The idea of immersing your body in freezing cold water - on purpose -- is certainly not very appealing. Surprisingly, the practice has become more popular than ever. This is partially thanks to Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete and well known as 'The Iceman' for his ability to endure freezing cold water for extended periods of time. Hof developed the Wim Hof Method, a combination of cold water exposure, breathing methods, and meditation.
This became a trend that took the internet by storm. For a period of time, it seemed like every second person was taking early morning dips in the ocean. A few took it to the extreme and invested in chest freezers for their garages!
Despite the hints of madness, this chilly practice is based on science and research which has begun to shed light on the array of physical and mental benefits associated with cold exposure. For this reason, we've included a cold exposure habit in our BrainScrub routine at Coachbit. So far -- the students are loving it!
Recent studies have found that cold exposure has a significant effect on cognitive performance, specifically in terms of enhancing focus and attention. When our body is exposed to cold, a stress response is triggered and as a result a cocktail of neurochemicals (epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine) is released. These neurochemicals are responsible for initiating, directing, and sustaining focus.
One study showed that immersion in cold water (57 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour raised levels of norepinephrine by 530% and dopamine by 250%. The levels of neurochemicals released during the cold exposure remained elevated for an extended period of time after the initial exposure, the increase in dopamine levels continuing for up to two hours after. Hence, cold showers or swims are recommended in the mornings or prior to periods that require focus and concentration.
A 2020 study in Britain, recorded the moods of two groups of participants. One group swam in cold seawater for 10 weeks, the other group watched from the shore. The study found that those who swam experienced greater improvements in mood and wellbeing.
The impact of cold water exposure on mood, anxiety, and stress can also be explained by the release of neurochemicals. The stress response to cold water affects the levels of serotonin in the brain, which enhances the feeling of overall well-being.
Moreover, the study previously discussed, which found a 250% increase in dopamine following exposure, interestingly, found no significant increases in the stress hormone cortisol. This means that the quality of stress that cold immersion is creating in the body is 'Eustress', which is opposite to 'distress'. 'Eustress' is stress which provides the body with positive health outcomes.
Studies have found that cold exposure has both short-term and long-term effects on mood. Directly after cold exposure, studies reported an acute improvement in mood among their participants. Other studies, which recorded and analyzed the long-term impact of cold water exposure, noted increased positive mood after four months of cold swimming in winter.
Apart from the mental health benefits, the positive effects of cold water exposure on physical wellbeing is perhaps the most convincing. The release of norepinephrine has also been associated with a decrease in inflammation in the body. High levels of inflammation have been found to inhibit the release of serotonin in the body. Thus, a reduction of inflammation can be connected to an increase in mood.
The immune system also receives a boost after a bout of cold exposure. A 2021 study found that habitual cold water swimmers, in comparison to their non-swimming cohabiting partners, had better resistance to colds and upper respiratory tract infections.
Cold showers also function as an effective form of cold exposure. A Dutch study analyzed the impact of regular cold showers on the physical health and wellness of over 3000 participants. The study found that those who took cold showers for either 30, 60, or 90 seconds over a period of 30 consecutive days reported a reduction in sick leave.
Finally, it seems that cold water can serve as a pain reliever. This is partly because of its ability to reduce inflammation and swelling, but also because noradrenaline constricts blood vessels which promotes pain relief. For this reason, cold exposure is very effective for the relief of muscular, joint, and arthritic pain.
** 1. Start Small**
Not everyone has access to a swimming pool, nearby beach, or lake. That's why the easiest and most accessible way to get cold is the shower! At the end of your warm shower, turn the cold water on and stay under it for as long as you can. To start you may just be able to last for a couple of seconds.
It will not be fun -- that's for sure. But as you try it each day, you'll notice your body is able to endure the cold for a couple more seconds. It doesn't take long for your body's response to cold exposure to kick in, so there is no need to go any longer than 2 minutes. Unless you consider yourself the next IceMan (or IceWoman) that is...
Oh and don't turn the warm water back on after your bout of cold water.!
2. Start Early
We highly recommend getting your cold shower in as early in the day as possible. That's why we have included it in the morning routine of our students. This ensures that they reap all the benefits of heightened focus and mental sharpness for the day ahead at school. It also gives them a mood boost and skip in their step for the rest of the day! What better way to set them up for a successful day? ** 3. How Cold is Cold?**
The cold shock and stress response seems to peak between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. We don't all have a way to measure our shower water so a good rule of thumb is to turn the tap to its coldest. The cold water should be uncomfortable, but tolerable enough to stay in safely.
Once you start to see and feel the benefits of cold showers it's likely that you won't be able to do without them. Cold showers in the morning will boost your mood, keep you healthy, and prime you for optimal focus during the day. That is what the science says and what our coaches and team at Coachbit have experienced first-hand.
We are all about setting ourselves up for success early in the day and have found that our morning BrainScrub routine is the best way to prepare our students for mental and physical success.
Andrew Huberman, 'The Science & Use of Cold Exposure for Health & Performance,' accessed at https://hubermanlab.com/the-science-and-use-of-cold-exposure-for-health-and-performance/;
Huberman Lab Podcast: "Dr. Wendy Suzuki: Boost Attention & Memory With Science-Based Tools" Accessed at https://hubermanlab.com/dr-wendy-suzuki-boost-attention-and-memory-with-science-based-tools/
Wim Hof, _The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential _
Fear-setting is an extremely helpful tool for adults and children alike to learn to identify their fears and to separate what can be controlled from what cannot. By focusing on what is in our control, and taking action, we can decrease emotional reactivity and stress.