As longevity seems to be one of this year’s hot topics, it comes to no surprise that cold water immersion ranks pretty high on the list. Although this practice has been around for centuries, its popularity has increased significantly and people are reaping the benefits—big time.
Remember that time your crazy cousin dared you to jump into the freezing lake in the early spring? That stinging feeling against your skin, your heart rate skyrockets instantly, your breathing becomes audible and your adrenaline kicks in. Now, we can all agree that cold water plunges never get easier or any less pleasant. So why the sudden increase of interest?
Enter: Wim Hof.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Also known as the Iceman, Hof is renowned for his insane ability to withstand cold temperatures. In more recent years, he’s set out to educate others on the health benefits of cold water immersion and how it can treat or help alleviate symptoms of chronic illnesses.
Having studied Hof’s methods since late 2017, I decided to jump in (pun intended) and try out his cold water immersion progressions on myself. For the first 5 days, I worked up to staying under a cold shower for 60 seconds. The next 5 days after that, I progressed to staying in for 2 minutes. It wasn’t until after 10 days in that I began implementing the ice baths. For cold showers, I aimed to stay in for a minimum of 2 minutes whereas for the ice baths, I worked up to staying in for 5 minutes.
Between day 10 and day 30, I chose to alternate between showers and ice baths for my daily cold water immersion. On weekends, I’d venture out and find a nearby lake or river to dive into (which was my favourite by far). Come day 30, my tolerance had increased so much to the point that I was able to stay in for about 8 minutes. Sure, it may not seem like a very long time, but that’s the beauty of cold water exposure — the most bang for your buck is in a very little amount of time.
Here are 5 big changes I noticed after 30 days of cold water immersion.
1. Mood and mental state.
The first week was the toughest for sure. As soon as the water hit me, I tensed right up and felt the constant need to catch my breath. It wasn’t until about 12 days in that I was able to find my flow and reconnect with my breathing. The more I was able to solely shift my focus to deep inhales and exhales, the less I focused on how the rest of my body was feeling.
By practicing this breath work while being immersed in the ice, it not only helped me get through the discomfort of the cold but I found myself more alert throughout the day, less anxious and I was much less inclined to act out my frustrations or snap on the “little things”. Exposure to cold releases norepinephrine into parts of the brain involved in focus, attention and emotions. (1) It also decreases the production of inflammatory cytokines (linked to anxiety and depression) which supports the idea that cold exposure has tremendous mood enhancing capabilities. (2)
2. Skin health.
As someone who has battled with psoriasis for 5 years, I can firmly attest to the benefits of cold water immersion of the health of one’s skin. I will never argue against the use of heat however I know it definitely has its place. Steams, saunas, and hot tubs are great to get you sweating and to regenerate your skin. However, increased blood flow can only do you so much good before it is too much.
After 30 days of ice baths, my skin felt smoother, well, hydrated and with little to no visible inflammation. I didn’t notice any particular changes in my circulation, but studies have shown individuals experiencing tremendous benefits in cardiovascular and overall body circulation once adopting this method. (3)
Ladies — forget grasping a pillow in the fetal position hoping the cramps go away. The most impactful change I noticed in the midst of my ice bath journey was its effect on my PMS symptoms. No cramps, no cravings, no hormonal acne, and definitely less mood swings (my family and friends can vouch for me here). According to this study, cold water immersion [at 14°C] not only increases your metabolic rate by 350%, your norepinephrine and dopamine levels also get a significant boost while directly exposed to the cold. (4)
So, considering my takeaways after completing the 30 days, I believe the consistent ice baths enhanced my body’s ability to balance my hormones during this phase of my cycle by boosting my “happy” hormones to mitigate any negative premenstrual symptoms. While I received exceptional benefits from the cold water exposure, please continue to follow any PMS management protocols you’ve previously discussed with your doctor. Of course, everyone’s bodies are different—however, I do believe every woman should give cold water immersion a try as an alternate (and very wallet-friendly!) method of PMS relief.
I’ve always prided myself about being a great sleeper. After only being three days in, I felt an enormous shift in my sleep quality, how fast I would fall asleep and how refreshed I felt upon waking up. Cold water immersion increases our stress hormones (cortisol and norepinephrine) for up to 60 minutes post-immersion. (5) When regulated naturally, cortisol actually plays a very important role in balancing some of our bodies’ daily systems. For example, it helps us naturally wake up in the morning, controls our blood pressure and assist with memory formulation. (6)
So, given cortisol and norepinephrine’s role in our cognitive health and alertness during the day, it only makes sense that a regular ice bath routine would help regulate these hormones for them to support our circadian rhythm. I reserved my cold water immersions for the morning or the earlier hours of my day which I highly recommend to anyone looking to adopt this practice.
5. Athletic recovery.
As a competitive weightlifter, my training takes quite a toll on my body. The initial benefit I was looking to get out of these ice baths was for mainly muscular and nervous system recovery. Cold water immersion does reduce inflammation through vasoconstriction by lowering damaged tissue’s temperature and localizing blood flow. (7) Using cold therapy can also help prevent bruising and swelling from waste and fluid build-up one can experience after an injury or an intense training session. (8) Around 12 days into my ice bath routine, the DOMS I would typically experience from a heavy squat or pull session was decreased in a big way and I felt much less tired throughout the day.
When I began these 30 days, I was mostly expecting to notice a change in my physical recovery (mission accomplished). However, the biggest surprise was the cold water’s effect on my mental state, PMS, and regulating my hormones to allow for better sleep (from what I experienced). Having experienced pretty notable shifts in not only my performance in the gym, but in my everyday life, I can finally see the genius behind Wim Hof’s perceived madness.
Do I still take an ice bath every single day? Definitely not. But, I do turn the knob to freezing cold for at least 30 seconds at the end of each shower to give myself a quick boost and maintain my tolerance to the cold.
Awake, happy and feeling euphoric—isn’t it how you’d want to feel every day?
Give it a whirl and feel it for yourself here.
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2. Jennifer C. Felger and Francis E. Lotrich, Inflammatory Cytokines in Depression: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Therapeutic Implications. Neuroscience. 2013 Aug 29; 246: 199–229.
3. A Mooventhan and L Nivethitha, Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body. N Am J Med Sci. 2014 May; 6(5): 199–209.
4. Srámek P1, Simecková M, Janský L, Savlíková J, Vybíral S, Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2000 Mar;81(5):436-42.
5. Bleakley CM, Davison GW What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold-water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review British Journal of Sports Medicine 2010;44:179-187.
6. Neural Plasticity and Memory: From Genes to Brain Imaging. Chapter 13, Bermúdez-Rattoni F, editor. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2007.
7. Gregson, W., Black, M.A., Jones, H., Milson, J., and Morton J. (2011). Influence of cold water immersion on limb and cutaneous blood flow at rest. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 39: 1316–1323.
8. Kuligowski LA, Lephart SM, Giannantonio FP, Blanc RO (1998). Effect of whirlpool therapy on the signs and symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness. J Athl Train 33: 222–228.