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Edition 52 - Deliberate Cold Exposure: Turn the Tap and Alter Your Mental and Physical Make-Up
Happy Friday! This week’s newsletter explores a habit I have dabbled with sporadically throughout my life, usually with no real rhyme or reason, but have recently re-introduced in a more purposeful way to see if I can elicit some of the positive benefits science is telling us may be on offer. What is deliberate cold exposure? It could be going for a dip in the cold sea, taking a cold shower, an ice bath, or jumping in an ice cold whirlpool or plunge pool - these all count, and as you are about to see, there are many ways you can use it to enhance your body, mind and long-term health.
As you may be thinking, deliberately dunking yourself into freezing cold water is not for everyone! If I think back through my life, it’s always been something of a spontaneous act of daring rather than a focused habit to boost mental health and immunity. I’ve always enjoyed occasionally jumping in a lake, or swimming in the sea. I went through my ice bath phase at university, where in my final year, we had a tiny bath that I would fill with cold water and a bag of ice from the shop across the road after my early morning training sessions with the football team. As a lifeguard, the maintenance team would sometimes turn off the heating and drop the pool temperature to around 16 degrees, and we would dare each other to go for a swim in it - that was always a blast.
But what is it exactly about the cold exposure that enhances our bodily function? What are these ‘enhancements’ exactly? And why does it have to be deliberate?
Deliberate cold exposure has an effect on the body that can alter metabolism and accelerate fat loss through a process called thermogenesis. It can also mitigate stress, build resilience and enhance mood via the hormones it releases, and mental challenges it puts us through. When we enter the cold water our nervous system goes into survival mode and a shock factor takes control of us. The heart rate increases, and we experience a rapid change in breathing rate, and our immediate instinct is to run away, jump out, shout, shiver (to warm the body) etc. I’m sure you can all identify with the sensation, for example when somebody in your house turns a hot tap on in another room, thieving your hot water from your shower and thereby crushing your faith in all humanity.
Much of the scientific research on what happens to the body has been based around a type of fat known as ‘brown fat’, which is a type of adipose tissue that is different to the ‘typical’ fats we tend to accumulate around our bodies. The reason this type of fat is different is that it creates a thermogenic effect - in other words, it burns energy. Even more significantly, the primary targets of this burning effect are glucose and other body fats (Saito et al., 2020). So the idea goes, we can use cold exposure (to a reasonable degree - too much cold exposure is strongly discouraged!) to increase our body’s storage of brown fat which in turn elevates the activity of our metabolism by having a burning effect on some of the excess energy stored in our body. Brown fat can also be accumulated through diet, but that is for another newsletter! So how do we put these cold showers or ice baths to work?
It is of course up to you how long you choose to make your cold exposure, in my case I use cold showers the majority of the time. You might want to start off targeting 20-30 secs at the end of every shower you take - and I suppose I should answer this question now - yes - you need to finish on cold. So you can’t turn the shower back to warm afterwards! Finish on cold and let your body heat up naturally once you step out of the shower.
You might then gradually increase your tolerance to 1-2 mins over time (they do get easier the more you do them, which is why you need to keep pushing the boat out so it never gets ‘too easy’). Keep doing this until you are regularly able to cold shower (or ice bath) for 1-3 mins. You can also do something called ‘contrast bathing’ where you alternate between hot and cold a few times, again - always finishing on cold (sorry ‘bout that).
During my year abroad in the USA, me and my college ‘soccer’ teammates were instructed to go to the sports medicine department after tough training sessions and use the ‘whirlys’ - two whirlpools, one very warm and one very cold, where we would spend 2-3 mins in each, alternating for about 10 minutes before finishing in the cold.
According to the research I’ve seen talked about by some respectable sources, 10-12 minutes per week of deliberate cold seems to be a good target to aim for. Eg. If you can do 1 x 3 min shower and 4 x 2 min (8 mins) you can target 5 cold showers per week for a total of 10 mins, but if you can manage 3 x 3 mins (9 mins) and 1 x 2 mins you can get away with just 4 for a total of 11 mins.
