safety, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, peripheral vascular or nerve disease, or diabetes.)
I know it has made a big difference in the quality of my life so I plan to keep doing it.
Here are my best tips for taking an ice bath:
- Get into cold water – whatever is available to you – and don’t worry too much about how cold it is. A cold shower will do. A cold bath with just tap cold water is still good. An outside tub will vary in its temperature and sometimes will be a true ice bath. It’s all good. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
- Say to yourself “calm surrender” and “it’s just a feeling and the feeling will change.”
- Try not to gasp – make yourself stay calm. It’s part of the challenge and the fun! Focus on long exhales.
- Glue your hands to your thighs to keep your fingers from being too painful. If your toes get too cold, you could get neoprene booties. It’s also ok to wear a hat on your head, if it makes you happier.
- Get out whenever you have the urge. Don’t force it!
- Have something warm ready to go when you get out of the cold. A warm shower, bath, or sauna are all great options.
- Be proud of yourself. You are tough and strong!