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The hit I get from cold water swimming has the same effect as cocaine

Cold water swimming is all about finding that hit of dopamine in a healthier way
Taking the plunge: cold water swimming is all about finding that hit of dopamine in a healthier way - Getty Images

“At my lowest ebb, I was drinking 12 to 14 bottles of wine and doing five grams of coke per day,” says Mark, a 47-year-old from London, who runs his own successful business. “I started out using it because I wanted to be a party animal. Then I used it to cope with the stress of work. Eventually I lost all control and became a total recluse, staying at home to snort coke all day.”

Today, Mark is three years sober, and an active member of the recovery community, who has found an alternative way of seeking excitement and stress relief: immersing himself in a barrel of ice-cold water in his back garden every morning. “I stumbled upon it by accident,” he says. “I was on holiday in Portugal with some other recovering addicts and we filled a bin with ice to cool down. As soon as I got in I felt the same rush of exhilaration that I used to get from coke. It was incredible. But the difference was, I felt none of the anxiety, fear or paranoia that came with cocaine. And there was no come-down either. I felt fantastic.”

Cold water swimming might not be anything new. All of us probably know at least one person who has been boring us to tears for the past few years about their morning “ritual” of splashing about in a pond, in order to stimulate their senses and connect with nature.

Czech researchers found that cold water swimming can increase blood concentration of dopamine by 250 per cent
Nature calls: Czech researchers found that cold water swimming can increase blood concentration of dopamine by 250 per cent - Getty Images

But now there is now a growing community of cold-water enthusiasts who are using the practice in a less smug, more practical way: recovering addicts in search of the same buzz that coke once gave them without all the miserable, life-wrecking side-effects. The answer to sober contentment, they say, is time spent in really cold water.

“Cold water swimming releases that rush inside of me in the same way that the first line of coke used to,” says Glen Oliver, a life coach from Sussex. “You’re firing on all cylinders for the rest of the day. Discovering that has certainly helped me stay off drugs for the past few years. It’s all about finding that hit of dopamine in healthier ways.”

Ah yes, dopamine: the most fashionable of all the brain’s neurotransmitters. Amazon is overrun with books that promise to boost your dopamine, hack your dopamine, help you overcome your dopamine addiction, or even help you lose weight via the dopamine diet. There is a whole “dopamine industry” out there, not all of which seems to stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

“You cannot eat dopamine!” says Karen Ersche, a professor of addiction neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “It is a type of messenger in the brain that helps transmit signals between neurons. It responds to stimulation, surprise and the unexpected. Stimulants like cocaine will release a great deal of it but, over time, will cause your brain to balance things out by producing less natural dopamine. Problem drug users will find themselves less able to feel excited or stimulated naturally and will therefore become more dependent on the drug.”

So is freezing-cold water really “nature’s cocaine”? Some of the science suggests it could be. Czech researchers found that cold water plunging can increase blood concentration of dopamine by 250 per cent. This is just one of the studies cited by the Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman on his podcast, Huberman Labs, in which he has amplified the benefits of cold water swimming to his millions of self-improvement acolytes.

The Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete Wim Hof is regarded as the godfather of cold water therapy. His website features various scientific reports supporting claims that cold water therapy can reduce stress, boost energy, enhance immunity, fight inflammation and help to manage asthma.

For a growing number of men, cold water swimming is becoming a ritual
Water therapy: for a growing number of men, cold water swimming is becoming a regular ritual - Getty Images

Not all mainstream experts are entirely convinced. “It is extremely difficult to measure dopamine levels in the brain,” says Dr Niall Campbell, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory hospital in London. “For accurate reading you need to give subjects a radioactive injection prior to a complex scanning process. So the actual science behind these claims is not entirely robust,” he says. “However, we can see empirically that time spent in ice-cold water stimulates feelings similar to those associated with dopamine. We do it here at the Priory: recovering addicts find that just plunging their heads into ice water improves their stress tolerance and provides a distraction from cravings.”

When I gave up drugs and alcohol in 2015, I initially found a hole in my life. I was happy to be sober but found it hard to replicate the social connections (however toxic) that my vices had once provided. Drinking endless lemonades in the pub felt boring, and potentially triggering. I soon learned that the most important part of staying sober is building a new lifestyle that is active, enjoyable, nourishing and healthy. For a growing number of men, cold water swimming is the answer.

“Sober life can seem boring if you don’t find new hobbies to fill your time with,” says Mark. “Cold water immersion gives you a buzz that actually makes you feel healthier. I used to get a nine-minute buzz out of a line of cocaine, then want more half an hour later.”

For the past few years, Tyler Slade has been organising weekly get-togethers for men on the Sussex coast, where they alternate between short sessions in his beachfront sauna and the bracingly cold sea. “First and foremost it’s just a way of blokes socialising that doesn’t involve going to the pub to get wasted,” says Slade.

it is the extreme nature of immersing yourself in cold water that replicates (or possibly even stimulates) dopamine release, says Prof Ersche
Ice, ice, baby: it is the extreme nature of immersing yourself in cold water that replicates (or possibly even stimulates) dopamine release, says Prof Ersche - Getty Images

“We have participants who used to party hard but now have as much fun and exhilaration by charging into the sea on a Friday night with their mates,” he adds. “Yes, it switches on all of your senses and gives you a buzz. But it also makes you feel as if you’re pushing yourself, discovering new limits and improving your ability to deal with stress. It’s a form of fun that can be really self-improving.”

While not all of Slade’s cold water community are former drug users, they all share a common attitude: “There’s something bonkers about it and I think all of us have to be a little mad to spend our time on the sea in the middle of winter,” he says. “I think that’s why the activity attracts some people who have struggled with drugs or drink. They are thrill-seekers who need to sometimes blow off steam by doing something extreme.”

It is the extreme nature of immersing yourself in cold water that replicates (or possibly even stimulates) dopamine release, according to Prof Ersche. “Dopamine releases a sense of expectation,” she explains. “It transfers a message that something good is about to happen. You might get that in ordinary life from seeing a familiar face in the crowd or receiving unexpected praise. Dopamine doesn’t provide the pleasure itself but the anticipation of pleasure. It’s what drives people to check their phones constantly to see if they have received likes or messages on social media. It can be addictive because people find that sense of anticipation so thrilling.”

So is cold water swimming just as addictive as cocaine? “I only have to do it for a couple of minutes each morning,” says Mark. “It leaves me with an all-over glow for the rest of the day, which means I don’t feel the need to do it again. That’s the difference. Cocaine offered diminishing returns: I kept needing more and more to chase the same thrill.”

Besides, adds Dr Campbell, there’s nothing wrong with repetitive behaviours as long as they’re not destroying other parts of your life. “It’s part of building a new, healthier and more positive version of yourself,” he says. “While we can’t be sure that it’s dopamine that makes cold water swimming so powerful, we know that jumping into a freezing cold lido is a better way to spend your time than trying to buy cocaine on a street corner.”

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