Cold Water Therapy Benefits


As a health enthusiast, I've noticed an cool trend taking the wellness community by storm: cold water therapy. It's not just for the bold and the brave—everyday folks and influencers alike are diving into the chilling embrace of ice baths, touting a host of purported health benefits.

The buzz isn't without substance; research is starting to back up the claims. From boosting mood to supporting heart health, cold water therapy seems to be more than just a refreshing plunge. It's a practice that might just have the power to revitalize our bodies and minds in ways we're only beginning to understand.

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woman uses ice baths for reduced inflammation and treating pain

What is cold therapy?

Cold therapy, or cryotherapy, is the practice of using low temperatures to treat various conditions or promote overall well-being. At its core, the principle behind cold therapy is that the body's exposure to cold can lead to physiological reactions that might be beneficial for health. One of the most common forms of cold therapy is called cold water immersion. I’ve seen that this involves individuals submerging their bodies, typically from the neck down, in water that's no warmer than 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold showers and contrast bath therapy, wherein one alternates between cold and warm water, are also part of this therapeutic approach.

Breathwork frequently accompanies this practice, especially in methods like the Wim Hof Method. It's an interesting combination of controlled breathing, meditation, and exposure to cold that has gained significant attention for its supposed benefits to both mind and body. In essence, cold therapy isn't just a singular act of getting into cold water; it's often a comprehensive wellness routine.

While plunging into cold water might sound extreme, many report that the shock to the system can be revitalizing. Studies have started to support some of these anecdotal claims. For instance, after examining a group of cyclists, researchers found that those who took a 15-minute cold shower after their cycling session experienced improved heart rate recovery. This points to potential cardiovascular benefits, although it's crucial to note that the science community is still compiling evidence, and more research is needed to cement these findings.

The role of cold therapy in inflammation reduction is another area under scientific scrutiny. Given that inflammation is a common precursor to numerous health issues, techniques that mitigate inflammation, like cold water therapy, are gaining traction among wellness enthusiasts. The theory is that the cold can help to reduce inflammation and subsequently reduce the risk of related health conditions.

My experience with cold therapy tells me it's more than just a trend; it's a practice rooted in a deeper understanding of how our bodies can harness the cold to potentially heal and invigorate us. Whether it’s through an invigorating plunge into a natural spring or a routine morning cold shower, the methods of incorporating cold therapy into daily life are as variable as the benefits they might offer.

couple engages in cold plunge for health benefits. The ice baths sit on an outdoor deck with beautiful landscape behind them.

History of Cold Water Therapy

I've discovered that the practice of submerging in chilly waters, far from being a novel wellness fad, has a storied past. Historic practices often lodge themselves in modern routines, and this is very true for cold water therapy. Ancients across various cultures dipped into cold rivers, seas, and specially crafted baths for rituals, health, and vigor.

Romans, for instance, created frigidariums as part of their bathing complexes. Taking a dip in these cold pools followed the hot baths and steam rooms to invigorate the body and close pores. The Spartans, known for their staunch discipline, favored cold plunges believing it fortified both body and character. Throughout history, therapeutic benefits of cold water have been a part of Chinese medicine, Russian Banyas, and Scandinavian saunas, all featuring transitions from hot to cold water immersion.

In the Victorian era, cold water therapy gained medical traction. Physicians of the time prescribed cold baths as a treatment for an array of ailments. They believed that the shock of cold water could kickstart the body's systems, improving circulation and boosting overall health.

As I delve deeper into the history, I notice an undeniable thread: cold water immersion was and still is associated with healing, purification, and rejuvenation. The notion of its curative powers has transcended borders and epochs, influencing how we view and use cold therapy today.

Interestingly, during the 19th century, cold water therapy meshed with the natural healing movements, sparked by the belief in water's innate ability to heal. Its application became more refined with various techniques tailored to treat specific conditions. The approach morphed from a blunt, all-encompassing treatment into a nuanced practice, symbolizing the evolving understanding of its mechanisms and benefits.

In contemporary times, while the methods and scientific understanding have advanced, the essence remains steeped in this rich history. What we see now with the ice baths and cold plunges is not just a repetition of the past but a progression informed by continuous research and accumulated knowledge.

woman wades trough icy water in middle of a scenic winter landscape. She cold plunges for health benefits in natures ice bath

How Cold Water Therapy Works

When I decide to immerse myself in cold water, my body undergoes a fascinating series of reactions. Cold water immersion stimulates leukocytes, the white blood cells in charge of fighting off illnesses. This is crucial for bolstering my immune system, particularly during flu and cold seasons.

Here's what happens: the shock of cold water causes the lymphatic system to contract, which in turn forces fluid through the lymph nodes. This action acts as a detox, clearing out waste by-products from the muscle’s metabolic process. The result? A second wind for my immune defense.

The benefits don't stop at immunity. When I step into an ice bath with temperatures between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, cold water therapy helps in saying goodbye to sore muscles. The reduced temperature helps in decreasing metabolic activity, which reduces inflammation and pain from any muscle tears. This reduction in inflammation is what contributes to faster recovery and relief from soreness after a hard workout.

During a Cold Shower Routine, I begin with warm water and gradually transition to cold for about 30 seconds, repeating this hot-to-cold change about three times. This trains my nervous system to adapt to temperature changes and leaves the body feeling refreshed and invigorated. It's particularly effective in winter when the tap water gets even chillier.

As I consistently practice cold water therapy, I'm training my body to respond more robustly to stressors. This resilience gained can have numerous implications for my health and well-being, demonstrating the subtle yet profound ways in which cold water therapy can work for us.

