The 4th article in our small changes with big effects series.
Take Cold Showers
Image ©Joe Waldron
Cold water swimming has been rising in popularity with claims that it can transform your body and mind. So scientists have been investigating the physiology of cold water immersion and it appears it may have a surprising array of benefits. It’s an exciting field of research with potential to offer new treatments for a variety of conditions – from high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, to depression and chronic inflammation.
One of the most popular episodes from the first series of Just One Thing explored the risks and benefits of cold water immersion. For this episode I started having cold showers every morning, starting with a brief burst of hot water, followed by 45 seconds or so of an icy cold blast.
It certainly perks you up, but is there anything more to it than that? Well, there was a Dutch study published in 2016 in the journal PLOS One where they recruited 3,018 people online and then randomly allocated them to having a cold shower every morning for a month, or to a control group who continued as normal. Those having the cold shower were further divided into those asked to do it for 30 seconds, 60 seconds or 90 seconds.
Over the following winter there was an outbreak of flu and it turned out that those people having cold showers were 30 per cent less likely to take time off for sickness than those in a control group, though it didn’t matter whether you were in the 30-second group or either of the longer groups.
Read Dr Mosley’s full advice on cold showers
YOU magazine says:
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‘Cold showers, aside from being highly invigorating, they produce endorphins, the happy hormones, which are produced after exercise or when happy,’ says Dr. Vijay Murthy, an Ayurvedic Doctor and Nutritionist, who combines ayurveda and functional medicine treatments at his Wimpole Street Clinic. Additionally, he notes that ‘research has shown that cold showers two to three times a week can improve depression.’
Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, is probably the most well-known advocate for cold exposure, who insists that, combined with deep breathing exercises, is the key to a stronger immune system, among other things (including reducing stress levels, better sleep, increased energy, focus and creativity).
While a cold shower can’t guarantee you will never get sick, nor can it cure you of any sickness (and it’s suggested that any sick or frail person should not take cold showers as it may create more stress than benefit), Dr Deborah Lee notes a 2016 study from the Netherlands, which investigated the health benefits of cold showers. Half of the 3,018 participants were asked to end their daily shower with a blast of cold water for either 30 seconds, 60 seconds or 120 seconds, while the other half (the control group) did not, for 30 days.
‘The results revealed that those who took the cold showers had a 29 per cent reduction in absent days from work, over the 60-day follow up period,’ says Dr Lee. ‘The commonest reason for time off work in the Netherlands at that time of year is influenza. The authors could only speculate that the cold shower group may have had less influenza.’
Interestingly, the length of cold exposure had no effect on the outcome: ‘The authors commented that previous studies have found the greatest benefits from cold exposure are seen in the first few seconds and are probably mediated through the direct nerve response to cold, and this is why there was no difference in the response with longer duration.’
As for myself, I am far too much of a coward to try anything quite so challenging – Editor.
Other links on benefits of cold showers: