How a Cold Plunge Can Benefit Your Mind and Body

by Little Elephant

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How a Cold Plunge Can Benefit Your Mind and Body

Nov 28, 2022

Whether done in a specific cold plunge tub or in the middle of a freezing lake, immersing your body in icy waters can come with some profound mental and physical perks.

 

While it's pretty standard for athletes to take a post-workout ice bath, the practice of immersing your body in freezing cold H2O has become more popular amongst celebrities as of late. Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Brooke Shields are some stars who've tried versions of the teeth-chattering trend. 

 

What Is a Cold Plunge, Exactly?

Whether done in an outdoor tub or soaking in a veritable sea of ice cubes , a cold plunge is essentially the act of immersing yourself in cold-temperature water (typically 10°c or below). And while it's garnered quite a bit of attention lately (with the eponymous hashtag even racking up hundreds of millions of views on TikTok), the concept is hardly new. In fact, the cold plunge is considered "an ancient practice," says Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. And although it's hard to say precisely where cold plunges started, Greek physician Hippocrates reportedly thought they could help ease fatigue. They were recommended by doctors in the 1700s to treat things such as fever, according to research.

Cold Plunge Benefits

"There are so many benefits to cold plunges for your entire system," says Joseph Ciotola, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center. "I do it every day."
For starters, the tactic might help improve your circulation "especially when you alter hot and cold because it improves the elasticity of your blood vessels," says Dr. Ciotola. And the more flexible your blood vessels, the better they can regulate your blood pressure and maintain good heart health.


He adds that cold water immersion can also have anti-inflammatory effects on your muscles and joints, which can lower your risk of injury and pain. In fact, research suggests that exposure to cold H2O decreases skin, core, and muscle temperatures. This can lead to vasoconstriction (aka narrowing of blood vessels), which, in turn, reduces inflammation from muscle damage, according to a 2006 study. What's more, lower tissue temps can cause a reduction in nerve conduction properties and a decrease in muscle spasms and pain.
One small study from 2004 found that people who suffered from health issues, such as fibromyalgia (a chronic condition that causes pain and tenderness throughout the body) and asthma (chronic lung disease that affects the airways in the lungs), reported experiencing less pain after doing cold water swimming over four months. Meanwhile, research from 2012 and 2016 suggests that cold water immersion (vs. passive recovery) following a workout can lead to decreased muscle soreness.


However, the mental perks of cold plunges are less clear — from a scientific standpoint, at least. While "the area needs more research, some preliminary data supports its mental health benefits," says Gallagher. For example, a 2021 study of people between the ages of 19 and 88 found that those who swam in the ocean during the winter reported having lower levels of stress and higher feelings of wellbeing than those who didn't go into the H2O.
Another study of winter swimmers found that people who followed the practice saw drops in self-reported tension, fatigue, memory issues, and bad mood as they swam more. And after four months, the swimmers said they had more energy and were more active than those who didn't swim. There is a caveat: Swimming and exercise alone have been linked to a reduction in pain and improvements in mental health, making this a tough one to parse out, notes Dr. Zaslow. "If you swim even in warm water, you may have some of these effects," she says. "We can't discount that." 

How to Safely Dive Into Open-Water Swimming

While the association between cold water immersion and improved mental health isn't entirely clear, some research suggests that immersing yourself in icy H2O can trigger the release of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol). This could potentially explain the boost in energy post-cold plunge. "Anecdotally, it's rejuvenating," says Gallagher. "It challenges people to see what they can handle."

Gallagher says people can "feel terrific afterward," which may help alleviate anxiety and depression. And Dr. Ciotola agrees, adding, "you get this endorphin release when you get out." In fact, cold water swimming has been shown to increase the concentration of norepinephrine (which can improve energy and alertness) and endorphin (which can boost mood), according to research. These effects could even help lessen depression, according to a 2020 scientific review.

Need not forget, though, that there's also "a lot to be said for the placebo effect," says Gallagher. "If you feel like it's helping, it's helping."

How to Mix Cold Plunges Into Your Wellness Routine

If you're interested in taking a cold plunge, there are a few tips worth keeping in mind. Before you even step into the icy waters, practice a few breathwork exercises to calm your body and mind, suggests Lauren Schramm, the founder and head coach of mvmt collective, a global Nike trainer, and an ice bath coach. "When you get into the tub, all you really have is your breath to bring you back out of the stress," she explains. By practicing breathwork before the plunge, she adds that you'll be able to quickly recall and run through the same soothing techniques while you're dealing with the initial shock of the cold. Schramm's go-to method? Box breathing entails breathing in for a four-count, holding the inhale for the same amount of time, exhaling for a count of four, then holding the exhale for the same amount of time.


Once you're ready to dive in, consider starting with a 30- to a 60-second cold shower, an accessible alternative that may provide similar benefits and allows you to quickly warm up afterward, says Schramm. For an actual cold plunge, start small and work your way up. That means beginning with a tub of H2O about 10°c or less, says Dr. Zaslow. You should also aim to submerge yourself — either a specific body part that's particularly sore or your whole body up to your chin — for two minutes and eventually work your way up to 10 minutes, if you can tolerate it, suggests Dr. Ciotola. "I practice three rounds of three minutes every one to two weeks and find that to be great for my mental and emotional wellbeing," adds Schramm.

So Should You Try a Cold Plunge?

"Cold water affects your blood pressure, heart rate, and circulation, and it can cause cardiac stress," says Dr. Zaslow. "In rare cases, it has provoked cardiac arrest. People with underlying health issues are especially at risk for this." 
That's up for you — and your doctor — to decide.
Even if your doc does give you the okay, Remember, though, that nothing is a cure-all, so it should be an adjunctive intervention to a healthy lifestyle.