Beautiful woman sits in an icy bath for the health benefits. The water has ice chunks floating in it.

Types of Cold Water Therapy

Cold Water Immersion

Cold water immersion is exactly what it sounds like: submerging my body in cold water. Typically, the water temperature is kept below 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the protocol and your own cold tolerance, aim for an immersion time of no longer than 15 minutes. I might choose an ice bath, which allows for temperature control, or, for the more adventurous, venture into a cold lake or ocean. Cold water immersion therapy is hailed for its ability to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation.

Contrast Water Therapy

Another intriguing method is contrast water therapy, which involves alternating between hot and cold water baths. The goal here is to exploit the body's natural response to body temperature changes, creating a vascular "pumping" effect that enhances blood flow. This can be particularly beneficial for various types of pain, including that from rheumatoid arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Cold Showers

Cold showers might seem like a more accessible entry point into cold water therapy. In a small study, taking a 15-minute cold shower after cycling was linked to improved heart rate recovery among participants. It's a simple, no-frill approach to reap some cardiovascular benefits, though more research is needed to solidify these findings.

Wim Hof Method

Lastly, I can't miss mentioning the Wim Hof Method, which combines cold water immersion with breathing techniques. This unique approach often involves submersion in scenic, natural environments, turning the practice into not just a health routine but an almost spiritual experience. Sticking to sessions of up to 15 minutes at temperatures no higher than 59 degrees Fahrenheit, the Wim Hof Method is gaining popularity among those looking to enhance their overall well-being.

6 Cool Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

There are so many health-promoting effects of cold thermogenesis that it is impossible to write about all of them. Therefore, we will focus on six distinct benefits of cold thermogenesis: improved brain health, weight loss, immune system enhancement, increased longevity, boosted mood, and improved athletic recovery.


Sustained cold water immersion can dramatically increase catecholamines, hormones released by your adrenal glands in response to physical or emotional stress. The main types of catecholamines are norepinephrine, dopamine, and epinephrine (adrenaline). Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is responsible for increased vigilance, focus, attention, and mood. Studies have shown that norepinephrine enables synaptic plasticity, which is an important foundation for learning and memory. Norepinephrine also directly activates self-renewing and multipotent neural precursors, including stem cells, from the hippocampus of adult mice.

Additionally, when exposed to the cold, the body releases cold shock proteins known as RNA binding motif 3 (RBM3), found in the brain, heart, liver, and skeletal muscle. RBM3 is directly linked to the regeneration of synapses in the human brain. Synapses – gaps between neurons through which your neurons communicate – are responsible for normal brain function and memory formation.

This effectively means that cold water therapy could decrease the degeneration of your neurons and, therefore, prevent neurodegenerative diseases because it promotes the growth and development of nervous tissue and neurogenesis.


When exposed to cold temperatures, your metabolism experiences a short-term increase as the body utilizes calories to maintain core body temperature. While the total calories expended during cold water immersion might not be substantial, the transformation of white fat (energy storage) into beige or brown adipose tissue (metabolically active)

Ray Cronise, an author and former NASA scientist, started investigating the effects of cold water on weight loss and metabolism after learning that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps ate 12,000 calories daily. Ray's investigation led to the conclusion that Michael Phelps needed those calories for his body to be able to fight to regulate its temperature when swimming in chilly pools. Then he turned around and tested his theory on himself, finding that cold water exposure could help with weight loss. 

Read more about cold water therapy for weight loss here


Cold thermogenesis can enhance the immune system. Cold exposure can increase the number of white blood cells in your blood vessels in your body, which can help fight off infections. Additionally, cold exposure can increase the levels of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. A 2016 study found that people who took cold showers were less likely to call out sick from work than those who didn't. 


Cold thermogenesis can increase longevity. Studies have shown that cold exposure activates AMPK, an enzyme that plays a key role in cell metabolism and energy homeostasis. Activation of AMPK has been shown to increase lifespan in various organisms, including mice. Furthermore, cold exposure can increase the levels of heat shock proteins (HSPs) in your body. HSPs help protect your cells from damage caused by stress and aging.


Cold thermogenesis can boost mood. Cold exposure can increase the levels of beta-endorphins in your body. Beta-endorphins are neurotransmitters that can help reduce pain and improve mood. Additionally, cold exposure can increase the levels of noradrenaline in your body. Noradrenaline is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is responsible for increased vigilance, focus, attention, and mood.


Cold water immersion can help reduce swelling, soreness, muscle recovery and inflammation in athletes after workouts. A 2015 meta-analysis of 27 previously published articles found that cooling and cold water immersion significantly affected the symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is a type of muscle soreness that occurs after intense exercise and can last for several days. Incorporating cold water into a recovery routine may help athletes alleviate DOMS symptoms and recover faster.


Cold thermogenesis is the practice of intentionally exposing parts of the body to cold water temperatures to dramatically lower the core temperature. This practice brings a host of health benefits, including improved brain health, weight loss, immune system enhancement, increased longevity, and boosted mood. Cold exposure can increase the number of white blood cells in your body, which can help fight off infections. Additionally, cold exposure can increase the levels of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. Cold exposure can activate AMPK, an enzyme that plays a key role in cell metabolism and energy homeostasis. Activation of AMPK has been shown to increase lifespan in various organisms, including mice. Furthermore, cold exposure can increase the levels of heat shock proteins (HSPs) in your body

Confused about the ideal temperature for cold water therapy? Read more here.

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