How Cold Water Awakens Hidden Health Benefits

Need an energy boost?

Put down the Red Bull®. And think twice about pouring yourself that fourth cup of coffee.

You don’t need them…

Believe it or not, you already have access to an endless supply of all-natural energy. And the best part is, this energy source won’t cause that “3 PM crash” or make you feel jittery.

Not only that, this natural energy “elixir” provides an array of proven health benefits including a stronger immune system, better mood, increased alertness, and stronger vagal tone (I’ll explain more in a moment). All in as little as 30 seconds.

I’m talking about the restorative benefits of cold water. And once you discover how good it can make you feel, you won’t want to go a day without it.

The healing tonic that flows from your faucet

We all know that drinking enough water is vital to good health.

But there are other ways water can benefit your health—and some of them might surprise you…

In fact, cold water has been used for therapeutic purposes for centuries by cultures all over the world including Native Americans, the early Romans, Scandinavians, and the Japanese.

You’ve already dabbled with the therapeutic concept of cold water exposure if you’ve ever splashed some on your face to help you wake-up. But emerging research points to even greater health benefits when cold water comes in contact with your entire body.

Now, if the thought of immersing yourself in a “cold tub” makes you wince, hear me out… There are plenty of ways you can benefit from the healing effects of cold water that don’t involve jumping into an ice bath.

But before we get into the specifics, let’s start by talking about one of the biggest benefits of cold water exposure: Waking up your tired brain.

A brain wake-up that works as well as coffee

Cold water has the power to shift your brain chemistry—in a good way. As your body comes into contact with cold water, electrical impulses are sent to your brain, triggering it to release endorphins—one type of your body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. These immediately boost your mood, increase physical and mental energy, and provide mental clarity.

Another study found that cold exposure increases the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that induces calm, and increases awareness, focus, and attention. (This chemical release has also been shown to decrease depression symptoms.)

According to a PLOS One study on cold exposure, “the most commonly reported beneficial effect was an increase in perceived energy levels (including many reported comparisons to the effect of caffeine).”

Cold exposure can also boost energy levels by improving something I love to talk about: vagal tone.

Chill out—figuratively and literally

As a quick refresher, your vagal tone is a measure of the strength of your vagus nerve—your body’s longest nerve that affects every major organ and bodily system. (I talk about this nerve and vagal tone more in-depth in this article.)

The lower your vagal tone, the weaker your vagus nerve. And the more your vagal tone declines, the more difficult it becomes to “bounce back” from stress or an illness.

Fortunately, one of the most exciting benefits of cold exposure is its ability to help strengthen vagal tone.

In a 2018 study 61 participants underwent sessions of both 16-second cold exposure and control sessions without cold exposure. Their health markers were measured both before and after each session.

When the participants were exposed to the cold, they were found to have a higher heart rate variability—a key indicator of a stronger vagal tone. They were also found to have a lower heart rate which is beneficial for overall heart health. And last but not least, cold water exposure activated the parasympathetic nervous system—the bodily system that helps relax you and put your body in its optimal state for healing.

Nature’s pain reliever

In addition to waking up the body, athletes frequently use cold water to ease pain and speed up recovery after high-intensity workouts.

In fact, in an article published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences, experts explained how cold water acts as a type of “local anesthetic.” That’s because cold water can cause blood vessels to constrict, which reduces the inflammation that causes pain.

Cold water has also been shown to slow the rate at which nerves translate pain signals to the brain, lessening the perception of pain.

Improve your immune defenses

Another benefit of cold water exposure that’s helpful especially in the age of COVID-19, is that it can help boost the immune system.

In another PloS One study, for 30 days, over 3,000 study participants took a hot shower and finished it with a 30- to 90-second blast of cold water.

When compared to those who took a warm shower without cold water exposure, researchers found that, on average, the cold water group was 29 percent less likely to take sick leave from work or school.

Creating your own 30-second energy elixir

There are many ways to incorporate cold water exposure into your daily routine.

But first, I want to make you aware of the major mistakes you need to avoid.

  • If you have high blood pressure, heart disease or other chronic conditions, cold water exposure is not recommended. Check with your doctor before making any major changes to your current routine.

  • Never shock your body by immediately immersing yourself in cold water (i.e. jumping into a cold lake or hopping into the shower while on its coldest setting).

    The key is slow, gradual acclimation.

    In the shower, slowly lower the temperature, just to the point of slight discomfort. And if you go swimming, gradually get your legs and arms wet before fully immersing yourself.

