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Ice Baths, Guide to Cold Water Immersion

There is a universal unanimity regarding the relaxing, rejuvenating, and relaxing aspect of any bath. Imagine tweaking this mundane art of cleansing oneself by lowering the water temperature to an extreme low. Would the benefits increase or decrease manifold or simply stay the same?

Endorsed by celebrities and vouched by sports personalities for its innumerable health benefits, an ice bath is taking a stronghold as an effective strategy for a healthy lifestyle. Not a new phenomenon, however, this practice has been part of many cultural, religious, and remedial rituals from ancient times.

The modern world, especially in the past decade, has seen an increased interest in ice baths from researchers to athletes, celebrities to complementary and alternative medicine practitioners and is gaining traction amongst the general public.

So, what is an ice bath, and why should you be interested in it as well?

What is an Ice Bath?

An ice bath is also known as “cold water immersion”, and as the name says, you immerse yourself in very cold water for a certain period of time. The ideal immersion is to have the water level up to your chest level; however, you could dip in up to your waist level if you are starting out.

To avail the maximum benefits from an ice bath, you should immerse in the cold water for 10 to 15 minutes, where the recommended temperature of the water is 10 to 15 °C (50 to 59 °F).

Remember the Chinese proverb that warns you of the good medicines tasting bitter. Likewise, an ice bath that has multiple therapeutic benefits will also be a bitter pill to swallow for a novice. In the beginning, you may not be able to withstand the cold water for 10–15 minutes at one go, which is alright. You can train yourself to ease in and gradually increase your time in the water to the recommended immersion period of 30 minutes to an hour. Slowly but surely, it is definitely the way to go.

Some of you may be shuddering already at the sound of “cold” and may not be able to process what force would have driven the people to take a plunge into icy cold water. These very people are ready to tolerate a moment’s discomfort for better overall health; these people are willing to ingest the bitter medicine, these people will stand the cold to provide their mind and body with invaluable benefits.

Benefits of Ice Baths

Performance enhancement

One of the major reasons cold water immersion/ice baths are popular among athletes is its performance enhancement capability.

A randomized control trial was done with thirty-four male endurance-trained competitive cyclists where they underwent 15 minutes of cold water immersion at 15°C four times per week.

After their 39-day training duration, the cyclists showed an increase of 4.4% in their sprint power, 3% more enhanced repeat cycling performance, and an overall 2.7% increased power.

Other similar studies have reinstated similar benefits of ice baths on athletes involved in endurance activities or aerobic exercises like marathon runners, etc.

Reduction in fatigue and soreness

Tavares et al. studied the effects of cold water immersion on elite rugby athletes as they underwent intense training spanning three weeks.

A group of 23 male rugby union players were put into two groups, where one group received cold water immersion(CWI), and the other received a passive recovery control (CON). In the three weeks of the period under study, the groups took post-training treatment — CWI and CON, twelve times.

The study concluded that the group who got cold water immersion after their training had lower fatigue markers compared to the group who received passive recovery treatment. The players in the CWI group also showed moderate effects on muscle soreness throughout the duration of the study.

Ice baths or cold water immersion can be instrumental in reducing fatigue and soreness for people involved in intense athletic activities.

Enhanced wellness

There is no doubt that ice baths benefit individuals engaging in intense training and physical activities. Could combat athletes enjoy the same benefits?

In one 2018 study, the participating athletes were given ice baths after a simulated mixed martial arts (MMA) competition. The result showed a significant increase in the athletes’ perceived wellness along with improvements in their sleeping patterns and reduction in stress and perceived fatigue.

Whether you are involved in individual sports or combative sports, as an athlete or a fitness aficionado, engaging in ice baths can be a harmless therapy to achieve wellness and enhance your performance.

What if I’m not an athlete?

You must be wondering that all these are more advantageous for athletes or fitness freaks and that there is hardly anything going for you here. Well, hang on! There are major health benefits for ordinary folks, whether you are pumping iron or simply getting by.

Could we tempt you with Justin Bieber? Let’s start with the fact that Justin Bieber takes ice baths regularly. How’s that? We all know he’s no athlete and just a regular guy. He’s a self-acclaimed ice-bather and has spoken about it in a few of his interviews.

