Benefits of Cold Showers
The cold shower is a cornerstone of most people’s Wim Hof Method practice. If you’ve ever taken one, then you know from experience that it shakes off the cobwebs and leaves you eager to attack the day.
But there are many more benefits to taking cold showers besides that fresh kick of dopamine. Let’s go through each one, and see exactly how those little droplets are working their magic!
The most proven benefit of taking a cold shower is a more efficient metabolism.
Cold water cools your body. As a response, the tiny engines in your cells start burning extra fuel to keep you warm. All the organs and physiological processes involved in producing that energy are put into overdrive, and they become more efficient as a result. Just like your muscles get stronger by lifting weights, your metabolic system stays fit with cold showers!
In order to produce that extra heat, your cells burn lots of fat and glucose. Until recently, the amount of additional calories burned via various forms of cold exposure was thought to be very limited, but evidence is mounting that cold therapy is in fact an effective method for healthy weight loss.
In a 2021 study into cold water swimming, the control group that had no prior cold training burned about 500 surplus calories after a 195 minute session in water of 14 degrees Celsius. And the treatment group of experienced winter swimmers increased their expenditure by as much as 1000 kcal. Given that the average person expends about 2000-2500 calories per day, those are very substantial numbers.
You are of course unlikely to take 3-hour showers, but the colder the water, the less time you need to expose yourself in order to achieve the same effect. So instead of taking immensely long showers at 14 degrees, you could go for shorter ice cold showers and reap similar benefits.
Some of that surplus heat is generated by special fat cells called brown fat or ‘brown adipose tissue’ (BAT for short).
Most of your fat cells are of the regular white flabby kind— they are just a depository for energy. But then you also have scattered pockets of this brown fat, in your neck, back and adrenal glands. This special tissue is actually white fat that has been fitted with little engines to generate extra heat.
Whenever you’re cold, your brown fat gets activated, and if you practice lots of cold exposure, you also convert more white fat into brown fat. The more brown fat you have, the quicker you clear glucose from your bloodstream, which translates to higher insulin sensitivity.
With carbohydrates forming an ever bigger part of our modern diets, diabetes numbers going up, and cardiovascular disease remaining the #1 global cause of death, there are few better ways to protect yourself and stay in good health than having high insulin sensitivity.
To disperse all that added heat quickly and evenly, warm blood elbows its way through your arteries, stretching its walls wide. Meanwhile the capillaries in your skin are pulled tight to minimize heat loss at the surface. Later, when you’ve put on your warm clothes, this reverses as your body relaxes and all those tubes shrink back to their normal size.
All that stretching and pulling keeps your entire vascular system limber and supple, improving circulation.
Your blood isn’t just there to keep you warm and feed your organs oxygen. It also carries around all kinds of disease fighting compounds. Sometimes, the system goes haywire and your body gets flooded with these little soldiers, who start wreaking havoc. This is better known as inflammation, and it lies at the root of a great many health conditions.
One of the interesting effects of cold exposure is that it keeps inflammation in check, by modulating the release of key signaling proteins.
A 2022 study showed that if you combine Wim Hof Method breathing and cold exposure, levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10 (IL-10) go up, while the pro-inflammatory IL-6 goes down. Another recent study showed that cold exposure on its own is enough to elicit the same effects. Here, concentration of the troublemaking ‘tumor necrosis factor alpha’ (TNF-α) took a sharp drop, and the increase of IL-6 was delayed, compared to the control group.
In addition, despite the confusing name, taking a cold shower induces the release of socalled heat shock proteins (HSPs). These little guys help stabilize damaged proteins that are involved in pro-inflammatory signaling pathways, by properly refolding them.
Together, these mechanisms mitigate inflammation-related issues and optimize the immune response.
Besides impacting fancy schmancy vague and invisible things like inflammatory proteins, metabolism, circulation and glucose levels, cold showers also have more obvious and immediate benefits.
Now that you know that it’s a no-brainer to make cold showers part of your daily routine, how should you do them? When, and for how long?
How to start taking cold showers
If you’re new to this game, start by taking your regular ol’ warm shower. You don’t want to go too fast too quickly. The cold can be quite a shock, to both you and your body. We don’t want you to say “screw this”, never even rinse your hands with cold water again, and miss out on all those wonderful benefits outlined above.
Once you’re all lathered up with your preferred personal care product, switch to cold to rinse off. Note that the first 15 or so seconds are always the hardest. Your skin will curse you for taking away that warm comfy blanket, and you have to fight the urge to flip back. You’ll instinctively breathe faster, which makes you feel more distressed, so try to control your breathing. Be sure NOT to do Wim Hof Method breathing while under the shower, as you could black out.
After the initial shock, your body adjusts. You start feeling the power of the Cold, you hear Guile’s theme playing in your head, and you’re ready to attack the day. With repeated showers you experience less of a shock when the cold hits you, and you can slowly transition to the all-cold variety.
How cold should your cold showers be?
As mentioned earlier, the colder the water, the greater the benefit. (Up to a point. You don’t want to Elon Musk some kind of device that freezes your bones to -273℃.)
So simply turn that shower knob as cold as it goes, and that’s your sweet spot.
With that said, 14 degrees Celsius seems to be the go-to minimum short exposure temperature, if you want to reap any cold benefits.
How long should your cold showers be?
The optimal amount of cold exposure is about 10 minutes per week. After that, returns diminish. So if you divide that by 7 days a week, you only need to shower cold for 1-2 minutes per day to get the optimal benefits.
What is the best time of day for cold showers?
As we’ve learned, cold exposure heats up your body and gets you energized. Meanwhile a lower body temperature is what makes you sleepy. Therefore, you want to avoid taking cold showers before bed, as it could be harder to get to sleep.
The best time for a cold shower is directly when you wake up, as it fires you up to seize the day.
When not to take a cold shower
Because cold showers affect your heart rate and potentially your blood pressure, first inquire with a health professional whether cold showers are safe for you, if you are dealing with any related conditions such as cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure.