When I hear of cold therapy, the image that springs to mind is one of a traditional Russian sauna in a winter time. If you have never been to one you wouldn’t understand, but I will try my best to explain it.
Imagine a deep, cold winter, around -20ºC outside, and heaps of snow up to your waist if not taller. A little wooden hut, smoke coming out through the chimney. Imagine sitting in a tiny, steamy room inside that hut, as red as a boiled lobster and all sweaty. If you’re native to the western side of the world, the most natural thing to you would be to get out of the sauna, have a shower and drink lots of water to rehydrate. Only there’s no shower in those little saunas (and some would prefer vodka to water, but this isn’t relevant). However, the vast part of the country isn’t in the west, and people from more remote locations would think differently. So to a Russian person, the most natural thing to do would be to go outside and dive into a heap of icy cold snow. And then return to the sauna. And repeat.
If at this point you are thinking – what the hell? – don’t worry, I was thinking that too when I first saw my parents do that. As a child, I had no tolerance to the heat in the sauna whatsoever and only used it after it had cooled. Cold, on the other hand, didn’t bother me as much, but diving into the snow almost naked – that was a bit extreme.
Fast-forward twenty-something years, I find nothing better than going to a thermal spa, where I can lounge in a sauna until I’m toasty and then head over to an ice fountain and cool my face and body with a handful of ice. I love it even better than cold showers. Although I’m still not sure if I’d be able to dive into the snow.
Closer to your reality, there is winter swimming that is practiced in North America and Northern European countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia. In the countries where the water freezes in winter, it is also called ice swimming. Mind you, people aren’t usually expected to swim, they rather dip into the icy water.
Even closer to home, there are the amazing Stephen and David Flynn of Happy Pear, who organised a Swimrise movement in their hometown Greystones, co. Wicklow, and people from different corners of the country join them daily to discover the joy and health benefits of a cold 5 am swim in the sea.
Now, you don’t have to go to Greystones and join the crowd if you don’t feel up to it. You also don’t have to splurge on spas and saunas to access the ice fountains, or go to colder countries to experience jumping into heaps of snow to have the benefits of a cold therapy. It could be done in the comfort of your own home, in a less extreme way. But the benefits can be many.
Health Benefits of Cold Therapy
Cold therapy can also sometimes be called conditioning to the cold. You may have never heard of this term before. To be honest, I haven’t heard much about it since I have moved to Ireland 12 years ago. But in Russia, especially, in the colder regions, it is something that is heavily practiced, not just by holistic health practitioners but medical professionals, too. Conditioning to the cold has a very long history where I come from.
The need for it arises, I suppose, from the drastic fluctuations of the temperatures throughout the year. With hot summers up to +35ºC and winters as cold as -40ºC, you are unlikely to stay healthy in such temperatures unless you are conditioned to it. The only way to condition your body to different temperatures is to get exposed to them.
While conditioning to the heat didn’t require much effort as we knew no hiding in the shade during hot summers, conditioning to the cold was something my grandparents had tried to talk me into. It was widely popular back in the days and is still recognised as an effective way to improve health, now with a backup of various studies.
Conditioning to the heat is more about tolerance of the heat during the summer time. It isn’t much use for Ireland, really, as we seldom get heatwaves. There is also not much benefit, except cardiovascular flexibility to adapt to different conditions. For example, your body learns to adapt to heat by dilating the blood vessels and losing heat quicker, thus cooling itself more efficiently, as opposed to the person who is not used to the heat.
Conditioning to the cold also allows for better cardiovascular flexibility. It trains the blood vessels to shrink in a quick and efficient manner to prevent the heat loss, thus keeping you warm for longer and minimising the negative effects of extreme weather. Cold, however, has far more benefits to the human body than mere adaptation to severe weather conditions. Cold is know for its therapeutic effects. Let’s have a look at what they are.
Unlike heat that can promote inflammation, cold has shown the ability to reduce inflammation, especially of the muscles. This is why cold compresses are highly advised as the first-line treatment during injuries. Ice/cold water baths are also popular nowadays as a means of reducing inflammation and staving off muscle soreness after vigorous exercise. There is currently insufficient data to tell whether it can help with arthritis pain, but this is also being researched. Another study has found cold to have an analgesic effect on the body.
Increased Metabolism and Possible Weight Loss
It is important to remember that nothing will make you shed some extra pounds unless you expend more energy than you intake, but exposure to cold is known to increase metabolism by stimulating the heat production. This may be of help if used in conjunction with other measures to facilitate weight loss, like healthy eating and exercising.
Moreover, exposure to cold may stimulate the conversion of white fat into brown fat – the beneficial type of fat that creates heat (thermogenesis) and burns calories while doing so, as opposed to white fat that just creates physical insulation. People with higher brown fat percentage are generally considered to have lower weight.
