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Use of Cold Exposure for Mental, Physical Health & Recovery

Bretton Curtis - TOBS

Deliberate cold exposure can positively affect brain and body health.


Never get into a dangerous body of water. It's also advised not to do any intentional hyper-ventilation before getting into any water. Start out using warmer than freezing water, be reasonable, we are just getting started here! Cold shock is possible; just as with lifting weights or other forms of exercise, you’ll need to find what's right for you!

How cold? The key is to aim for a temperature that makes you think, “This is really cold! I want to get out!!” But also isn't so cold you are in any real danger. For most somewhere between 45-50 degrees f is probably a good start. Here is the key: the colder the water, the shorter amount of time you need to expose yourself to it.

Ice plunge, cold shower, or cryotherapy? Most studies use ice baths or cold water­­­ immersion to the neck. Those are best, but cold showers can work too (and are more accessible to most). Cryo is very expensive and harder to access so we don't use it here.

Deliberate cold exposure causes a significant release of epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline) in the brain and body. These neurochemicals make us feel alert and can make us feel the need to move or vocalize during the cold exposure. Cold causes their levels to stay elevated for some time and their ongoing effect after the exposure is to increase your level of energy and focus, which can be applied to other mental and/or physical activities. By forcing yourself to be exposed to the stress of cold water as a challenge, you exert what is called ‘top-down control’ over deeper brain centers that regulate reflexive states. You gain more control over your impulses. That ‘top-down’ control is the basis of what people refer to when they talk about grit. It is a skill that carries over to situations outside of the cold water allowing you to deal with problems and maintain a calm, clear mind when confronted with real-world stress.

Morning or Evening? After cold exposure, your core body temperature rises. Body temperature increases tend to wake us up and body temperature decreases tend to set us up for sleep. I suggest using deliberate cold early in the day and not too close to bed. Sometimes we don't have time to do it early in the day, but be sure to prioritize sleep. If cold plunging affects your sleep, try doing it earlier in the day, or not at all.

Enhancing the Effects Staying completely still while in cold water allows a thermal layer to surround your body, ‘insulating’ you from the cold. To enhance the effectiveness of the cold water move your body while keeping your hands and feet in the water. You can even "woosh" the water over your body under water. That will disrupt the thermal layer and you will experience the water colder than if you stayed still. This is also a good way to increase the effectiveness of the cold stimulus without having to make the water colder.

Enhancing Your Mood Cold exposure causes the prolonged release of dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful molecule capable of elevating mood, enhancing focus. It's the brains "reward" molecule that makes us feel good when we complete a goal or task. Even short bouts of cold exposure can cause a lasting increase in dopamine and sustained elevation of mood, energy, and focus.

Metabolism Cold exposure does increase metabolism as the body has to burn calories to increase core body temperature, although the total calories expended from cold exposure are not significant.

How long and how often should I do cold exposure? Consider starting cold exposure for 10-15 minutes per week TOTAL. NOT per session, but rather, 2-4 sessions lasting 1-5 mins each distributed across the week. Make sure the water temperature is uncomfortably cold yet safe to stay in for a few minutes. You can do more, but this should be the minimum to achieve the benefits of cold exposure.

Physical Recovery A study of cold-water immersion effects on recovery found that cold exposure can be a highly effective recovery tool after high-intensity exercise or endurance training. Short interval (< 5 mins), cold water immersion demonstrated positive outcomes for muscle power, perceived recovery, and decreased muscle soreness. One caveat is that cold water immersion (but not cold showers) can limit some of the gains in hypertrophy, strength or endurance if done in the 4 hours or so after training. Waiting 8 or more hours until after training, or do it before training.

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