The surprising side effects that science can?t measure and money can?t buy
Image by Fifaliana Joy from Pixabay
Cold showers are not a new concept and have, in fact, been declining in popularity following a lot of hype in the last few years. Frankly, that?s probably because that hype made some pretty big claims that are hard to substantiate.
As a former scientist and medical researcher, I concluded pretty early on that the science on cold showers was rather unconvincing. Yet, as an avid self-experimenter, it is one of the few habits ? after dozens of experiments with supplements, gadgets, exercises, and habits ? that have stuck with me after all this time.
So, why do it if I don?t believe the science?
Because it gives me results.
I?ve always been someone with a disproportionate level of energy for my petite frame. Some of my nicknames include ?pocket rocket? and ?energizer bunny.? I tend to put that energy to good use. I was a competitive athlete in my younger years and continue to pack my days with rock climbing, HIIT workouts, yoga, and running, even though I stopped competing. There was nothing I loved more than the soreness and tiredness from working my body hard.
But one morning I woke up feeling like I?d been hit by a bus. I wasn?t just fatigued or sore; I was tired to my very bones. Every part of my body felt heavy, like I was wading through mud. My brain was foggy and slow.
Needless to say, I was also incredibly irritable. I wrote it off as an anomaly. I probably just needed another day of rest. But the fatigue persisted, recovery slowed and I continued to get more restless and irritable. I went to a doctor, only to be told that all my bloodwork was normal. I don?t think he understood that I didn?t want to be normal: I wanted to be optimal.
So, I did what I do best ? research and self-experiment. A lot of advice on improving recovery involves temperature modulation of some form, especially icing, and I eventually stumbled upon the practice of cold showers.
I?ve been taking cold showers every day now for more than a year. The benefits weren?t what I was expecting, but they were definitely far more valuable. Yes, it made the fatigue go away, but more importantly, this habit has provided me with positive experiences that I?ve found almost impossible to replicate consistently any other way.
More on that to come. First, let?s talk about the benefits according to the common collective.
The Purported Benefits of Cold Showers (and the Available Scientific Evidence)
There is limited research available on cold showers, but here is a summary of some of the more prominent studies and the benefits they expound.
1. Promotes fat loss
The theory is that cold exposure activates Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT, or brown fat) which causes BAT to burn calories to generate heat. The details are fleshed out more in this study.
2. Alleviates depression
There are several mechanisms by which cold exposure is supposed to elevate your mood. This study hypothesizes that cold exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases the release of noradrenaline in the brain. The same study also purports that a ?cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an antidepressant effect.? Another study found that bathing in cold water reduced levels of cortisol.
3. Improves immunity
Cold showers supposedly trigger an increase in your metabolic rate, which results in an increase in white blood cell production. The white blood cells are the workhorse of your immune system. So, a boost in white blood cells is protective against illness. This study reported a statistical significance in the reduction of self-reported sickness absence.
4. Promotes muscle recovery
This supposedly works because cold showers reduce inflammation by constricting blood vessels. This meta-study concluded that muscle soreness was delayed by exposure to cold-water immersion.
Other less-researched benefits I?ve heard about include:
5. Improves skin and hair
Basically, it?s not that cold water is necessarily good but that showering in hot water can be drying and cause your skin to be irritated.
6. Increases circulation
The cold water may cause the blood to circulate faster in order to maintain your body temperature.
7. Improves sleep
There is anecdotal evidence that people sleep better when their body and environment is slightly cooler. Taking a cold shower obviously has a cooling effect on your body.
8. Increases testosterone level
Apparently, cold showers lower the scrotal temperature, allowing optimal production of sperm and testosterone.
How many of those expected benefits did I experience? Well, I lost a little weight (actually quite a feat, considering I?m already pretty lean). I felt happier (though I wasn?t depressed to begin with). My skin and hair looked great (by my biased standards, of course). All in all, the expected benefits yielded fairly marginal outcomes? but the unexpected benefits far exceeded my hopes.
The Unexpected Benefits
So, why the torture? I?ve definitely been asked this question more than once and here?s the honest answer.
It?s because what I feel from having a cold shower is really hard to gain in any other way.
We are constantly bombarded with messages to take a pill, buy a gadget, or see a specialist to feel better. But a pill can?t help you be more mentally present and money can?t teach you to listen to your own body more. There is something to be said about cultivating the skill of tuning in to your own body and giving your mind and body the space it needs to self-balance.
Here?s what I discovered about cold showers:
1. It makes you feel like you can conquer the world (or at least your day)
Yes, that?s a bold claim and yes, I stand by it.
Here?s the thing. It?s really hard to want to step into a cold shower ? much less stay in it for 10 minutes. There is definitely an innate resistance to it. But every time I finish a 10-minute cold shower, I feel like I?ve tamed my internal impulses and I?m in charge. I get that little dopamine rush from completing something ? ?Hey, if I can do this ? I can do anything!?
Why is this so special? If you think about it, most of our day and our world is structured around avoiding discomfort. This has the unintended consequence of making us easily flustered and reducing our emotional resilience.
In biology, there is a term called ?eustress? which literally translates as ?good stress? that is beneficial for the experiencer. Every form of growth requires eustress. Muscles need to be stressed to get stronger, your immune system needs to be exposed to pathogens to be more resilient, and everyone needs a little discomfort to be mentally stronger. Finishing a cold shower is like starting your day with a dose of mental training every day.
2. It teaches you to tune in to your body and to be mentally present
With gadgets to measure everything from heart rate to sleep to mood, most people have lost the ability to be in tune with themselves ? to truly listen to their body and what it?s telling them without exportable data. The thing about being in a cold shower is that you are acutely aware of every physical sensation. It?s like your body is screaming ?listen to me!? and you have no choice but to ignore everything else and pay close attention. It is an instant way of clearing your mind and really feeling your body.