Increased Immune Function
The immune system of the human body is largely dependent on the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system works like a filter, removing the toxins from your body. If you don’t stimulate your lymphatic system on a regular basis, it becomes stagnant and somewhat inefficient. Exercise is one of the best ways to stimulate the lymphatic system, but cold can do this too. Just imagine what they can do when coupled together!
Regular, progressive exposure to cold (conditioning) also teaches your body to recognise and react in an appropriate way. So when the cold season comes, your body is prepared and is less likely to be affected by it.
One study found that following a 30-day hot-to-cold shower protocol, subjects have reported less absences from work due to illness.
Youth and Longevity
While there is little research to date, it is suggested that cold therapy may slow down ageing and increase longevity. Cold showers have been practiced for decades as a way to rejuvenate the body. Rubbing your face with an ice cube is one of the popular techniques to bring colour and tone to your skin, because it tightens the pores and contracts the blood vessels.
The same study that was researching the effects of cold showers on arthritis pain found that patients reported better quality of sleep. Again, more research is needed, but cold therapy may have a soothing effect and promote deeper relaxation and sleep.
Mental Health and Well-being
Cold therapy may seem daunting at first. It takes a great deal of mental strength to start doing it, but doing so can increase your mental toughness and self-control. Researchers also conclude that cold affects the biochemical processes in the body that result in lower levels of depression. Moreover, doing something that is perceived as (and actually is) beneficial to your body, creates a sense of increased well-being. This may be just as important as reaping the actual benefits.
How To Practice Cold Therapy
There are many ways in which you can practice cold therapy, but safety first!
IMPORTANT – Please consult with your doctor if you have or think you may have any underlying health conditions. It is also important to make sure that you don’t suffer from any infections like cold or flu. If you have any symptoms or signs of a possible infection (runny nose, sore throat, cough), postpone your cold therapy.
Another word of warning: remember to always start slow, with temperatures that feel comfortable to you and decrease the temperature by 1ºC every 2-4 days as you grow more comfortable with it. Don’t shock your body with the extremely cold temperature – it induces a stress response and may do more harm than benefit.
Now let’s look at different types of cold therapies.
This would be one of the most popular and easy ways to incorporate cold therapy into your regime. Start with your normal temperature, then turn it down by 1 or 2 degrees for 15-30 seconds, alternate between the 2 temperatures. Make sure that any changes to the temperature or the time are gradual and are only introduced once your body has adjusted.
Alternatively, you can introduce a cold shower at the end of your regular shower. This is known to have a few benefits of its own: it tightens the pores on your skin and scalp, reducing your perspiration. This is a known trick to make your hair shinier and help keep it fresh for longer. By turning the water temperature down a little at the end of your shower, your body readjusts and doesn’t feel as cold when you climb out of the shower. This is especially true for winters, when you may shiver getting out of the shower.
You can ease yourself into the conditioning to the cold by taking air baths, or, in other words, exposing your uncovered skin to the air. This may include walking around the house minimally dressed, or even skipping on drying and dressing yourself straight after a shower or a bath.
Cold Foot Baths
This method is also great for taking away the tiredness from your feet, and it can be done in a few different ways.
- Foot ‘shower’: this is done by pouring cold water (start with 27-29ºC) over your ankles and feet for 25 to 30 seconds per session, then wiping them thoroughly. Decrease the tº of the water no sooner than every 10 days.
- Contrast foot baths: fill two large plastic bowls with hot (38-40ºC) and cold (30-32ºC) water. Place your feet into the hot water for up to 1,5 min, then place them into the cold water for 5-10 sec. Repeat 4 to 5 times and dry your feet. As with the previous method, lower the temperature of the cold water by 1-2ºC every 10 days or more.
- Cold foot baths: fill a plastic bowl or a bath tub with cold water (28-30ºC). Place your feet in the cold water for up to 1 min. Move your feet around, as in walking in place. Gradually, lower the temperature of the water (the end tº should be no less that 13-15ºC) and increase the time of the therapy for up to 5 min.
These therapies should be done around 1 hour before bed.
There are other ways to practice cold therapy, such as bathing in lakes and rivers. These are considered the best ways to condition your body to the cold, but they also pose certain risks and cannot be done as easily as the methods mentioned above. There is nothing like the comfort of your own home, especially now that we aren’t even allowed to go far.
Don’t forget about the simple beauty methods like rubbing your face with an ice cube or washing your face and neck with cool water. Walking barefoot is another way to train your body and also an excellent way to expose your immune system to different microflora. People who walk barefoot are considered to have greater resistance to bacterial infections and have stronger immune system in general.
All of these methods and therapies can be very effective at improving your immune function and increasing your longevity, but like with most things in life – a little goes a long way, so make sure you start small.