We’ve all felt the unpleasant shock of a cold shower, whether it’s down to being last in line for the bathroom or because someone’s turned a tap on elsewhere in the house. However, it’s becoming increasingly popular for athletes to ditch the hot tap in the name of health, with many keen to see for themselves whether the cold shower benefits live up to the hype.
The case for intentionally turning the temperature dial down has certainly become all the more compelling in recent years, with advocates touting such cold shower benefits as better circulation, enhanced immunity and even improvements in mental health. We asked Dr Adam Abbs, GP at Medicspot, to talk us through the expert-backed cold shower benefits:
8 compelling cold shower benefits
At present, there’s limited scientific research when it comes to confirming cold shower benefits, but that doesn’t mean you should write them off completely. From a surge in mood-boosting endorphins to a perceived energy boost equivalent to a cup of coffee, here’s eight convincing cold shower benefits that could convince you to turn the dial right down next time you’re in the tub – even if only for 30 seconds:
1. Boosts endorphins
Being exposed to cold water activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases the release of noradrenaline in the brain, both components of the ‘fight or flight’ response to perceived danger. Your body releases endorphins to cope with the shock, promoting feelings of euphoria, appetite regulation, the release of sex hormones, and an enhanced immune response. When endorphin levels are high, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Taking a cold shower for five minutes, once or twice daily, was shown to help relieve symptoms of depression in a small clinical trial – but more research is needed.
2. Supports metabolism
When we talk about body fat, we usually referring to white fat (also known as white adipose tissue). But there’s a second type of fat – brown fat, also called brown adipose tissue – that is activated when we are exposed to cold temperatures. It breaks down blood sugar (glucose) and fat molecules, burning calories to create heat and help maintain body temperature.
High brown fat activity reduces levels of compounds called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) in your bloodstream, a study published in the journal Nature found. While BCAAs are important for many functions in the body, human and rodent studies have linked high levels with obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
3. Improves circulation
When cold water hits your skin it causes the blood vessels to constrict, diverting blood away from the surface. This prompts the blood in deeper tissues to circulate at faster rates to maintain your optimum body temperature. A small study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that taking a cold shower after exercise might help improve general hydration in the body, in part due to its effect on cutaneous (skin) blood flow.
4. Supports immune system
Another way cold water has an effect on the bloodstream is by stimulating the production of leukocytes, which help fight infection and build resistance to common illnesses. "A period of a cold shower in the morning – even as short as 30 seconds following your usual warm shower – has been shown to reduce reported illness by a third," says Dr Abbs. "The way in which your immune system is boosted by cold showers is still being investigated by scientists, but it is possible that when exposed to sudden cold, your brain kickstarts your immune system – known as the neurobiologic immunostimulatory effect."
5. May reduce muscle soreness
A cold shower may trick your brain into recovering quicker after a tough workout. A study by the South Australian Sports Institute found that cold water immersion ‘significantly lowered’ perceptions of muscle soreness and general fatigue in athletes – even though there was no difference in the amount of muscle damage or inflammation seen in a second group that was treated with tepid water immersion.
6. Boosts energy
A cold shower could be a worthy replacement for your morning cup of joe. In a study of 3018 participants examining the effect of cold showering on health and work, "the most commonly reported beneficial effect [of cold showers] was an increase in perceived energy levels, including many reported comparisons to the effect of caffeine," the authors wrote in the journal PLOS One.
7. Improves skin and hair
There's little in the way of scientific research regarding potential cold water benefits for your skin and hair, but anecdotal claims include shinier locks and brighter skin. This could be because cold water constricts the blood flow on the surface of the skin, helping to close hair cuticles and pores. Unlike hot water, cold water doesn’t dry out the sebum layer – the fatty acids and oils that coat and protect the skin and hair.
8. Builds mental resilience
Most of our daily activities are focused on avoiding any kind of discomfort. Stepping into a cold shower requires a mind-over-matter approach that many advocates claim improves their resilience to stress and builds mental toughness. For some, it’s a meditative experience and a powerful reminder that you don’t have to react to every strong emotion you feel. A study by Charles University found that when people immerse themselves in a bath of cold water, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop.
How to start taking cold showers
A cold shower is typically defined as 21 degrees Celcius or lower. If you’re bold enough to go straight for the cold dial, go for it. However, if you’re feeling a sense of trepidation, however, your best bet into ease into it slowly. Start by reducing the temperature incrementally at the end of your normal shower, until you start to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, stay beneath the water for around two minutes, breathing deeply. Each time you practice this exercise, make the water slightly colder, and stay underneath for longer. To help build the habit, end the shower with a pleasurable reward – for example, a warming cup of tea, a special fluffy towel, or your favourite moisturiser.
Who should avoid taking cold showers?
If you’re feeling unwell, have recently undergone hospital treatment, or are in any way immune-compromised, wait until you’ve recovered before bringing cold showers into your daily routine, as they can initially be physically and mentally demanding. Additionally, you shouldn’t view cold showers as an alternative treatment option to medications or therapies.
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