Justin Beiber taking an ice bath
Justin Beiber taking an ice bath
Justin Beiber taking an ice bath. Posted on his Instagram

It looks like we have got the attention of some “Beliebers”! Just like your favourite singer, you could engage in ice baths and enjoy its benefits, and soon you won’t be thanking Beiber only for his songs but also for showing you a way into this new healthy lifestyle.

Now, for non-Beliebers who are in no way getting swayed by the celebrity plug-in there, let us demonstrate a few more reasons to convince you how and why you must indulge in ice baths.

Listed below are benefits that you reap as a non-athletic person and as a non-Belieber:

Lose weight

Another solid advantage of ice baths is that they can help you reduce weight. Unlike the fad diets that self-acclaimed diet gurus recommend and swear by, weight loss by using ice baths can be backed by scientific evidence.

So, how does one lose weight with ice baths? It happens through a process called thermogenesis, which occurs when the body produces heat as a means of response to counter the cold. When your body is exposed to cold, thermogenesis occurs in either your muscle tissues or adipose tissues.

Thermogenesis in the muscle tissues is called shivering-thermogenesis, as the muscle contracts to increase energy metabolism. This explains why you shiver when you feel cold.

The other thermogenesis, the non-shivering, occurs in adipose tissues, also called the fat tissues. And, there are two types of fat tissues: brown and white. For weight loss enthusiasts, brown adipose tissues are of concern because the more brown adipose tissues the body has, the more fat gets burned.

Ice baths are known to activate the brown adipose tissues. The shivering thermogenesis releases the irisin hormone, which helps convert white adipose tissues into healthier brown fat. In contrast, the non-shivering thermogenesis releases FGF21 which aids in burning white fat tissues.

Dr Lee from Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney, who studied brown adipose tissues, states that 50 grams of brown adipose tissues could burn around 300 kilocalories a day, which further fortifies the weight loss process as a result of cold exposure.

Relieve pain

The famous music icon Lady Gaga has been using ice baths as a treatment for her fibromyalgia condition, which causes chronic pain and fatigue and also affects sleep. Ice baths can relieve pain by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system.

When your body experiences the cold induced by ice baths, the sympathetic fibres send signals to the blood vessels to constrict, blocking the blood flow to the areas exposed to the cold. The water pressure also helps compress the muscles and blood vessels. As a result, the body is numbed, and you will get relief from pain.

Fight depression

Ice baths have reportedly shown to increase the release of norepinephrine in the bloodstream. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that aids in increasing attention and cognitive ability, vigilance and overall better mood, and all these factors are essential in fighting depression.

A study looked at the effects of long‐term whole‐body cold exposures on a group of healthy women who were exposed to ice-cold water three times a week for a duration of 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks, norepinephrine showed a significant increase that went up by two- to three-fold.

Although there is no hard evidence as to what causes depression, there is evidence that shows irregularities in the neurotransmission of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the nervous system can be one reason. We can also understand the norepinephrine-depression relationship by looking at the workings of antidepressants that work by raising norepinephrine and other neurotransmitters.

The function of antidepressants that increase norepinephrine is similar to the function of ice baths, which also increase the flow of norepinephrine. On top of that, while antidepressants may have multiple side effects, ice baths naturally become a safer option in fighting depression.

Prevent neurodegenerative diseases

When a body is exposed to cold, most genes get shut down except genes that help in fat burning, and a group of proteins called the cold shock proteins. Instead of shutting down like the other genes, exposure to cold shows increasing in these two genes.

An experiment on mice demonstrated that the exposure to cold exacerbated the loss of synaptic contacts, restored and reassembled when their bodies were warmed back.

The increased activity of the cold shock protein was found to help regeneration of the dismantled synapses. The upside of the experiment is that even humans have a reserve of the cold shock proteins that could have the same regenerative effects as the body warms up after the cold exposure.

Although similar studies in humans have not been done, the fact that the human body conserves cold shock proteins when exposed to cold is evident that these shock proteins could help in regenerating the lost synapses. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s occur as a result of permanent loss of synaptic contacts. If the experiment on rodents can be replicated in humans and if the results resemble that of the mice, ice baths could be the way forward to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

Read the BBC article “Could cold water hold a clue to a dementia cure?”.

Sleep better

Sleep is one of the most overlooked natural healing mechanisms that nature has bestowed on every living organism. Sleep helps rest, relax and restore not only physical health but mental health as well. However, due to the modern, fast-paced lifestyle with constant exposure to bright lights and everyday stresses, people are losing sleep, and insomnia is rising.

