The Ins And Outs Of Cold Exposure Therapy

Did you ever think jumping in an ice bath could benefit you? Cold exposure therapy says it is! Here are a few things you need to know.

While heat therapy has been the buzz to help heal the body from various ailments for quite some time, research has shown cold therapy to be just as effective — if not more.

Heat therapy works to improve circulation and blood flow to an affected area to increase temperature and stimulate repair. In doing so, the afflicted area and discomfort will be soothed, muscle flexibility improved, and muscle tightness decreased, all the while starting the healing process of the damaged tissue.

Cold exposure therapy, also known as cryotherapy, works the opposite way. It functions to reduce blood flow to a specific area, reducing the inflammation and swelling that causes pain. This is especially pertinent when joints and tendons are involved. Using cold can also help to temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can also mitigate pain.


Types of cold exposure therapy

As with heat therapy, there are a few different options for cold therapy that each exhibit very similar effects. Here’s what you can choose from:

  1. Ice packs or frozen gel packs
  2. Coolant sprays
  3. Ice massage
  4. Ice baths
  5. Whole-body cold therapy chamber (cryotherapy chamber)


Why cold exposure therapy may be superior to heat?

When it comes to hot and cold, both have their advantages. However, research has suggested that cold therapy may have some added benefits that heat doesn’t.


Hormonal balance

Seems like an odd benefit from simply taking a cold shower, but studies show that cold therapy can help tremendously with hormone balance. Specifically, adiponectin, a regulator of inflammation; insulin via improved glucose turnover and improved insulin sensitivity; leptin; and testosterone.


Stress resistance

When done regularly, cold therapy can help increase the immune system’s function by decreasing cortisol levels, the main stress hormone in the body. A study on glutathione levels during short-term cold exposure found that exposure to cold water helps to increase glutathione, which is a super antioxidant in the body. This kind of oxidative reaction can help to strength the body’s resistance to physical, mental, and emotional stress.


Benefits the nervous system and cardiovascular system

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two sectors: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The former is what controls our ‘flight or flight’ response, while the latter controls our ‘rest and digest’ response. So why would cold exposure help boost the nervous system? Turning down the body’s temperature for a period of time shocks the body and induces stress — but remember, not all stress is bad. When we expose the body to short bursts of cold, blood flow to the extremities halts and is shunted towards internal organs. The nervous system, as well as the circulatory system, become constricted, and therefore the body must work harder to deliver nutrients and blood to the heart. In turn, the lungs must also work harder.

As the body starts to work harder, circulation must become more efficient. These systems all work together to improve body function upon exposure to cold. As the body returns to a normal temperature, blood flow to the extremities returns, and the body continues to function on a heightened level until homeostasis is returned. So partaking in a cold shower or ice baths regularly will help to strengthen both the nervous and cardiovascular systems.

Studies have also shown that when we partake in cold immersion, it produces compensatory vasodilation of the vascular system, which results in increased blood flow to underlying tissues. Cold immersions can also activate components of the reticular activating system, which can result in increased capacity of the central nervous system to recruit motoneurons and increased efficiency.


Boosts the immune systems

Continued cold water immersion has been shown to activate and strengthen the immune system by elevating important markers of immune strength. Cold exposure has been shown effective for increasing white blood cell count and circulating IL-6, T and B lymphocytes, and monocytes. Repeated exposure, for a period of 6 weeks, also showed a trend towards increased helper T cells and T suppressor cells, which are all markers of immune health.


Fights inflammation

Exposure to cold helps to increase levels of adiponectin in the body, a protein that helps to prevent inflammation. Cold exposure can also help to decrease levels of TNF-alpha, IL-6 (can be both pro- and anti-inflammatory), and IL-8 — all markers of inflammation.


Better sleep

Studies have shown that sleeping in a slightly cooler room can make for a deeper, more restful sleep. If you’ve ever tried to sleep in a slightly warm room or when your body is too hot, you’ve probably been pretty restless. Body temperature naturally falls around 10 pm to help induce sleep, so when we cool the body prior to sleep, we are able to fall asleep faster.

But it’s not about sitting in an ice bath for 2 minutes or 2 hours — it’s all about timing. Here’s why acute and optimal cold exposure is important:

Like many other factors, the timing of cold exposure is crucial. While a hot/cold contrast shower in the morning may be beneficial for waking your body up and getting the blood moving, jumping into an ice bath after a workout, for example, may hinder your recovery. As the mobility guru, Kelly Starrett, recommends, schedule your cold exposure separately from your workouts, as subjecting the body to cold limits blood flow to certain areas and hinders post-workout inflammation that is necessary for tissue repair.


Cold exposure therapy myths expelled

Myth # 1: Jumping in a cold bath will help to reduce body fat.

The human body stores fat in one form called brown adipose tissue (BAT), which is the ‘active’ fat, as it burns calories and uses energy. While studies do suggest cold exposure increases the activity of BAT, leading to increased calorie expenditure, the extent may not be enough to make a significant impact on body fat levels. Additionally, while cold exposure does cause a temporary increase in heart rate and metabolism, it is again not significant enough to cause drastic weight loss of body fat reduction. Regular activity and a healthy, balanced diet is a more successful ways to decrease body fat. As well, removing inflammatory foods from the diet can make quite a large impact on body composition (i.e., go paleo!).


Myth # 2: Cryotherapy is better than an ice bath.

Many people believe that sitting in a cold chamber for a few minutes is more effective than sitting in a cold bath. As it turns out, cold showers and full-body water immersion are cheaper and just as effective! Cryotherapy chambers operate by use of cold air that causes the body to respond via cold sensors on the skin’s surface. It essentially ‘tricks’ the body into applying healing mechanisms without the cold fully penetrating the body to activate these mechanisms. While a cryo chamber may be slightly more comfortable than sitting in an ice bath for an extended period of time, the effect elicited and extent of recovery is very similar.


Tips for using cold exposure therapy

It may be something to consider if you’ve never tried cold therapy before. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few tips for a cold exposure therapy at home, practicing each step for a week or until comfortable:

  1. Start by taking a shower as you normally would. Once you’re finished and about to jump out, turn the shower to the coldest temperature you can stand and remain in the water for 30 seconds to 1 minute (or however long you can tolerate).
  2. Begin your shower the next time with cold water for 1 minute. Switch the water to your comfortable temperature for your shower, and then switch back to cold for a short period before getting out.
  3. Again, start with a cold shower for one minute, then switch to normal for one minute. Continue alternating between hot and cold in 1-minute intervals until you have finished your shower. Finish with cold.
  4. Continue with the same schedule as step 3 (week 3), but try to take one 5-10 minute cold shower. Slowly progress the length of the cold shower until you can reach 15-20 minutes a few times per week.


Final thoughts

We know that having a cold shower or being immersed in a bath of cold water doesn’t sound very appealing, but the health benefits are amazing. If you’re a little skeptical of going full-force into an ice bath, start small and work your way up — even an ice pack can help reap some benefits without all the discomfort. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be doing a polar bear dip by the end of your experience!

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The Ins And Outs Of Cold Exposure Therapy

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