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Cold Water Therapy. The Science Behind The Benefits

Cold Water Therapy

Ice baths, also known as cold water therapy, or cold water immersion therapy have become increasingly popular as a post-workout recovery and wellness approach.

From ancient Greek traditions to modern-day athletes, ice baths have offered numerous health benefits that have only recently started to emerge in the backyards of homes around the world.

The practice involves immersing your body, partially or entirely, in a tub filled with cold water and ice for a specific duration. Fun times!

So it kinda seems weird I know. Why on earth would someone, when the modern world has hot water at its fingertips, choose to dive into an icy pool of water?

Believe me, people pay thousands of dollars for a week-long retreat to learn about cold water therapy and its benefits – you also learn some breathing techniques too so it’s not all that bad (eye roll)

It appears this plunging, 3-4 times a week is believed to reduce muscle pain and soreness, but I can certainly vouch for that and how it accelerates recovery. After years of playing football, I’ve seen firsthand how effective it can be.

Aside from that, it strengthens immunity, boosts mood, relieves pain, and reviewing the supporting evidence it potentially has positive benefits against developing Alzheimer’s disease.

However, while the allure of ice baths is undeniable, it is essential to approach them with a little hesitation, and it makes sense right, it’s freezing inside a Freeze Tub.

Let me take you through a little bit about cold water therapy, its benefits, and most importantly, the science behind the practice. 

What’s Cold Water Therapy?

Cold water therapy or ice bath is the process of immersing yourself, partially or entirely, in a tub or container filled with cold water and ice (less than 15°C or 59°F) for 10 to 15 minutes. It can be anything from a cold shower to an ice bath or swimming in cold water. 

Cold water therapy is a recovery regimen followed by athletes following intense workout sessions and was a practice generally found in gyms and sports facilities. These post-workout plunges helped to reduce muscle pain and soreness from exercise (or an injury) while helping you recover faster. 

The history of ice baths goes back to the ancient Greeks, who used cold water therapies for relaxation – again, we ask ourselves why?! Isn’t my Spa pool designed to make me relax?

Hippocrates first documented the practice of cold water therapy (before it was a thing) in the fourth century BC in his work “On Airs, Waters, and Places.”

Is Cold Water Therapy Safe?

Generally, cold water therapy is safe provided your immersion in cold water is brief, say 10 to 15 minutes. While ice baths have powerful benefits, they can also be harmful if you stay in the water for too long.

The process for ice baths starts with a slight dip, a few minutes or so until you build your tolerance. Check out our Beginners Guide to Ice Baths but be mindful, hypothermia and the potential to add stress on the heart are some of the main dangers you face with cold water therapy.

Science Behind Cold Water Therapy

When you immerse yourself in cold water, the exposure to cold causes the blood vessels in the submerged areas to constrict, a process known as vasoconstriction. The constriction of blood vessels directs more blood toward the organs.

In addition, the hydrostatic pressure exerted by the water also promotes blood flow to major organs like the heart, brain, and lungs. This increased blood flow allows these organs to gather more oxygen and nutrients – this is good!

Once you emerge from the cold water, the constricted blood vessels expand a process called vasodilation. The oxygen and nutrient-rich blood is then pumped back to the tissues, again, this is good!

The increased blood flow helps remove waste products, such as lactic acid, from the muscles, aiding their recovery and lowering inflammation it also reduces metabolic activity and slows down physiological processes. This is why athletes have been doing this for years.

That, in turn, helps decrease swelling and slow down tissue breakdown. On the other hand, the rewarming process enhances blood flow and circulation, accelerating the healing process.

Lowering inflammation is particularly significant as it is closely associated with pain and various health conditions and by reducing inflammation, cold water therapy has been proven to be very helpful in chronic pain management.

Key Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

Ice baths involve subjecting the body to temperatures significantly lower than the body’s average temperature. This exposure to cold water can stimulate physiological responses in the body and in one study, Cold Water Therapy (CWT) helped reduce the heart rate of an athlete’s post-intense exercise.

