5 reasons why cold showers are good for your health (and keep you cool during a heatwave)

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I’m loving my daily cold showers.

That’s a statement I didn’t think I’d ever type. I was persuaded to try them having listened to a podcast where the guest, (the renowned Dr Joseph Mercola) was discussing the benefits of cold showers, or specifically, cold thermogenesis. It seemed to me that the benefits of subjecting yourself to cold temperatures were too many and too compelling to ignore, so last week I began an experiment. To start with, I took a shower as normal, but for the last 30 seconds I switched to the coldest temperature the shower would allow. It made me gasp to begin with, but soon I got used to it. By the third time, it felt pretty good. I’m now increasing the cold and decreasing the hot water, with a view to eventually having cold showers only. If I can’t do that now in this heatwave (for international readers, we are enjoying 30 degrees Celsius plus in London), I might never start. So here are my top 5 reasons why cold showers are good for your health, and why you should start experimenting with cold therapy now.

Brown fat activation

Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is a type of fat that is typically found around the collar bones, sternum, neck and upper back. It’s a unique type of fat, usually associated with people of slimmer build, that generates heat by burning the white fat on the stomach, rump, hips and legs. One study found that cold therapy increases the activation of BAT by up to 15 times. Our usual method of burning white fat is through exercise or calories deficit, but we can’t choose the moment we want to start burning fat. The body utilises energy from three different systems, and it will alternate between these systems depending on the energy demands at the time. Usually, we will burn glucose (blood sugar) first, then glycogen (from the muscles and / or liver), and finally fat. Burning BAT cuts to the chase because activating brown fat is not only potentially more efficient as a fat burner, but it also cuts out the glucose and glycogen sources.

Individuals who are frequently exposed to bouts of cold temperatures tend to have more BAT, which can also cause metabolic up-regulation and an increased production of heat in skeletal muscle, which means you’ll be burning more calories as you go about your daily business.

Improved immune function

Cold exposure can increase your levels of immune system cells that fight disease and infection. According to a 1993 study (there have been many more since), individuals taking daily cold showers saw an increase of white blood cells (which protect again illness and infection). Researchers believe that shivering, or just subjecting the body to cold, increases the body’s metabolic rate and that has the effect of activating the immune system. Cold exposure has also been found to increase testosterone, which has an energy-boosting effect for both men and women.

Cold exposure also triggers a hormone called Adiponectin, which burns fat and increases metabolism but not hunger (just what you want for weight management). Adiponectin also increases mitochondrial density – mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells and are vital for energy production and movement, among other things. We need mitochondria in big numbers to help us stay in optimal health, so increasing adiponectin via cold exposure brings lots of benefits. Fun fact: BAT gets it brown colour (and name) from mitochondria because they are brown in colour, and BAT is mitchondrially dense.

Improved mood and increased resilience

When the cold receptors under the skin feel the cold from a shower for example, electrical impulses are sent to the brain via the peripheral nervous system which causes a boost in mood (according to a 2007 study). You’ll become more resilient because you will be used to putting your body under a form or stress, and learning to endure it. Mentally, you’ll be tougher.

You also get an increase in glutathione, which is nicknamed the king of the antioxidants as its primary function is to alleviate oxidative stress and is found in almost every cell of the body. As a last benefit, cold exposure has been proven to reduce levels of uric acid, which reduces the toxic load on the kidneys.

Improves recovery from exercise sessions

Many of you will have seen or heard of athletes sitting in ice baths after a hard exercise session or match. Whilst you might not want or need to go that far, taking a cold shower can have its benefits too. Let’s say you cycled between hot and cold water for 30 seconds each for the duration on your shower. This has the effect of contracting and expanding the blood vessels which helps to pump out inflammation. The net result to you is potentially less inflammation, reduced effect of DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) and faster recovery.

Stimulates the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the autonomic nervous system state responsible for the rest and digest functions. The vagus nerve (vagus meaning wanderer) literally affects every part of the body, including brain, gut, heart, liver, pancreas, spleen, gallbladder, kidneys, ureter, the fertility organs, neck, ears and tongue. It also has an impact on our mental health.

Stimulating the vagus nerve with cold water is an easy and effective way to wake up these organs and give yourself a pleasant shock. You can start with splashing cold water on your face, or work up to the cold showers I’ve been discussing in this blog post.

If you’re tempted by cold exposure therapy, here’s a few suggestions on how you can go about it:

  1. Start by having a glass of cold water in the mornings
  2. Next, start your day by splashing cold water on your face
  3. Next time you take a shower, turn the tap on cold for the last 30 seconds
  4. Now graduate to alternating between hot and cold for 30 seconds each
  5. Gradually increase the amount of cold over hot
  6. Step into a hot shower but immediately turn on the cold
  7. The full-on 5 minute cold shower

Leanne Spencer is an entrepreneur, coach, TEDx Speaker, author of Remove the Guesswork, and founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited. Bodyshot is a health and fitness consultancy that helps busy professionals get more energy by removing the guesswork around their health, fitness and nutrition. Visit www.bodyshotperformance.com or email info@bodyshotperformance.com to register your interest in our services and connect with us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.