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Cold plunge therapy: The what, how and why

I’m sure you’ve heard of cold plunge therapy before, because it seems to be a popular trend among athletes, stars and influencers alike. My social feeds are full of videos of people trying it for the first time along with avid users who have made it part of their regular routine. I’m constantly getting served ads for cold plunge therapy spas and since I’m always on the hunt for the next best thing on this wellness journey of mine, I decided to research the craze that has everyone jumping into tubs of ice water.

 

What is cold plunge therapy

As you may know, cold plunge therapy (also called ice baths or cold water immersion therapy) is partially or totally immersing yourself in cold water for a few minutes at a time after physical activity for therapeutic benefit.

Direction on the temperature of the water and how long to submerge yourself in the water varies depending on who you talk to and which study you read since researchers are still trying to determine the optimum points for both. It seems that the average time ranges from five to ten minutes, but it is suggested that new cold water plungers start at 30 seconds and build on that as your tolerance for the cold temperature increases. Some studies suggest 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit as an ideal temperature range, however, in a Cleveland Clinic article on cold plunging, Sports Medicine Physician Dominic King, DO, recommends that if you’re new to ice baths you should start much warmer, at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

A brief history

Cold plunging isn’t anything new. It actually dates back to 3500 BC according to a 2022 review published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. The origin of cold plunging is the subject of speculation much like the optimal temperatures and duration, however, one of the earliest medical treatises, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, outlined specific medical procedures including the use of cold applications to treat skin irritation.

Moving ahead in time, Hippocrates in Ancient Greece developed a theory focusing on the body’s “humors” or liquids within the body that control our health. He believed that a disease occurs when these liquids are out of balance, and some of the treatments he proposed included cold water for fevers and snow used on wounds to stop bleeding.

During the Renaissance, personal hygiene became a point of emphasis for many cultures, which led to people believing water had healing powers. Then in the 18th century, a Scottish physician named William Cullen began prescribing cold water immersion to treat ailments of the body. In the 19th century, ice baths became more widely used in hospitals, clinics and sanatoriums.

The ice bath continued to evolve until recent years when it became part of sports therapy and recovery routines. Influential figures like Wim Hof, known as the "Iceman," have played a pivotal role in popularizing ice bathing through their advocacy and extreme cold exposure demonstrations, attracting a large following within the wellness community.

 

The benefits and science

Unfortunately, the rising popularity of cold plunging has outpaced the research, so the potential health benefits are a bit unclear. New studies and research are being done thanks to the growing interest, but many of the proposed benefits don’t seem to be backed by sound scientific data.

When your body is exposed to cold temperatures, body heat is removed, dropping your internal temperature and changing your blood flow. The therapeutic benefits may be the result of rapid constriction of your blood vessels due to the icy temperature which slows blood flow to relieve swelling and sore muscles. The constricted blood vessels can trigger decreased metabolic activity, alterations in hormone production, activation of the immune system and reduced swelling related to inflammation.

Depending on the source, other therapeutic benefits include improved insulin resistance, weight loss thanks to stimulating brown fat activity, reduced muscle soreness, faster recovery, improved muscle repair, enhanced circulation, decreased swelling, pain relief, increased metabolism, boosted immune system, improved mood and increased oxygen uptake.

While these benefits all sound worthwhile, the problem is that little research has confirmed them. There are many hypotheses, but not much data supporting them. Of all of the many possible benefits of cold plunging, soothing sore muscles may be backed by the most evidence. A few studies give some scientific insight on the health benefits, suggesting that regular cold exposure can be effective in treatment of chronic autoimmune inflammation, while others state it could trigger an autoimmune relapse or flair in those with autoimmune diseases. Many of the health benefits proposed in research studies may not be caused solely by cold plunging, but instead, may be explained by other factors including an active lifestyle, trained stress handling (meditation, breathing techniques, mindfulness), social interactions, environmental surroundings, healthy food and healthy food intake patterns and a positive mindset.   

 

Is cold plunging right for me?

As with any health, wellness or fitness trend, it’s important to ask your doctor first. There are some risks associated with exposure to the icy temperatures, including frostbite, hypothermia, heart arrythmias and heart attacks. Anyone with known cardiac or pulmonary disease should avoid cold plunging given the burden it puts on your body’s systems. For anyone that is diabetic, it’s important to discuss cold plunge therapy with your doctor, especially if you have developed neuropathy.

It's recommended that you never cold plunge alone, and immediately following your plunge, you should take off your wet clothes, put on warm, dry layers and drink something warm. It’s important that you don’t immediately jump into a hot shower right away as this could dilate your blood vessels too quickly causing you to pass out. It’s also recommended to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your cold plunge.

Your health and wellness journey is personal, and you have to figure out what’s right for you. While a continuing subject of debate, there are potential benefits of cold plunge therapy despite limited data and scientific evidence.


Resources

  1. Jagim, Ph.D., A. (2024, January 30). Can taking a cold plunge after your workout be beneficial? Mayo Clinic Health System. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/cold-plunge-after-workouts#:~:text=What%20are%20the%20basics%20of,cold%20lake%20or%20the%20ocean.

  2. N.A., (2023, November 26). What to know about cold plunges. Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-to-know-about-cold-plunges.

  3. Fields, L. (2022, July 20). Taking the plunge: Is cold exposure worthwhile? Cedars-Sinai. Retrieved from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/cold-exposure-therapy.html.

  4. Prendergast, C. and Harmon, M. (2024, January 12). Cold plunges: Health benefits, risks and more. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/health/wellness/cold-plunge-what-to-know/.

  5. McPherson, M.S., RDN, LDN, G. (2023, October 8). What happens to your body when you do cold plunges? Eating Well. Retrieved from https://www.eatingwell.com/cold-plunge-benefits-8348427.

  6. Vogel, K. and Costas, M.S., RDN, K. (2024, March 21). Benefits of cold water immersion may lack quality science. Healthline News. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/wim-hof-cold-therapy-lacks-quality-science.

  7. Espeland, D., deWeerd, L., and Mercer, J.B. (2022, September 22). Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate. National Library of Medicine, NIH. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9518606/.

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