Are Cold Showers Worth It? Here Are 7 Benefits and 4 Disadvantages
Before it became a personal and practical matter of hygiene, the art of bathing was quite a public affair that was a central part of social life. Back in ancient Greek and Roman times, bathing was a recreational activity where people socialized as they progressed through a series of heated rooms and hot baths before finishing in a frigidarium, or cold pool.
Fast forward to today and these cold-plunge pools are still a standard feature in spas around the world as a way to close pores and wake up the senses, usually after a relaxing spa treatment.
More recently, this original idea of cold showers has progressed into something that extends well beyond the realm of leisure into the world of cryotherapy, or cold therapy. Using low temperatures as a means to provide medical treatment, cryotherapy includes cryosurgery and cryoablation, both of which are used to remove skin tags, moles, and even cancer cells. (1)
The Cryotherapy Craze
Aside from procedures done in a doctor’s office, cryotherapy has also become a hot buzzword and alternative health phenomenon that refers to exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes, typically in a cryo chamber. This form of cryotherapy ranges from one specific area or whole body immersion. More than just a cold shower in ice cold water, much of today’s cryotherapy use dry cold rather than wet cold.
Regardless of the specifics, chances are you’ve noticed cryo studios cropping up in a city near you. And with big-name lifestyle gurus like Tim Ferris, Tony Robbins, and Tom Bilyeu touting the health benefits of cryotherapy, it all begs the question: Are cold showers really that good for you?
Let’s look at 7 advantages and 4 potential drawbacks of this growing trend that isn’t cooling down anytime soon.
The Science Behind Cold Showers
Cold water showers affect the circulatory system, which is your network of organs and vessels that regulate the flow of blood, nutrients, hormones and oxygen throughout the body. According to Massimo Ferrigno, M.D., Associate Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, “The shock of cold water against the skin triggers a fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands pump out extra epinephrine (adrenaline) and other stress hormones. They cause blood vessels supplying the skin to narrow,” which conserves heat and makes the heart work harder. (2)
While an increased heart rate is not a good idea if you have high blood pressure or any cardiovascular issues, most people find that this fight-or-flight response creates a higher level of alertness and overall sense of well-being thanks to the plethora of endorphins it triggers. (3)
That said, you should always proceed with caution and consult your healthcare practitioner before starting any new program or extreme body treatment.
7 Brrrr-eathtaking Benefits Of Cold Showers
Now that you know a little more about the science behind the cold therapy trend, it’s time to learn how it might help you.
1. Boost the Immune System
According to a 2011 study done on winter swimmers, candidates who swam in cold water saw a significant increase in red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, which is important since white blood cells are a crucial component of protecting the body and maintaining a strong immune system. (4)
Cold showers and ice baths cause oxidative stress on the nervous system, which over time can improve the body’s ability to adapt to stress. (5)
Studies show that cold-water immersion can also help the body heal faster, particularly after high-intensity exercise. (6) As such, it’s not surprising why professional athletes like Wimbledon tennis champ Andy Murray use ice baths as a way to speed up muscle recovery.
Because more blood flows to the heart and internal organs, the lymphatic system can more easily remove metabolic waste and deliver nutrients the body needs.
2. Cold Showers Can Make You More Productive
When cold water hits the body, this shock triggers deep breathing. With each deep breath, you get a higher oxygen intake. This boost in oxygenation can make you feel more energetic and focused. More oxygen = more energy.
Science backs up this claim: A heightened heart rate not only releases a rush of blood and adrenaline throughout your body, but the brain also gets extra oxygen as the body moves blood from the outer blood vessels into deeper ones. (7)
Some people have reported giving up caffeine all together after taking cold showers as a natural way to stimulate the mind and body.
3. Foster Self-Discipline
Being able to step into a cold shower first thing in the morning builds self-discipline as well as physical resilience.
