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The Science Behind Ice Baths: How Cold Therapy Affects Your Body

Is there scientific evidence supporting the use of ice baths, or are they just overrated? Could it be they’re a hobby for daredevils who like to indulge in extreme challenges?

Sure, cold therapy is a hot topic nowadays, but it’s not just a trendy wellness fad, it’s a well-studied technique with documented benefits.

Research has found numerous evidence for the benefits of ice baths, from a happy heart to relief from pain and inflammation.

You don't have to be an athlete to indulge in ice baths, anyone who wants to improve the quality of their life is welcome to our community. We rely on ice baths to boost our immune system, speed up recovery, and improve our overall performance.

We’ve prepared an interesting article that will take you through:

  • Evidence supporting the use of cold therapy throughout history
  • Science-backed physiological responses of the body to ice baths
  • The amazing benefits of cold therapy to your body and mind
  • Safety tips to ensure you get the most out your ice bath sessions
  • Debunking common myths and assumptions about ice baths

Let’s shovel away the frosty layers of doubt and uncover the science that supports ice baths.

The Historical Context of Cold Therapy

The history of cold therapy spans across different cultures and time periods. Back in 3500 BCE, the Egyptians pioneered the use of cold compresses to treat injuries and infection, as recorded in the Smith Edwin Papyrus. [1]

The Greeks too recognized the benefits of cold water immersions for therapy and relaxation. Around 400 BCE, Hippocrates used ice water for its medicinal and analgesic properties. He also applied snow and ice to wounded soldiers to reduce bleeding. [1]

Fast forward to the 1700s and Napoleon’s surgeon, Baron Dominique Larrey, also relied on snow to facilitate painless amputations on soldiers. [2]

In the 19th century, Dr James Arnott from England applied cold therapy to relieve headaches and neuralgia in patients. Later on, he discovered cold can shrink tumours, which paved the way for advanced cold therapy. [2]

The Changing Face of Cold Therapy

Today, we continue using cold therapy in the form of ice packs, cold compresses, and cold gels. However, we’ve taken things to the next level. Instead of immersing only the affected part in ice water, we’re doing full body immersions for peak performance and recovery.

Interestingly, frozen air is now used for medical and cosmetic purposes. Cryotherapy chambers are the latest innovation that exposes the body to liquid nitrogen to reduce inflammation and support recovery. [3]

Indeed, cold therapy is now a universal form of therapy, and to think that it all started with an Egyptian cold compress.

Physiological Responses to Cold Exposure

man seated next to an ice hole

Physiological responses are the body’s reaction to stimuli. They maintain our bodies’ internal balance despite the weird stuff we expose them to.

A classic physiological response is the fight-or-flight response. It happens when your body detects danger and releases adrenaline that enables you to fight or flee.

Similarly, your body detects the change in temperature when it’s immersed in an ice bath, and a series of physiological responses follow to help it adapt.

  • Vasoconstriction: The blood vessels constrict, withdrawing blood from the parts it considers less critical (sorry toes and fingers), and directs it to the Big Five (heart, brain, lungs, kidney, liver).
  • Increased metabolic rate: Your body realises it’s losing heat fast in the ice bath, so it works harder by summoning its internal heater (shivering) in order to generate more heat.
  • Activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT): Cold therapy stimulates production of BAT which breaks down glucose and fat molecules to generate heat lost in the ice bath, burning calories in the process.
  • Release of cold shock proteins: When your body senses the extreme cold, it releases “stress proteins” such as Lin28. They reprogram your cells in order to help your body cope with the cold.

The good news is that these reactions are profitable to your body and mind. In the next sections, we’ll delve into their benefits.

Recovery from Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection, but too much of it can cause pain, swelling, and chronic conditions like arthritis.

When you immerse your body in an ice bath, the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow to the affected part and slowing down inflammation. The result is faster recovery from injuries or exercise.

Post-exercise recovery is crucial for several reasons:

  • Reduces muscle soreness
  • Promotes muscle repair
  • Improves mobility and flexibility
  • Restores energy levels

Research behind various post-exercise recovery techniques proved significant benefits from cold water immersion. The research showed that ice baths reduce fatigue and the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which comes after a strenuous workout.

It concluded that cold exposure is one of the most powerful techniques for reducing post-workout inflammation. [4]

To reap these anti-inflammation benefits, get a metal tub, barrel tub, or portable tub and start taking regular plunges in ice cold water.

Neurological and Physiological Effects

man in a barrel ice bathWe all crave a clear mind to help us tackle our tasks. We also desire a positive mood to help us stay calm and enjoy better sleep.

Cold therapy triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, which induce a sense of euphoria that diminishes pain and stress. [5] Therefore, it acts as a form of stress inoculation.

Stress inoculation is a form of therapy that trains you to deal with stressful situations by exposing you to small doses of other stressful situations, such as immersion in icy water.

Cold therapy also triggers the release of norepinephrine, which boosts alertness that helps you concentrate.

The table below lists more neurotransmitters that play a role in optimising your mood, focus, and mental clarity.

Neurotransmitter Type Where Produced Function
Serotonin Monoamine Gastrointestinal tract Improves mood, sleep, digestion, and promotes wound healing
Dopamine Monoamine Brain Triggers feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation
Epinephrine (adrenaline) Catecholamine Adrenal glands Improves metabolism, attention, and excitement
Glutamate Amino acid Brain Improves memory, cognition, and regulates mood

Boosting Immunity and Metabolism

Your body’s immune system is a sophisticated system of processes that work together to kick out pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and rogue cells like cancer cells.

