Wim Hof, nicknamed the “Iceman,” is one of many health influencers who recommend regularly exposing yourself to icy, cold temps. But are cold showers really better for you than warm showers, or are the benefits of cold water simply a myth?
Those who swear by taking cold showers feel that the habit gives it them an advantage when it comes to handling stress and improving their confidence. The idea is that by willingly allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable for a brief period of time, you might not only give your immune system a boost, but you may also cultivate more willpower and “mental toughness” in the process.
Studies tell us that there are in fact some impressive cold shower benefits — which may include increasing alertness, productivity and recovery from exercise.
What Is A Cold Shower?
A cold shower is considered a showering with water that is roughly about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 15 °C).
For most of human history, people were exposed to very cold temperature whether they wanted to be or not. Extreme cold is one form of stress that causes our body to briefly go into a “fight or flight response,” and then to adapt in order to be able to handle the same stressor more effectively in the future.
Cold exposure causes our bodies to release a rush of “stress hormones,” including cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline. This causes a shut down of non-essential bodily functions, which includes inflammatory responses, among others.
High release of stress hormones may sound bad, but when it happens briefly and then you give yourself time to recover, it’s actually very beneficial — much like with exercise, fasting and other “good stressors.”
Studies have found that benefits of cold showers can include:
1. Improved Mental Clarity and Alertness
One of the most compelling reasons to give cold showers a try is due to their ability to immediately wake you up.
Studies have demonstrated that people who partake in nearly-freezing showers experience an increase in perceived energy levels, focus/concentration, productivity and mental/cognitive performance. Some even describe the uplifting effects of cold exposure as being on par with drinking a cup or two of coffee.
2. Reduced Inflammation and Improved Circulation
Cold exposure is considered a form of hormesis, a phenomenon in which low exposure to “hormetic stressors” actually causes beneficial changes in how your body works. The same thing happens when you exercise — hormesis causes the body to learn to adapt to stress and to grow back stronger. In the case of cold showers, your body reacts by improving cardiovascular, cognitive and musculoskeletal functions.
The anti-inflammatory effects of cold exposure are due to mechanisms including increased heart rate, blood flow and oxygen uptake. Healthy circulation is essential for helping muscles and other tissues to properly repair, which means you may notice you’re able to bounce back better after tough workouts if you engage in cold showers (or cryotherapy).
Research suggests there are also certain cold showers benefits for your immune system, since cold exposure can increase white blood cell production. One study found that adults who regularly showered in the cold for 30 days experienced a 29 percent reduction in sickness and absence from work compared to a control group.
3. Lifted Mood and Confidence
It takes guts and grit to plunge into cold water, and many find that although it might feel unpleasant, it actually puts them in a better mood afterwards.
By overcoming your fear of being uncomfortable and facing acute stress head on (in the form of the freezing cold), you can learn to better handle the physiological symptoms that your body experiences when you’re stressed or scared, such as racing thoughts, fast breathing and shaking.
Some research suggests that cold therapy can even benefit those suffering from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. In addition to releasing endorphins and other chemicals that make you feel more alert and excited, another mechanism by which cold showers may boost your mood is by increasing electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings in the brain, which seems to have some antidepressant effects.
4. Enhanced Skin and Hair Health
One study focused on cold shower benefits for skin found that this habit may reduce skin dryness, inflammation and itching. Resisting the urge to crank the heat up when you shower will help prevent skin and hair from losing lots of moisture and appearing irritated or dull.
That’s because the cold constricts small blood vessels in the skin, causing pores to look tighter and less inflamed (although your skin may initially be red after becoming very cold).
5. May Improvement Sperm Health
Ever hear that men should avoid saunas, hot tubs and excessive cycling because it heats the testes too much? Well there’s some evidence suggesting that cold immersion can help to lower the scrotal temperature, leading to improvements in production of sperm and testosterone.
