By: Sammy Cusimano
With summer heat index temperatures now reaching close to the triple-digit range, the idea of immersing the body in cold water for overall health benefits sounds more intriguing than ever. Cultures all across the world have utilized cold water therapy for centuries as a health-enhancing tool that can reinvigorate the human body’s natural healing abilities. Cold water immersion can positively affect the lymphatic, immune and digestive systems of the body, while also reducing inflammation and the delayed onset of muscle soreness that is commonly experienced hours or even days after a workout. All walks of life can reap the rewards of a cold water therapy routine. From ice baths and cold water pool plunges to a simple cold shower in the morning, the benefits of cold water immersion are available in some form to everyone.
One of the most impressive benefits of cold water immersion is the positive effect that it has on the body’s lymphatic and immune systems. The lymphatic system is basically a network of tissues and vessels whose main purpose is to clean out the toxins and waste within the body, while also transporting the lymph fluid that contains white blood cells for fighting infections. Muscle contractions pump the lymph fluid throughout the vessels of the body. Cold water immersion helps enhance the process by kick-starting muscle contractions, thus causing the lymph vessels to contract and get rid of toxins and waste that build up within the body.
When the body is sedentary from a lack of exercise or poor circulation, the toxins and waste materials can accumulate quickly and cause colds, infections and even joint pain. The contraction of the muscles due to cold water immersion helps the lymphatic system to flush outany waste, bacteria or other unwanted toxins. This process then leads to the immune system’s white blood cells attacking any infections that may be present in the body. Regular cold water therapy is an excellent way to fortify the body’s immune system, especially during cold and flu season.
Cold water immersion is also beneficial to the circulatory system by stimulating blood flow. When the body is placed in cold water, the heart pumps blood more efficiently to surround the vital organs in order to keep them warm. This rapid flow of the blood throughout the circulatory system helps to also bring more oxygen and nutrients where they are needed throughout the entire body. The more efficient circulation of blood within the body leads to better overall health and a higher quality of wellness.
One of the interesting phenomenon of the body’s response to resistance training (weights, calisthenics, etc.) is known as delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). When the muscles are pushed hard enough during a workout, microscopic tears in the muscle fibers occur. The body eventually will heal these tears and build the fibers bigger and stronger with nutrients such as protein. However, the process can take time. The muscles may remain sore and inflamed for days. Sometimes the pain is so severe that anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen are needed. Cold water therapy can help alleviate the pain of DOMS by numbing the nerve endings that are inflamed. Cold water also constricts the blood vessels to help reduce swelling and lower the temperature of the damaged muscle tissue to expedite the healing process.
The benefits of cold water therapy even affect how the body responds to stress. Whether stress is physical (i.e. exercise) or mental (i.e. work-related), the body responds the same way with an increase in the hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol can wreak havoc on the body. The effects of cortisol can weaken the immune system as well as actually cause the breakdown of muscle. This will lead to an overall weakened metabolism. Cold water therapy actually reduces cortisol while simultaneously increasing endorphins, the feel-good hormones. A cold shower or cold water immersion session in an ice bath can preserve valuable muscle tissue, while also enhancing the mood and overall sense of well-being.
Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits of cold water therapy is that it actually aids in weight loss. Basically, when the body’s temperature is voluntarily lowered on a daily basis, the metabolic rate is increased to naturally create more heat to keep the vital organs working properly. The raised metabolic rate results in more calories being burned, thus leading to increased weight loss.
The logistics of cold water therapy are extremely important to maintaining a safe and healthy regimen for positive results. A temperature range of 45-60 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal, with 50 degrees being an average for cold water immersion sessions. The initial approach to cold water therapy should be very gradual. Try short sessions at a temperature that is challenging but tolerable. As the body acclimates, lower temperatures for longer periods of time will become attainable.
The key is to listen to your body. If something does not feel right, then immediately end the cold water therapy session. Generally, the first few minutes of any cold water immersion regimen are the most difficult. It is definitely a mental battle in which you will have to rise to the occasion, using a lot of determination. The cold water is uncomfortable at first; however, as the body relaxes and adjusts to the low temperature, the therapeutic effects are in an unparalleled league of their own.
Cold water therapy has a multitude of benefits for all aspects of the mind, body and spirit. From overall immune-boosting benefits to even cosmetic advantages, cold water can do the body a lot of good. For example, the effect of cold water on closing hair cuticles and preventing dirt from accumulating in them results in shinier, healthier hair and a stronger scalp. Many insomniacs are even able to improve sleep patterns via cold water therapy, due to the body’s natural ability to calm down after the initial shock to the body during a session.
Overall mental toughness and intestinal fortitude are a constant benefit that is present in every cold water immersion experience. United States Navy SEALs start every morning of their training with a cold water immersion regimen of lying in the freezing water of the Pacific Ocean before the sun has even risen. Cold water therapy will test the will, change the body and evolve the human being voluntarily subjecting himself/herself to the challenge. Embrace the exhilarating rush of what cold water therapy can do for you!