    Also make sure you warm back up slowly as well. Dry off with a towel, change into some warm clothes, and sip on a hot beverage. Do not immediately hop into a hot shower or hot tub.

  • Don’t hold your breath. When you’re exposed to cold, you have a natural tendency to hold your breath. Always remember to keep breathing with slow, deep inhalations and exhalations.

Now that you know what to avoid, here are a few effective ways you can achieve the many benefits of cold water exposure:

  • Cold showers. Personally, I’ve come to rely on a quick dose of cold water at the end of my showers to get energized for the day. This simple trick never fails to wake up my brain or brighten my mood.

    And you don’t need to stand under cold water very long. Studies have shown anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds can provide whole-body benefits.

  • Cold water swimming. Studies have shown that swimming in cold water boosts your immune system by increasing your white blood cell count, improve circulation by forcing blood to the surface, and reduce stress. Since swimming is a form of exercise, it also activates endorphins—helping to awaken the brain and boost mood, as I mentioned earlier.

  • Cold water facial immersion. If you prefer not to take a cold shower or don’t currently have access to a place to swim, immersing your face in a sink or bowl full of cold water is a simple and efficient way to access similar benefits.

    It activates the vagus nerve, helping to reduce heart rate, improve function of the intestines, and turn on the immune system. Studies have found this is especially effective immediately following a workout. 

  • Drinking cold water. Drinking cold water not only stimulates your vagus nerve, but can help rev up your weight loss efforts.

    German researchers have found that drinking six cups of cold water a day (about 48 ounces) can raise your resting metabolism by approximately 50 calories a day (which is about how much you would burn walking for 15 minutes). This metabolism boost is a result of your body working more aggressively to offset the cold water and maintain a steady internal temperature.

    Drinking cold water during a workout can also help prevent your body from overheating, increase endurance, and protect your muscles from injury. It’s also been shown to aid in removing toxins from the body—helping to support your immune system.

    Keep in mind drinking too much water and water that’s too cold can be dangerous. Generally speaking, every day you should drink between a half-ounce to an ounce of water per pound you weigh. (For example if you weigh 150 pounds, you should drink between 75 to 150 ounces of water.)

There’s one thing I want you to keep in mind, no matter which option you decide to try: it’s not a contest. You don’t have to stay in the coldest possible water for the longest amount of time, or drink a gallon of ice water in one sitting.

Always listen to your body, and do what feels best for you. Remember, just a little bit of cold water can help you feel a lot better.

P.S – I realize cold water isn’t for everybody. Fortunately, there are other warmer and dryer ways to get many of the same vagal tone boosting benefits.

One of them is my new Inner Sound Method—a weekly video series where I introduce you to the most powerful sound-based techniques that strengthen your vagus nerve for optimal health.

Click here to learn more or get started today!


SOURCES:

8 Benefits of Cold Water Swimming. (n.d.). IPRS Health. Retrieved from: prshealth.com/news/8-benefits-of-cold-water-swimming/

Biggers, A. (2019). Are there any health benefits to a cold shower? Medical News Today. Retrieved from: medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325725#improved-physical-recovery

Buijze, G. et al. (2016). The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PloS One. 11(9): p. e0161749. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5025014/

Burgard, Renee. (n.d.) The Vagus Nerve. MindfulnessHealth-Psychotherapy.com. Retrieved from:

mindfulnesshealth-psychotherapy.com/userfiles/1475904/file/The%20Vagus%20Nerve%20%E2%80%93%20its%20many%20roles%20&%C2%A0functions-activating%20it-the%20Autonomic%20Nervous%20System_Booklet.pdf

Jungmann, M. et al. (2018). Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Formative Research. 2(2): p. e10257. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6334714/

Mooventhan, A., and Nivethitha, L. (2014). Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body. North American Journal of Medical Sciences. 6(5): pp. 199 – 209. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049052/

Shaw, G. (n.d.) Water and Your Diet: Staying Slim and Regular with H20. WebMD. Retrieved from: webmd.com/diet/features/water-for-weight-loss-diet#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIn%20general%2C%20you%20should%20try,ounces%20of%20water%20a%20day.

Shevchuk, N. (2008). Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical Hypotheses. 70(5): pp. 995 – 1001. Retrieved from: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17993252/

Seppanen, J. (2020). Why You Should Take a Cold Shower During Quarantine. The Manual. Retrieved from:

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.