Eleven male athletes completed time trials over a period of 30 mins. They were then plunged into cold water with temperatures sub 10°C. Blood samples were taken showing lactate, PH, glycogen (or glucose and blood gases.

Also during the study, testosterone, cortisol, and C-reactive protein samples were taken. The subjects showed a significantly lower heart rate, recovered faster, and felt way better after immersion in cold water

While ice baths have potential benefits, individual experiences, and responses may vary. Before incorporating ice baths or any new therapeutic practice into your routine, you should talk with a healthcare professional.

Helps with After Workout Recovery

Cold water therapy, especially ice baths, has been found to aid recovery after intense workouts. Research states that ice baths accelerate post-exercise parasympathetic reactivation significantly.

This accelerated recovery process allows athletes and fitness enthusiasts to bounce back more quickly and perform better in subsequent workouts. 

Strengthens Your Immunity

Research also indicates that cold water therapy can trigger your body’s immune system to anti-inflammatory bodies. Cold exposure stimulates the production of white blood cells, which play a crucial role in defending the body against infections and diseases.

Additionally, the improved circulation allows immune cells to move more efficiently throughout the body, enhancing their ability to detect and eliminate pathogens.

Boosts Your Mood

Cold immersion can also boost your mood. According to research, ice baths can increase dopamine production by 250%. Dopamine, also known as the feel-good hormone, is significant in regulating your mood. We get a boost in dopamine by exercising or hugging someone and if we get this on a regular basis, it also helps improve mental acuity and stay alert throughout the day. 

While cold water therapy can help boost your mood, it is not an alternative to conventional treatment so if you suffer from depression so we encourage you to continue to seek professional treatment but also consider the benefits that cold water therapy can offer alongside other treatments. 

Helps Relieve Pain

Cold water therapy is also commonly used to manage acute injuries. You have seen sports people off on one side of the field nursing injuries, wrapped up in ice. Ice helps decrease swelling and promotes healing.

Alongside ice on a sprain, the release of endorphins during cold water therapy can act as a natural painkiller.

Research states that cold water therapies can help manage ankylosing spondylitis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic low back pain, and fibromyalgia although further research is required as there are many other variables to consider here; however, the evidence for CWT is simply it helps to reduce the pain and swelling from these conditions.

Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease

According to recent research, cold water therapy can potentially prevent Alzheimer’s, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder.

The shock caused by exposure to cold water activates cold shock proteins called RBM3. These proteins may help reduce the accumulation of harmful proteins such as amyloid-β (Aβ) peptides for plaques and tau for tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Again, more study is required here to better understand the benefits associated with immersion in cold water but there are promising results.

How to Use Cold Water Therapy?

As beneficial as cold water therapy can be, it is crucial to approach it cautiously. Extreme cold can result in hypothermia, cold water shock, and arrhythmia.

So, it is advisable to seek guidance from a physical therapist or a healthcare professional and ensure you are safe enough for cold water therapy. 

  • Start with shorter durations and gradually increase the time spent in cold water to allow your body to adapt. 
  • Ensure that your temperatures are between 10°C and 15°C. Avoid frigid temperatures, and always be mindful of your body’s response during the session.
  • Do not spend too long in the cold water. 10 to 15 minutes is enough the reap the benefits. 
  • If you experience dizziness, shortness of breath, or any concerning symptoms, immediately stop the therapy and seek medical attention.
  • The Freeze Tub team encourages you to ‘plunge in pairs’. Saftey in numbers as they say!

Wrapping Up

Cold water therapy offers a range of potential benefits, from enhancing your recovery, overall health, and well-being, and relieving pain associated with either a sports injury or a degenerative disease.

Above all, the positive effects of cold water therapy are supported by sound scientific evidence.

For a small amount of money, to have a portable Ice bath at the Bach over Summer on those balmy nights or it could be sitting on the deck to soak in after a football game, is certainly a worthwhile investment. 

Ice baths are not for the faint-hearted. Approach them cautiously and seek guidance from a healthcare professional.

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