Cold water immersion or cryotherapy is a fairly common practice for some of the fittest people around: athletes and wellness buffs alike. It’s defined by short-term exposure to extremely cold water: think taking a 10-15 minute ice bath after an intense workout to reduce muscle pain and soreness. This practice has been floating around the fitness world for decades and even further back if you take a look at the culture of Nordic countries. But is there real science to back it up?
While studies are limited and professional opinion remains divided, there are several potential benefits to ice baths & cold water immersion. Before you commit to this chillingly uncomfortable practice it’s important to understand why it’s done and what people believe they get from it.
The Potential Benefits of Ice Baths
If you work out regularly, you’re most likely to get the most benefits from ice baths - but that doesn’t mean it’s only for muscle heads. It likely isn’t going to kill anyone who tries it without exercising first. So, if that is your heart’s desire, go for it.
- Relaxes sore and aching muscles
- It’s like putting an ice pack on your entire body. Cold water numbs pain receptors and brings down inflammation, working like a drug-free anesthetic. It’s believed that people with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions can take ice baths to reduce swelling and discomfort.
- Improved Sleep
- Immersing yourself in cold water after a workout is believed to help you relax enough to sleep. Some people note that they sleep better at night if they speed their body’s relaxation in ice after a workout. Better sleep leads to feeling better overall and increased response times in future workouts.
- Form Brown Fat...Burn Calories
- Unlike white fat (which most of us have - especially in our belly), brown fat actually burns calories from food. Some studies claim that regular exposure to cold stimulates the formation of brown fat. The cold will also make you burn calories by shivering and can increase your metabolism up to 80%.
- Boosts the Central Nervous System
- Ice baths are known for boosting the central nervous system. They increase both the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity of your nervous system. The sympathetic part of the nervous system helps us keep alert and focused, and the parasympathetic activity is what helps us relax and recover. By boosting both of these systems, ice baths can improve your body’s immune response and reduce nerve pain.
- Better Mood
- Cold water invigorates your mind. It stimulates nerves on your skin, which activates your brain and helps your body use oxygen more effectively. Hydrotherapy has been known to reduce stress hormones in the body and alleviate depression symptoms. While it won’t cure depression, alleviating the symptoms lead to short-term improvements. This is why splashing cold water on your face is a classic quick-fix for when you feel stressed and overwhelmed.
- Increased Energy Levels
- The short-term exposure to cold temperatures triggers a change in hormone secretion. Studies show that during exposure to cold, your body increases its secretion of norepinephrine, a hormone that regulates attention and energy levels.
- Increased Resilience
- Exposure to extreme temperatures encourages the body to become more resilient. The initial shock allows your body to learn how to adapt quickly and become stronger in the process.
- Increased Focus
- Many people claim that ice baths help increase your focus. It acts as a sort post-workout meditation. It slows the heart and relaxes the mind and body, allowing better focus and recovery.
- Healthier Skin
- The only thing that can make you younger is a time machine, but ice baths can at least make your skin feel younger. Hot showers strip away necessary oils from the outer layers of the skin, leaving your skin feeling dry and looking older. Those oils are actually part of a protective shield that helps keep harmful bacteria and other organisms out. When you strip away the oil, you risk damaging your skin. Cold water preserves the outer layer while tightening the skin, making it seem younger and more supple!
- Healthier Hair
- Ice water closes the cuticle of the hair. This ensures the hair doesn’t fall out as easily when you wash it later.
- Faster Recovery
- Cold water shocks your central nervous system and constricts all your arteries. This causes your heart to focus on keeping blood flowing to your vital organs. Which means that the blood to your arms and legs is temporarily slowed down. As soon as you get of the water, though, your blood vessels dilate. This triggers a rapid increase in blood flow to your skin, arms, and legs - helping you recover more quickly.
- Lowers Your Inner Temperature
- Ice baths are especially important for treating runners and other athletes suffering from heat stroke. It brings down the core temperature very rapidly, pulling them back from dangerous body temps. It’s important to note that an ice bath isn’t always recommended with a fever from an illness. It is essential to find the root cause of the fever. Speak to a doctor if the fever continues to climb.
- Trains a Better Stress Response
- The cold does at first trigger a fight or flight stress response. By continuing to force yourself to enter and stay in the cold water, you are training yourself to handle stress better. Focusing on breathing exercises or other mental tricks helps your body relax and not react quite so strongly to stressful situations.
- Here’s the deal- a study on worms suggests they live longer in cooler temperatures. Obviously, people are not worms (But animal studies like this are good basis for future research). On the other hand, cold water helps you burn fat, reduces stress, and puts you in a better mood. All of which are essential to keeping yourself healthy. Staying healthy is what helps you live longer. Making wise choices for your body will always be more beneficial than not. So, if you really want to stretch it, yes, ice baths can help you live longer, but not on their own. It’s essential to combine all your tools to stay healthy. Exercise and eat well, and if little rituals like ice baths help, then why not? Practices that help you take better care of your body may not make you live forever but they can help you live a better life.