Getting out of your comfort zone and facing the fear—or at least discomfort—of plunging into ice cold water builds strength of mind and body. Whether or not you do it every day is not as important as the realization that you will have a new level of self-control and resolve that will benefit you in all aspects of life.
4. Cold Showers Can Combat Acne
Hot water can dehydrate the skin and cause inflammation and sebum buildup, which can be very bad news for those prone to breakouts. On the other hand, research shows that cool or cold water can reduce swelling and sebum production. (8)
Although there isn’t enough research to conclude that washing with cool or cold water for only a few seconds will improve skin tone, cold water can reduce the appearance of pores and help retain natural oil on the skin that hot water strips away. (8)
5. Cold Showers Can Help with Weight Loss
You might not know it, but your body has both brown fat and white fat. Brown fat is the “good fat” that helps maintain the body’s temperature while white fat is the “bad fat” that often stubbornly sticks to the hips, thighs, belly, and bottom. A 2013 study shows that brown fat burns fat to generate heat when the body is exposed to cold and plays an important role in metabolism. (9)
Michael Greger, M.D. and Fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, cites this 2013 study which demonstrated how brown adipose tissue could be activated “if you chill out people long enough, specifically by exposing them to two hours of cold every day for six weeks, which can lead to a significant reduction in body fat.” (10)
Given the scientific documentation, it stands to reason that cold showers speed up metabolism and help burn fat for some, potentially helping you lose weight.
6. Cold Showers Can Reduce Stress
Even if it’s just a quick cold shower, research shows that exposing your body to cold temperatures can lower levels of uric acid and boost production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative stress. (11)
7. Cold Showers Might Alleviate Depression
Skin has more cold receptors than warm ones, which means a warm water shower might not affect mood nearly as much as a cold one. According to a 2008 study, a cold shower can “send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect.” (12)
While more studies are needed, there are numerous anecdotal reports of people having improved energy levels and feeling less depressed after regularly taking cold showers.
4 Reasons NOT To Take Cold Showers
Cold showers are by no means a cure-all for whatever ails you. There are good reasons not to take a cold shower, so keep the following in mind.
1. They Make It Hard To Sleep
Think a cold shower before bed is a good idea? Think again. The energizing physical and mental effects of a cold shower are just the sort of pick-me-up you want before the workday, but not so much after dark. Save the cold temps for the morning and stick to a relaxing warm shower so you can catch more zzz’s.
2. They Could Keep You Sick
Should you take cold showers when you’re sick? Probably not. While some research shows that cold showers mean fewer sick days (13), the sudden drop in temperature can be taxing on the immune system, not to mention there are different kinds of illness and countless variables to consider from one person to the next. Err on the side of caution and stick to a normal warm shower.
3. Cold Showers Aren’t Exactly Relaxing
Unlike a hot shower, dipping your body in an ice cold shower isn’t a serene situation no matter how good you might feel afterwards.
You might miss out on “shower thoughts.”
Seriously, it’s a real thing. How many great ideas or solutions to problems have you had while your mind wandered in the comfort of a warm shower? Probably too many to count. This is less likely to happen in a cold shower.
4. Could Be Harmful for Those with Heart Conditions
“Extra epinephrine tends to disturb the heart’s steady rhythm,” states Massimo Ferrigno, M.D. (2) While this usually isn’t a problem for someone with good cardiovascular health, it could be troublesome for someone already prone to heart arrhythmia.
If you have high blood pressure or have any heart condition, do not try cryotherapy without first consulting your doctor.
How To Get Started With Cold Showers
When it comes to cryotherapy, start slowly. Next time you’re about to jump in the shower, consider taking the James Bond approach, aka the “Scottish Shower”—start with a normal warm shower then turn it to cold during the last 30-60 seconds for an invigorating blast.
Cryotherapy has been around for centuries, but it can be a whole new world for you. The key is to take proper precautions and maybe build up to a few days a week and see how you feel. After all, just because subzero temps work for polar bears and penguins doesn’t mean it’s right for you.