When you plunge in an ice bath, something remarkable happens—white blood cells responsible for defending the body become more active. For instance, in patients with breathing difficulties, cold water immersions greatly reduce the frequency of respiratory infections. [6]

When it comes to metabolism, regular ice bath sessions (3–5 times a week) rev up your brown fat, triggering it to work harder to generate more heat. This process burns calories and helps control weight.

Combine ice baths with proper diet and physical exercise to achieve sustainable results, and check out your body composition using the InBody Body Composition Analyzer.

Hormonal Responses to Cold Exposure

sleek ice bath with attached staircase

Immersing your body regularly in ice baths triggers responses from the hormones cortisol and testosterone, which impacts your overall health and fitness.

Some hormones that respond to cold therapy include:

  • Testosterone: It’s present in men and women but it’s much higher in males. It plays an important role in fat metabolism, muscle growth, and vitality. Cold exposure cranks up this hormone and increases muscle mass, which is important for athletic prowess.
  • Cortisol: This one’s often known as the stress or steroid hormone because it helps the body respond to stressful situations. It also regulates the sleep cycle and boosts your overall energy. Regular ice baths can help mobilise energy to keep your body alert.
  • Thyroid hormones: The thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) thyroid hormones particularly play a role in metabolism activity. Cold exposure enhances their activity, enabling them to boost your metabolism and in turn regulate your weight.

Improved Heart and Circulatory System

The cardiovascular system is a dynamic duo of the heart and blood vessels. It’s responsible for delivering oxygen and nutrients to the cells and flushing out waste.

Taking a dip in an ice bath constricts the blood vessels, which re-directs blood from the extremities and towards the heart, giving it a kick that boosts its performance.

Expert Tip: If you have a history of heart disease, approach ice baths with caution. Sudden exposure to extreme cold can cause irregular heart beats. Consult a healthcare professional before attempting to take an ice bath.

The Brain on Cold: Cognitive and Mental Benefits

outdoors ice bath tub

Cold therapy has intriguing effects on the brain:

  • Enhances neurogenesis and brain plasticity: Neurogenesis is the process of generating new brain cells while brain plasticity is the way the brain reorganises itself to adapt to new environments and learning experiences.
  • Helps protect against neurodegenerative diseases: Research suggests that cold therapy’ anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties help protect the brain from diseases such as Alzheimer and Parkinson disease. [7]

Safety and Limits of Ice Bathing

barrel ice tub with chillerIce baths are a safe and efficient way of recovery and boosting our mood, but just like any other adventure, we’ve discovered there are precautions to observe in order to ensure our safety.

Follow these precautions and you’ll get the most out of your ice dips:

  • Limit your time to 10–15 minutes and the temperature to 10–15℃, no matter what contradicting advice you get. Getting frostbite isn't the kind of results we’re after
  • Immerse yourself slowly so that your body acclimates to the temperature. Dip one leg first, followed by the other, and finally lower the rest of the body.
  • Exit the ice bath slowly. Your wet body is at a greater risk of slipping and falling. Place a non-slip mat next to the tub to step on as you exit to minimise slipping.
  • Don’t rush to take a hot shower after the ice bath, that will nullify the effect. Just dry yourself to prevent a further temperature drop and allow your body to warm gradually.

Breathing is key: Learn to control your breathing before, during, and after the ice bath to help you stay calm and focused. The Wim Hof Breathing Method is an effective technique.

Debunking Myths Surrounding Ice Baths

Myth 1- Ice baths are for professional athletes

While professional athletes are known for using ice baths to promote recovery, anyone can take ice baths to relieve sore muscles after their workout, or just to boost their mood and overall well-being.

Myth 2 - Ice baths are dangerous for the body

Ice baths aren’t dangerous if conducted well. However, if you exceed the recommended time and temperature, or take a plunge knowing you have an existing medical condition, you’ll expose your body to health risks.

Myth - Ice baths are overrated

Sure, ice baths are trending nowadays, but that’s not to say they’re overrated. They’re trending because people are seeing results. Cold therapy was practised by ancient Greeks and Egyptians. It worked for them then, and it still works today.

Enjoy the Science-Backed Benefits of Ice Baths

The truth is out—there’s real evidence supporting the use of ice baths. Any myth surrounding them shouldn’t prevent you from incorporating them into your wellness routine.

Our goal at The Peak Athletics is to simplify biohacking because the market is full of assumptions and buzzwords that can be intimidating.

We are the trusted guide, a place where anyone who’s unfamiliar with the market can come and ask questions. We want to help you from day one until you become an expert.

We also research and bring the best products to your doorstep. Visit our store and check out our wide range of ice baths for sale.

Check out also the ice bath and chiller bundles that feature an ice bath + cooling heating unit + water pump + double filtration, allowing you to heat or cool your water fast.

Got a question? Ask an expert at 08081 685099.

References

  1. Cold for centuries: a brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery
  2. History of cryotherapy
  3. Whole-Body Cryotherapy in Athletes: From Therapy to Stimulation. An Updated Review of the Literature
  4. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-Exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic review With Meta Analysis
  5. Improved mood following a single immersion in cold water
  6. Repeated cold water stimulations (hydrotherapy according to Kneipp) in patients with COPD
  7. The Effect of Cold Exposure on Cognitive Performance in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review

Further Reading

Article

  1. Cold-water immersion and other forms of cryotherapy: Physiological changes potentially affecting recovery from high-intensity exercise

Books

  1. The Way of the Iceman: How the Wim Hof Method Creates Radiant Long-term Health—Using the Science and Secrets of Breath Control, Cold-Training and Commitment
  2. The Cold Water Therapy Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Cold Water Immersion, Ice Baths, and Showers for Improved Health, Recovery, Mental Resilience
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