Are Ice Baths Good for You?
With all the benefits listed out, ice baths do seem to be good for you. They certainly aren’t going to hurt you if done properly. It is important that you do it properly, though, and pay attention to any precautions.
So, how do you take an ice bath at home?
- First, you need a bathtub or an immersion tub. Make sure you can safely get in and out of it even after you are numb and shivering from the cold.
- Fill the tub with cold water- about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Have your ice bags ready but don’t add them yet.
- Get in the tub before you add your ice. Slowly add the ice, making sure you can still tolerate the cold.
- Start by soaking for about 5 minutes, but you definitely shouldn’t go longer than 10 minutes. The water shouldn’t get any colder than 53 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water is too cold, it increases the risk of causing damage to your skin. You are also at increased risk for hypothermia.
- Be sure to do the bath as soon after your workout as possible. If you wait until your muscles are stiff and tight, it can potentially cause you more pain instead of helping.
Important precautions to pay attention to:
- If you have cardiovascular disease or other health conditions, speak to your doctor first. When it comes to your heart, it’s always better safe than sorry. The same goes for if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, neuropathy, and poor circulation.
- It can hurt. Extreme cold is no joke and it’s not necessarily for everyone. For some people, ice baths just aren’t going to work. That’s perfectly ok, always do what works best for your body. A cold shower is a more mild alternative to try.
- There is a potential risk for hypothermia. If you let your body temp drop too far down, you are putting yourself at risk for hypothermia. Start slow and lower the temperature a little more each session. You don’t have to freeze yourself to death on your very first try.
- Wait 1-2 hours after the ice bath before taking a warm shower. Too soon after the bath and the warm water will counteract some of the effects.
- If you are doing strength training that day- skip the ice bath. It will actually counteract and slow down muscle growth.
- You need to be consistent. You reap the most benefits from ice baths if you are consistent with them. At least once a week, though it’s better if you do it 2-3 times a week, especially in the beginning to help build the habit.
- Do not hyperventilate. The ice triggers an extreme reaction in the nervous system, causing your breathing to speed up. Focus on slowing your breaths down as much as possible to calm the stress response. Hold your breath for several seconds if you need to.
- You really do need to submerge your whole body. You get the most benefits if you submerger as much of your body as possible. It’s ok if you need to get in slowly, just make sure you end up with the water up to your neck or jawline.
What do Ice Baths do to Your Body?
Cold water immersion begins to affect your physiology almost immediately. The reactions are pretty predictable and self-explanatory. Your blood vessels will constrict, restricting the blood flow to whatever area the cold is applied. Blood vessels throughout your whole body will restrict, in the case of a full ice bath. Your body will focus on keeping the warm blood near your core where you keep your heat instead of in your limbs. This reaction reduces swelling and inflammation within the muscles and temporarily numbs any discomfort.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can ice baths be dangerous?
As long as you use common sense and pay attention to the signals your body is sending you, they are safe. When you are first training yourself to do ice baths, it’s helpful to have a friend nearby just in case you start to feel dizzy or panicky. The stress response to the cold can trigger a full fight or flight reaction if you aren’t cautious. Have someone who can help you out of the water and never start with water that is too cold.
Can you get frostbite from an ice bath?
If you use water that is too cold, you run the risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Use caution and don’t let your water get below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and you should be ok.
How often should you take an ice bath?
Technically, you could take an ice bath every day if you wanted to. It depends on your time and budget. Ideally, you should have at least 11 minutes a week in an ice bath to get the full benefits. Those 11 minutes don’t have to be consecutive either. You can break it down into multiple sessions throughout the week. Start with shorter sessions to help your body get used to the exposure to extreme temperatures.
What does an ice bath do for your body?
Ice baths reduce inflammation, boost the central nervous system, burn fat, and reduce muscle soreness.
Do ice baths reduce high blood pressure?
No. The ice bath restricts your blood vessels, potentially causing your blood pressure to get higher. If you want to lower your blood pressure, it’s better to find a warm situation, like a sauna. Warmth dilates the blood vessels, creating better circulation and lowering blood pressure.
Should you use a special tub?
If you can get in and out of your bathroom tub, then it will work just fine. There are special immersion tubs if you want to invest in one. Some will even chill the water for you. It all depends on your dedication to the practice and your budget.
Are there any disadvantages to ice baths?
Mainly, they are cold. It’s hard to work up the nerve to dip your entire body in ice water. It takes determination to continue the practice regularly.