Why Ice Baths?
Ice baths, cold plunges, and deliberate cold exposure have been all the craze as of late. The visual that comes to mind when you hear the words “ice bath” probably involves a high-performance athlete or chiseled bodybuilder dipping into a near-freezing tub, as a show of strength or raw determination. Sure, there’s a level of grit and motivation needed to get into 40-degree water. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be even remotely close to a professional athlete or top-notch competitor to reap the incredible benefits of cold-water therapy.
When I was 9 years old, I was diagnosed with anxiety (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Tourette syndrome. A pursuit for helpful tools and resources commenced early on, but it took 20 years for me to jump into my very first ice bath. And while most are familiar with the physical benefits associated with ice baths like alleviating pain from sore muscles and joints – I found that the impact on my mental health was far more meaningful.
Below are my five favorite benefits of ice baths, for those of us who aren’t world-class athletes, bodybuilders, or Olympians.
Reducing Inflammation & Enhancing Recovery
Think of cold-water immersion as a giant ice pack for your entire body, applied in a way even more effective than the ice pack itself. Muscles contract and inflammation in problem areas improves drastically. Since inflammation is the origin of many conditions and diseases, this can be a tremendously helpful tool for fighting many ailments. For individuals with chronic pain or soreness, this can provide hours and hours of relief. The cold also improves blood flow and circulation by strengthening the vascular system. Veins and blood vessels constrict tightly as your body tries to retain heat, which makes this a form of exercise for your vascular system as it learns to adjust more optimally to a change in temperature.
A Boost in Metabolism and Activation of the “Good” Brown Fat
Shivering can feel very uncomfortable. It is a mechanism your body employs to warm back up quicker. Known as the “Søeberg Principle,” forcing your body to reheat on its own by shivering can increase metabolism gains by converting white, less-efficient fat cells into more dense, energy-burning brown fat cells. This is also known as brown fat thermogenesis. Inducing a shiver response is critical to activating this incredible process.
Improved Mood & Increased Energy
Cold exposure causes a physiological response that immediately raises adrenaline levels in the body (epinephrine and norepinephrine). It’s a shock! This part of the process helps you feel awake and alert without significantly raising cortisol or “bad stress” levels. What I find most incredible is that a natural byproduct of this process is an increase in feel-good endorphins and dopamine that can last for many hours afterwards.
I’ve searched far and wide for ways to combat anxiety and depression-related symptoms. And while I cannot perfectly articulate the science behind it, I can say that whatever chemical reactions take place
during an ice bath leave me feeling happy, accomplished, and in an overall better mood for 2-3 hours after the exposure.
A Controlled Environment for Reframing Stress
Another part of the physiological response that everyone experiences is a 30-80% decrease in cognitive function. Simply put, the cold shock makes it harder to think and focus! In difficult and stressful scenarios, it can be incredibly easy to lose control or react impulsively. Many of us have likely uttered the phrase, “I wish I handled that better” when facing a challenge or obstacle. Emotions can be hard to control. But what if there was a way to prepare more proactively for those difficult moments? Enter ice bath: a controlled-stress environment for practicing our response to discomfort. This is where breathwork becomes key – control your breathing and you control your environment.
Reinforcing a Central Truth: You Can Do Hard Things
Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to a period of such intense discomfort? Like most things, there are tradeoffs. The minutes before an ice bath are special. There is an overflow of emotion. Very frequently there is a desire to turn back and regress to the comfort of sweatpants or fireplaces. But in that moment, a powerful truth emerges. Through willpower alone, you can manually override the fear and paralysis that keeps you from putting your toes through the ice. You can do something incredibly difficult and be proud of yourself in the process. A cold shower in the morning is the first success of the day that propels me forward. “I can do hard things. I just proved it to myself.”
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