The idea of willingly entering an ice bath may seem more like an act of self-torture than a therapy. As crazy as it may be, ice bath therapy has become a topic of great interest, especially with the popularity of Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman.” He films himself taking plunges in ice baths and swimming in frigid conditions, all the while singing and smiling. And health experts have measured his health and the findings are remarkable.
Ice baths, or cold water immersion or cold hydrotherapy, are a less extreme version of cryotherapy. Cryotherapy treatments usually expose users to temperatures that are 150 degrees Fahrenheit, or colder, below zero. While ice baths are not as arctic, they are still cold, make no mistake about that. Ice baths tend to stand at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but there are electronically-controlled polar plunges that keep the water at a chilled temperature of your choice without the need for ice.
Current Research On Ice Baths
There are multiple studies that show the pros and cons of ice baths. As is true with most research on a therapy, there are two sides to the equation: one supporting side and one negative side. For example, a 2017 study suggests that previous ideas about ice baths for athletes are flawed. That study argued that active recovery, like 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise on a stationary bike, is just as beneficial for muscle repair as ice baths. That said, there are researchers that believe in the use of ice bath therapy. Right after a workout, your muscles want to cool down, and immersing them in a cold environment can accelerate this process.
Ice baths are not just for professional athletes and fitness aficionados, though. An ice bath is an energizing experience because it wakes up the cells in your body. The immediate shock of the cold throws your body into a fight-or-flight response. Embracing that stress can help you harness the adrenaline, while also helping to lower inflammation. The blood vessels constrict and that can help bring down swelling. Continue reading to learn about other reasons why you should get into an ice bath.
Boost Your Mental Health
The initial ice bath experience is never a fun one. It can be a bit painful, but after acclimating your body to the cold and doing breathwork, you can relax in the cold. The ice bath draws your focus to your breath and you become awake and present in the moment. By waking up your cells and coming face to face with the stress, you can handle stress in a better way outside the ice bath. It may not seem like it after the first few baths, but over time you start to notice the mental health benefits.
Aid Muscle Recovery
When you expose your body to the cold, your blood vessels constrict and they rapidly open upon emerging from the water. This drastic change in temperatures can help flush the muscles’ metabolic waste products. Rapidly dilating your blood vessels also increases the delivery of oxygen and other nutrients to your muscles. This process can help accelerate the recovery process after a hard workout, which may lead to less muscle pain later on.
When you submerge in cold water, the blood rushes to your muscles and vital organs. Your heart needs to work harder as a result, so you pump blood through your vessels and give your body more oxygen and nutrients. Similarly, a 10-minute fast-paced walk can give you a circulatory boost. If you don’t want to walk it out, though, enter the cold and experience the same benefits.
Enhance Immune Function
A 2014 study found that people were able to improve immune response via cold water immersion, meditation, and deep breathing. Participants were exposed to bacterial infection, and the ones that used those three techniques experienced fewer symptoms and produced a stronger anti-inflammatory response. When you are able to decrease the amount of inflammation in the body, your immune system has an easier time fighting off foreign invaders. In a 2016 study, people who took cold showers were 30% less likely to call in sick for work or school.
If you experience chronic stress, it’s time to enter the cold. Cold stimulation, especially in the neck area, stimulates the vagus nerve, which may help lower heart rate and reduce stress. A 2014 review of hydrotherapy treatments found that cold exposure like an ice bath can boost central nervous system (CNS) function. When your CNS is functioning optimally, not only do your stress levels decrease, but you can also experience better quality sleep.