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Brain benefits of cold water immersion: Take a dip for better mental health

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The use of water as therapy dates back to historical times. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended use of cold water to energise the body [1]. There has been growing evidence that suggests that cold water therapy benefits mental health. In recent times, Dutch motivational coach Wim Hof, known as the Iceman, advocates cold water therapy for a variety of health benefits. There is much to learn about the specific mechanisms of how cold water benefits the brain. It is known that immersing your body in cold water can lead to changes in brain chemicals. This opens doors to explore the use of cold water to help relieve stress. 

Your brain on cold water therapy

When your body is exposed to cold water, your blood flow decreases. Once the exposure stops, the body tries to return to normal by increasing the blood flow. This increased blood flow increases your brain’s temperature to optimum levels and has protective effects [2].

When you practise cold water therapy, either by taking cold showers or immersing your body in cold water; your brain chemical production changes to adapt your body to its new environment. These changes can bring health benefits. Two important brain chemicals worth noting are your stress hormone, cortisol and your reward and pleasure brain chemical, dopamine. 

How to use cold water to decrease cortisol by +30%?

One method of stress management is gradually training the body to adapt to growing stress levels. Your brain adapts to certain stress when exposed regularly. The first 30 seconds of cold water exposure will mimic a stressful situation, which the body will adapt to in the next 3-5 minutes [9]

Cold showers lasting just 5 mins (12°C) helps to equip the body’s stress response to better adapt to other stress [3]. Got a stressful job? Opt for cold water showers in the morning. If you can swim, you can use cold water immersion as a great way to train your brain to better manage stress. Research has found that swimming in cold water (14°C, 1 hr) decreases your stress hormone, cortisol levels [4]. If you are a beginner and want to ease your way into cold water immersion, even immersing your body with your head out, in water at 32°C, for an hour, can reduce your cortisol levels by 34% [5].

Can cold water improve your mental state?

Improving positive emotions and decreasing negative emotions is another way to decrease stress. Cold water immersion [9] has been associated with improving enthusiasm by involving a sense of achievement of braving the cold. It also contributes to pleasurable engagement and decreases distress. This was reported by participants involved in a 10 week cold water immersion group program [9]. 

Being exposed to the cold sends a flurry of signals from the skin to the brain and this was found to activate brain signals [6], increasing brain chemicals that make you alert, thus contributing to the mental health benefits of cold water. Research indicates that you can uplift your mood using cold water. Dopamine levels increased by 250% when participants swam in cold water (14°C) for an hour [4]. A healthy level of dopamine is needed to keep your spirits up, because dopamine is involved in experiencing pleasure and motivation. Read more about dopamine here. Another way to increase dopamine levels is through intake of its building block tyrosine. Tyrosine is found in protein rich foods like beef, dairy and tofu, as well as supplemental forms like the world’s 1st natural 800mg tyrosine capsule from fermented corn. You can read more and buy it here for £29.99.

It is possible that in the future, there could be prescriptions of cold showers for anxiety reduction. A month-long study of people suffering from chronic illness were instructed to do a cold-water immersion (20–30°C) for 20 minutes/day [7]. The participants reported reduction in stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Having a low day, consider switching from a hot water bath to a cold water bath. It might just be the perk you need. 

Join the cold-water movement today!

Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist at Stanford University, recommends cold water therapy [8] for its multitude of benefits. He recommends starting with as much cold as you can tolerate: the colder the water, the shorter the time you need to immerse in it. He also recommends doing your cold water therapy when you start your day, as opposed to at the end of your day. This is because after being exposed to the cold water, your body temperature increases. This helps you feel alert and is more suited to mornings instead of prior to bedtime.

Even if you start with braving one cold shower, it is a win-win with less cortisol and more dopamine. If you are looking beyond cold showers, Mental Health Swims is a peer support group that organises cold swims all over the UK. You can find other people who are in the same boat as you, looking to bond over improving mental health through cold water immersion. 

References:

  1. Allan, R. et al. (2022). Cold for centuries: a brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery. European journal of applied physiology122(5), 1153–1162.
  2. Tsai, Y. J. et al. (2020). Cold Exposure After Exercise Impedes the Neuroprotective Effects of Exercise on Thermoregulation and UCP4 Expression in an MPTP-Induced Parkinsonian Mouse Model. Frontiers in neuroscience14, 573509.
  3. Lunt, H. C. et al. (2010). 'Cross-adaptation': habituation to short repeated cold-water immersions affects the response to acute hypoxia in humans. The Journal of physiology, 588(Pt 18), 3605–3613.
  4. Srámek, P. et al. (2000). Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. European journal of applied physiology, 81(5), 436–442.
  5. Mooventhan, A. et al. (2014). Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. North American journal of medical sciences6(5), 199–209.
  6. Shevchuk N. A. (2008). Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical hypotheses70(5), 995–1001.
  7. Kurniasari, M.D. et al. (2022). Cold Water Immersion Directly and Mediated by Alleviated Pain to Promote Quality of Life in Indonesian with Gout Arthritis: A Community-based Randomized Controlled Trial. Biological Research For Nursing, 24(2), pp.245–258.
  8. Huberman, A. (2022). The Science & Use of Cold Exposure for Health & Performance. [online] Huberman Lab.
  9. Yankouskaya, A. et al. (2023). Short-Term Head-Out Whole-Body Cold-Water Immersion Facilitates Positive Affect and Increases Interaction between Large-Scale Brain Networks. Biology12(2), 211.

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