Why You Need Cold Exposure

“Nothing burns like the cold.”

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

Back in physical therapy school, one day I walked into hydrotherapy lab to find a huge dunk tank filled with icy water. We were encouraged to sit in this tank for 1-3 minutes. The exact rationale for having us do this has faded in my memory over time. But, what I clearly remember is how exhilarated I felt after getting out of that tank. My whole body felt tingly, invigorated and alive. Now, science is helping to explain why I felt so amazing that day. Cold exposure plays a role in maintaining healthy metabolism, boosting mental well-being and keeping the body’s systems in check.

We need cold exposure because our bodies function better when exposed to physical stress, just like how we need challenging workouts. Since our modern world doesn’t require sleeping out in the cold and fording streams, we now have to orchestrate these physical stresses so that our bodies can thrive within the full range of it’s potential.

Benefits of cold exposure

Below are some of the physiologic responses that your body goes through with cold exposure, and their benefits:

  • Increased Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) activation: BATs channel fatty acids and triglycerides, in turn, this boosts the body’s metabolic processes and helps prevent metabolic diseases. Low BAT activity correlates with aging and obesity.
  • Increased endocannabinoid levels: the endocannabinoid system controls the duration and intensity of all the body’s physical processes. Examples include: pain, inflammation, sleep, memory, mood, healing, digestion, learning and MORE!
  • Increased density of CB1 receptors on neurons and the amygdala: CB1 receptors are one of two types of receptors that help us utilize both endocannabinoids (cannabinoids that our body produces) and phytocannabinoids (plant derived cannabinoids). With increased receptors, cold stress can improve emotional regulation. Some studies suggest that cold exposure helps manage symptoms of depression.
  • Vasoconstriction: when exposed to cold, the body contracts the blood vessels in order to keep the vital organs functioning. This sudden narrowing of vessels decreases swelling and drives out lactic acid after hard work-outs.

How long do you need to do it?

One of the coolest things about this wellness practice is that you only need to do it for about 30 seconds to 3 minutes at a time, preferably daily. But, don’t stay for too long. You don’t want to experience frost bite or hypothermia.

If you have any known circulatory problems, please check with your doctor before starting any cold exposure regimens.

Ways to do it

Hopefully by now you’re ready to take the plunge into the cold. Here are some simple and free ways to go about it.

End your shower cold

Photo 23303833 / Cold Shower © Ariwasabi | Dreamstime.com

This is the easiest and most accessible form of cold exposure. At the end of your shower, simply turn the dial to the coldest temperature that you can handle for 30-60 seconds. Focus on breathing and relaxing. As your tolerance improves, make it even colder.

Want more guidance? Check out this website for very specific directions on taking a graduated shower.

Cold plunge in a lake, river or ocean

This cold stress technique gets extra credit because you also get all the benefits of being in the great outdoors.

Stick your face in ice cold water

With this technique, plunge your face in icy water for as long as you can hold your breath and then repeat until you’ve achieved 30-60 seconds. Alternatively, take the cold water in your hands and repeatedly splash it on your face.

With repetition and time, your body will eventually crave the cold. Cheers to many more goosebumps in your future!

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