3. It is meditative
A cold shower is a wonderful reminder of the amazing ability of our bodies to quickly adjust to our environment. You get to observe your body go from a state of stress to calming down and eventually enjoying the effects of the cold water. You listen to your inner monologue go from ?OMG, I wanna get out ? why has it only been a minute?!?? to ?OK, halfway through, this ain?t so bad? to ?Ahhhhh, I can feel my muscles relaxing.? I have been meditating for years and my non-shower sessions can still be a little hit and miss, but a cold shower will get me in a state of calm every single time.
4. It is an amazing nootropic
Though it?s not something you can ingest, so not technically a nootropic, the feeling after a 10-minute cold shower is like your brain has been electrified in the most wonderful way. It?s like a shot of energy that just wakes your brain up. I?m not a morning person and if I have a cold shower earlier in the day, I?m literally ten times more productive for the rest of the day. And yes, it?s better than coffee.
5. It is an instant mood-enhancer
I mentioned before that the research on this was not convincing, but nothing counteracts inconclusive research better than feeling it yourself. I can?t explain it, but it just makes me happy.
6. It improves your cold tolerance
I grew up in a tropical climate and have always maintained that I have a genetic predisposition to hating the cold. However, daily cold showers have definitely increased my tolerance for cold temperatures. This is consistent with a study which demonstrated the habituation of people to cold water immersions with cold showers.
7. It reminds you that your emotions are not your reality
Here?s the funny thing about having cold showers ? you always feel colder in the first minute than in the last minute.
This feeling obviously cannot be a true reflection of reality. You cannot have less body heat in the beginning than you do at the end.
Having cold showers remind me that strong emotions can create a false reality and that I don?t always have to react to every emotion I feel. Though I instantly want to jump out, I?m reminded that if I can just sit with the feeling just a little longer, it will leave me. If your reality involves everyone constantly telling you what needs to be done, it?s nice to realize that doing nothing and letting things pass is a powerful solution too. Having cold showers is easy. All you have to do is literally ? nothing.
I will admit that even after reaping the unexpected side effects of cold showers every day for more than a year, there are days when getting into the shower is still a battle. Here are some handy tips I learned when those days came around.
How to Take Cold Showers: Tips for Getting In and Staying In
1. Start and finish with warm water
It?s a lot easier to convince yourself to get into a warm shower than a cold once. Once you get started, it?s a lot easier to stay in. Finishing with warm water gives you something pleasurable to look forward to and it will positively reinforce the habit. I tend to do 30 seconds of warm water on either end.
2. Ease into it
A cold shower is showering with water colder than 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 21 degrees Celsius (though it really does feel better when you go colder than that). If you start with warm water, you can slowly make the water colder every 10 seconds or so until you hit your limit.
3. Pair it with something you enjoy doing (e.g. podcasts)
I enjoy learning Spanish and found that it was much easier to convince myself to get excited to learn Spanish than to get into a cold shower. So, instead of telling myself I was about to have a cold shower, I would tell myself I was about to learn Spanish. It also made the time pass faster.
4. End with something pleasurable
A study involving colonoscopies once demonstrated that your brain does not remember the sensations of an entire experience evenly, and the last moments of the event have a larger impact than the initial moments.
Ending the cold shower ritual with a pleasurable reward, like a hot cup of coffee, acts to positively reinforce the habit a second time. I like having a small space heater nearby so I can enjoy a bit more heat after I get out.
5. Give yourself an out
Cold showers are like your regular workout sessions. You don?t always feel like starting, but it?s easy to continue once you?ve started. Give yourself a 3-minute out. Tell yourself that if you really want to get out after that time, you can. Chances are, you?ll stay.
6. Five minutes is better than one
Friends who are curious to start having cold showers will often tell me that they will try it for one minute. That?s the worst idea ever. It?s getting all of the suffering without the benefits of the mental calm. I generally feel pretty uncomfortable until the third minute, after which it actually feels quite enjoyable. So, if you can, set your goal to 5 minutes.
7. Start with your face and neck
Most people have an aversion to immersing their head in cold water. Once you get that part of your body over with, everything else feels fine.
8. Don?t eat a heavy meal before
Don?t eat a heavy meal before ? your body struggles to do multiple things at once. One of the effects of being cold is that your body will attempt to circulate blood quicker to regulate the temperature of your body. This is a good thing. Eating a heavy meal prior prevents effective circulation, as some blood flow will be directed towards the digestion process.
Here is the most surprising thing about my cold shower habit: my body craves it now. I?m a firm believer that your body has the intrinsic ability to heal and rebalance itself. It will create a natural feedback loop for things that are beneficial to it. So, if you?re still struggling after a few days, remember that not only will it get easier, but your body will actually start looking forward to it.
Still not convinced?
I don?t blame you. I consider myself a pretty persuasive person, but I have never been met with anything but a look of utter befuddlement or a visceral, unintentional shiver when I tell people about my daily habit of taking a 10-minute cold shower.
While I was randomly googling ?cold showers,? the articles or videos that caught my eye the most were the ones debunking the myth of cold showers. See here and here for two of the more entertaining ones. Yet, every single person in those articles was a proponent of cold showers, because as it turns out, all those things that the scientific experiments didn?t measure are true.
You will feel more energized. You will feel calmer. You will feel like you can deal with life.
Don?t fall for the myth that optimization of yourself requires cutting edge gadgets, complicated supplements, or expensive specialists. In a world where people confuse self-care for expensive spa treatments, cold showers are free, simple, sustainable, and can be done from anywhere.
Try it. The warm fuzzies are real.