Cold exposure, also known as cold therapy or cryotherapy, involves subjecting the body to cold temperatures for various durations. It can involve various methods, such as taking cold showers, immersing in cold water (e.g., ice baths), spending time in cold environments (e.g., cold rooms or outdoor winter activities), or using cryotherapy chambers.
Cold exposure can be applied to different parts of the body or the entire body, depending on the method used. The duration of cold exposure can vary depending on personal preference and tolerance levels. Some individuals may opt for short bursts of cold exposure, while others may engage in longer sessions.
While cold exposure may initially seem uncomfortable, these techniques have been practised for centuries and are known for their potential health benefits. The body responds to cold exposure by initiating physiological responses, such as vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) to conserve heat and shivering to generate warmth. Over time, regular cold exposure can lead to adaptations and improvements in various aspects of health and well-being.
It’s worth noting that cold exposure should be approached with caution, especially for individuals with certain medical conditions, such as Raynaud’s disease or cardiovascular issues. It’s advisable to start gradually and seek guidance from a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or underlying health conditions.
Additionally, it is important to highlight that rapid immersion into cold water may be risky and even fatal, as it can cause changes in the breath and heart rates (called cold shock response). For your safety, we suggest talking to your doctor before starting cold exposure.
Here we describe some of the data uncovering some of the main benefits of cold exposure.
Boosted mood and mental well-being
Cold exposure has been associated with improved mood and mental well-being, including reductions in tension, fatigue, and negative mood states (Shevchuk, 2008). Cold showers or immersion in cold water can stimulate the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood enhancers, leading to feelings of well-being and euphoria. This can result in increased energy, reduced stress levels, and enhanced mental clarity. It has also been shown its influence the production and release of norepinephrine, another type of neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation (Leppäluoto et al., 2008).
Cold exposure before bedtime has been reported to improve sleep quality. Cooling the body down can help regulate core body temperature, promoting a more relaxed state and better sleep (Partridge et al., 2019).
Cold exposure can stimulate blood circulation and enhance the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to various tissues and organs. When exposed to cold temperatures, the body initiates vasoconstriction, which is the narrowing of blood vessels (Shepherd, 1983). This response helps to conserve heat and redirect blood flow to vital organs and tissues. Vasoconstriction can enhance circulation by improving blood pressure regulation and reducing the workload on the heart. After the cold exposure ends, the body undergoes vasodilation, which is the widening of blood vessels. Vasodilation helps to restore normal blood flow and can enhance overall circulation, especially in peripheral areas such as hands and feet, where circulation may be compromised (Cheung, 2015).
Furthermore, exposure to cold has been found to increase the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays a crucial role in regulating blood flow. Nitric oxide helps to relax and dilate blood vessels, improving circulation and reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems (Binti et al., 2011).
In their study, Yoneshiro, 2013 also discovered that exposure to cold temperatures increased the expression of anti-inflammatory genes and decreased the expression of pro-inflammatory genes. It was also associated with a reduction in systemic inflammation markers. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with inflammatory conditions like arthritis or post-workout muscle soreness.
Exercise recovery and muscle blood flow
Cold exposure, such as ice baths or cold showers after intense exercise, can aid in muscle recovery and promote blood flow to the muscles. The cold temperature can reduce inflammation and swelling, enhance the removal of metabolic waste products, and facilitate the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the recovering muscles (Pointon et al., 2012; Rowsell et al., 2011; Ihsan et al., 2016).
Enhanced immune function
Exposure to cold has been shown to have positive effects on the immune system. It can increase the production of immune cells, such as white blood cells, and enhance their activity, potentially improving immune response and overall immune function (Reynés et al., 2019).
In addition, it can increase the production and release of certain immune factors, such as interferons and interleukins, molecules that help regulate immune responses and facilitate communication between immune cells (Egecioglu et al., 2018).
Precautions when engaging in cold exposure
Don’t forget that cold exposure can be dangerous if not done with precaution. Consult your doctor before taking any risk, especially if you have underlying conditions.
If you are going to start exposure, it is recommended to gradually acclimate your body to the cold over time. Start with shorter durations and lower temperatures, and gradually increase them as your body becomes more accustomed to the cold. Listen to your body and be aware of your tolerance for cold.
Finally, avoid exposure to extremely cold temperatures or prolonged exposure to cold environments, as this can increase the risk of hypothermia, frostbite, or other cold-related injuries.
Bai, Y., Du, Q., Jiang, R., Zhang, L., Du, R., Wu, N., Li, P., & Li, L. (2021). Secreted Frizzled-Related Protein 5 is Associated with Glucose and Lipid Metabolism Related Metabolic Syndrome Components Among Adolescents in Northeastern China. Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity: targets and therapy, 14, 2735–2742. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8216697/
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Egecioglu, E., Anesten, F., Schéle, E., & Palsdottir, V. (2018). Interleukin-6 is important for regulation of core body temperature during long-term cold exposure in mice. Biomedical reports, 9(3), 206–212. https://doi.org/10.3892/br.2018.1118
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Leppäluoto, J., Westerlund, T., Huttunen, P., Oksa, J., Smolander, J., Dugué, B., & Mikkelsson, M. (2008). Effects of long-term whole-body cold exposures on plasma concentrations of ACTH, beta-endorphin, cortisol, catecholamines and cytokines in healthy females. Scandinavian journal of clinical and laboratory investigation, 68(2), 145–153. https://doi.org/10.1080/00365510701516350
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