6. Can Help Support a Healthy Metabolism
While it’s unlikely to cause substantial weight loss without being combined with other lifestyle changes, cold exposure may also help with weight loss. Studies have found that being cold activates brown adipose tissue (brown fat), which burns more energy in order to warm the body. This uses up calories and may help give your metabolism a boost.
Vs. Warm Shower
Which is better, a cold or hot shower? It all depends on your goals.
Warm showers can definitely be a good way to relax, make yourself sleepy before bed, and even soothe sore muscles. A steamy shower is also a good way to loosen up mucus that may be trapped in your airways and contributing to respiratory systems like congestion.
That being said, very hot showers are not recommended for those with sensitive skin or symptoms like dryness, redness and eczema. If you have high blood pressure or get dizzy easily, you may also want to avoid becoming very hot.
Overall, warm showers seem to be preferable at night, while cold ones are better suited for the morning as a quick “wake-me-up.” Both can be utilized in different ways to help alter your mood, energy levels and muscle function.
Cold Shower Methods
How long should you take a cold shower? Aim to start with a very brief cold exposure period, increasing the time gradually as you get accustomed to the feeling of the freezing cold. Here are some tips for getting started and methods to experiment with:
- Begin with just about 30 seconds of a cold shower. You may want to start by standing in a comfortably warm shower and then gradually lowering the temp until it’s very cold.
- As you get used to withstanding the effects of the cold, increase the time you continuously stay in the cold water, up to 2–3 minutes or even more if you’re capable.
- Another method ifs the “contrast shower,” which is a technique that involves alternating between cold and hot water. You can do this by going back and forth between one minute of very cold water, followed by one minute of recovery in a warm/hot temp, and so on. Complete the cycle about three to seven times (the total shower time will be somewhere around 10 minutes). This alternation will help to open up your blood vessels and get blood pumping throughout your body.
- As far as where to aim the water, you can either stand directly under the shower head or direct the water to specific parts of the body and muscles that are inflamed or tight. You may experience the most benefits and biggest “rush” if you allow the water to hit many different parts of your body, especially your head, neck, shoulders and back.
- How cold should the water be in order to provide these cold shower benefits? Aim to get the temp down to about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly cooler, which will feel almost freezing.
- While standing in the cold, remember to keep breathing. You might find that you gasp for air in reaction to the cold, but try to purposefully keep taking steady deep breaths. To further boost the mental benefits of the shower, you can pause between breaths after exhaling, then take a deep breath in as you count to five.
- It’s a good idea to finish your shower with warm water in order to make the experience seem enjoyable, which makes it more likely you’ll stick with it.
A great way to get yourself into the habit of withstanding, and even enjoying cold showers is to do a “30-day cold shower challenge.” Start with brief exposure times and keep increasing, eventually working up to a full minute or more.
Are cold showers ever bad for you? Overall they pose little risk for causing any damage or real distress, even though they can definitely be uncomfortable temporarily. You may notice that your skin becomes red after you’re done showering, which is normal due to blood rising to the surface.
That being said, it’s probably best to avoid very cold showers if you’re dealing with certain health problems, such as:
- The flu or a cold
- Being underweight or having an eating disorder (which can lead to feeling cold anyway)
- Having a sensitive heart or respiratory issue that causes trouble breathing/gasping for air (speak with your doctor first)
- Hypothermia (when you’re already cold)
- As opposed to comfortably warm showers that are taken in temps of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or more, cold showers are those taken in 60 degree water or below.
- Research suggests that cold shower benefits include: increasing alertness and energy, lowering inflammation and muscle soreness, improving blood flow and oxygen uptake, and reducing anxiety and poor moods.
- Cold exposure helps your body learn to adapt to stress, increases circulation and may boost your metabolism.
- How should you start? Begin with brief periods of about 30 seconds, then work your way up to 3 minutes + of continuous cold. You can also alternate between hot and cold for about 10 minutes.
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