Cold exposure should ideally be done early in the day. You can go back and read edition 49 on viewing early sunlight, where I explain how this is done to take advantage of what we currently know about hormones. That is, cortisol must be released, so we deliberately trigger it early to minimise releases later in the day which could disrupt our body clock. We can also activate the catecholamines which are dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine which increase alertness, motivation and focus, helping us to be in a mentally sharp state in the early part of the day.
In terms of ‘how cold is cold?’, you might see numbers like 10-15 degrees celsius (50-60 fahrenheit) thrown around, HOWEVER. Really, all that matters is that the water is uncomfortably cold, to the point that you immediately want to get out. It is not necessary to immerse in water so extremely cold that it could be dangerous to your health.
Far from just jumping under a cold shower and letting that be that, did you know there are 3 types of benefits you can specifically target depending on how you choose to cold shower?
Body Clock Shift - As we mentioned with timing, temperature affects your circadian rhythm by activating the release of particular hormones. Since our bodies have evolved over time to increase in temperature throughout the day, and drop in temperature at night, we are able to ‘trick’ our body into believing it is a different time of day based on change in temperature. Stay under as long as possible (up to 3 mins) to focus on this.
Resilience and Mental Health - Trying to calm yourself and suppress the urge to gasp and yelp when the cold hits you is a way to train your mental toughness (see below)! I always think of the words ‘quieten your mind’ when I am in the cold shower. This is about stress inoculation and resisting the ‘shiver’ response.
Metabolism & Fat Loss - Now you can make as much noise as you want! Actively shivering goes hand in hand with brown fat activation, Brown fat breaks down glucose and fat molecules to create heat (a thermogenic effect) and help maintain body temperature.
Remember, you are not necessarily going to enjoy this experience! In fact, you will probably hate it on most occasions. But that is the point as with most things in life - the reward comes in the aftermath, and the positive benefits are heavily researched and out there for all to see. Also, if you are interested in doing this for the purpose of improving your resilience and mental health, the way to think of this is as a personal training session for your mind, which has a direct effect upon your body. After all, ‘resilience’ is defined as:
‘the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.’
How are you ever going to improve your resilience if you can’t even bring yourself to get under that cold water, let alone stay there for longer than 30 secs?! Think of it as a direct measure of your current mental toughness (not that it necessarily is) - the longer you can keep yourself in, the more your resilience is improving. For some reason (no idea why) I really like the personal training analogy, and one method of approaching your cold showers is to treat it like this:
Each mentally difficult aspect of taking a cold shower is referred to as a ‘wall’
We have to get over each of these ‘walls’ in order to maximise the cold shower
Example of wall #1 - Deciding to take the cold shower. Some days this could be an easy decision (in which case, it is not a wall), but on some days, deciding you will take the plunge for your own good is a hard, hard choice, and going with the hard choice means you have climber over (or jumped over, or knocked down, up to you) wall #1.
Example of wall #2 - Turning the shower to freezing cold and immediately wanting to jump back out but choosing not to.
Example of wall #3 - ANOTHER urge to get out after 10 secs, but you resist the urge and stay in. And so on…
Set out a ‘session’ for your cold shower - eg. 5 walls. Once you reach 5 walls you get out, and see how long you stayed in.
Or you can set a time target, and count the number of walls you reach within the time target.
As with anything, there are so many ways to do this thing. There is not really a way to go wrong with all these time protocols and rules, they are just ideas that science has been exploring. Simply playing about with cold exposure (safely) is a great thing for your body and mind to get going with and doesn’t require any painstaking attention to detail - just switch the tap to cold and see how long you can go! Research collated using consensus.app. Full references at the end of the newsletter.
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it.” - anon
Movement of the Week: Standing Banded Abduction
(Image via www.bodylastics.com)
3 sets of 10 repetitions each leg
Thank you, Gabriel
Brown Adipose Tissue, Diet-Induced Thermogenesis, and Thermogenic Food Ingredients: From Mice to Men - Authors: Masayuki Saito, Mami Matsushita, Takeshi Yoneshiro and Yuko Okamatsu-Ogura. Frontiers, 2020. - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2020.00222/full