The general population is resorting to taking sleeping pills because despite knowing what a good sleep can do, they are just unable to go to sleep. As is always the case, drugs of any kind come with side effects that can affect the pill-popping generation in the long run. Once again, ice baths can be your solution to getting that sound sleep with relatively zero side effects.

Research shows that cold water immersion regulates cortisol levels, which improves the symptoms of depression and is also effective in reducing sleep-related disorders. When the body is exposed to extreme cold, it develops a higher tolerance to stress, and afterwards, the body calms down when the initial shock starts wearing off.

The calming effect acts as a tranquillizer, and you will sleep “like a baby” when you hit the bed. A quality sleep results in a quality life!

Easing into ice baths

You have learned about the benefits, and now you can’t wait to start to embark on your healing journey. But then again, you still can’t get your head around to step into the ice-cold water. Think of all the benefits you get to enjoy afterwards and motivate yourself to take the first plunge.

In addition to motivating yourself, your breath or breathing pattern can help you ease into the ice bath.

Look up Wim Hof, who has also earned the nickname “The Iceman” for obvious reasons. Wim Hof not only indulges in ice baths, but he has also developed breathing techniques that can help you withstand the ice baths and consequently enjoy the health benefits.

There are online courses available for Wim Hof breathing which you may want to practice ice baths. You can practice the Wim Hof breathing technique as you engage in the ice bath. You can double your benefits, first from the ice bath itself and second from the Wim Hof breathing, which also has many advantages (a topic for another discussion).

The WHM is a global phenomenon and it seems as no matter where you are in the world. Poeple just want to jump into cold water. Check out these guys offering ice baths in Bangkok Wim Hof Method style.

Thailand’s pioneer of ice baths is Wim Hof Method instructor Stuart Wilson and his wife Kam.

Kam Ice Bath Instructor Thailand
Kam Ice Bath Instructor Thailand
Kam from Breath Inspired in Thailand. Daily Yoga and Ice Baths is part of her routine.

Ice Baths vs Cryotherapy

You have done your research, you have looked up Wim Hof, and just as you are gearing for your first ice bath, you see cryotherapy popping in “you may also like” recommendations.

So, is an ice bath the same as cryotherapy? Not quite; in fact, ice baths could fare better with slightly more advantages. Although both ice baths and cryotherapy are forms of cold exposure and may share similar health benefits, these two have distinct characteristics that make them different from one another.

Ice baths use cold water and ice, which help extract heat from the body more efficiently than cryotherapy that only uses air. Another distinguishing aspect is that for an ice bath, you may prefer to immerse your whole body or only certain parts of the body or soak to a certain level; as for cryotherapy, your whole body is completely immersed and only in certain conditions you can choose your head to remain outside the cryotherapy chamber.

There is also a huge temperature difference; while the lowest recommended temperature for ice baths is 10 to 15 °C (50 to 59 °F), the temperature can be lowered to -178 °C (-289 °F). Since the temperature can be extremely low in cryotherapy, your immersion could last 10–15 seconds at a time, whereas you can stay immersed in ice baths for much longer as you build tolerance, sometimes up to 30 minutes at a stretch. You can engage in ice baths longer than in cryotherapy, the benefits you get increase.

Finally, you can have your ice baths at the comfort of your home, and all you need is a thermometer to monitor the water temperature and a few buckets of ice. However, you cannot do it at home for cryotherapy, and you need experts to operate the chamber and have someone supervise the session.

The accessibility and the applicability make ice baths more advantageous than cryotherapy, even if the end result benefits are the same.

Man in a cryotherapy chamber
Man in a cryotherapy chamber

A final word of caution

Needless to say, before engaging in ice baths or any new treatment therapy, it is a given that you consult with your doctor, get yourself thoroughly checked up and seek approval from the health experts.

There is thus no exception with ice baths. The biggest and most obvious side effect of ice baths can be hypothermia which can be fatal and result in death. Therefore, if you are engaging in ice-baths at the comfort of your home, have a thermometer handy to check the temperature and without exception, always do this in the presence of a company.

The many advantages of ice baths easily outweigh the nominal amount of risks. Hence, by practising a little caution, you can enjoy the immense benefits of the most accessible form of cold exposure therapy.

Chill out, literally, in your ice baths!

Ice Baths, Cold Plunge, Cryotherapy and Cold Exposure