Exposure to cold, known as cold thermogenesis is the practice of exposing yourself to cold temperatures and research has shown it has a host of benefits ranging from improved ability to fight an infection to supporting healthy hormone balance to fat loss.
Cold is no doubt a stressor but it can be a great daily habit when you’re well or your immune system a boost if you’re under the weather. However your adrenals need to be able to handle aggressive hydrotherapy such as ice baths or a cold plunge but more gentle hydrotherapy tools like contrast showers can actually help your hormones and stress response recover (i.e. heal HPA Axis Dysfunction, commonly called adrenal fatigue), fight off infections and generally boost your vitality, also known as the vital force, life force or vis medicatrix naturae as we call is in naturopathic medicine.
Amidst anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of my first year of naturopathic medical school we also had a class in hydrotherapy which included learning to do a contrast shower (more on that in a moment, including my first attempt at one that was one of the worst days of my life, no joke!) to stimulate your “vital force”.
More on how licensed naturopathic doctors are trained and our seven guiding principles including honoring and stimulating our life or vital force, see this article.
Beyond your “vital force”, research shows us more specifically how cold therapy can be beneficial to our immune systems, our hormones and our metabolism. In this post is the how-to for three easy to do – but chilly – hydrotherapy treatments starting with one that’s mostly for chest congestion and an upper respiratory infection, next is daily contrast hydrotherapy showers and the more aggressive cold plunge.
Shivering yet? You’ll find out that may be the goal. Let’s dive in.
Edit: March 23, 2020 Please note that no natural medicine, herb or supplement has been proven effective against COVID-19. Please speak with your health care provider and follow recommendations of the CDC and WHO regarding testing and treatment for COVD-19.
Wet Sock Treatment
This is an old school treatment we learned in school and it’s hardly been studied in a double-blind placebo controlled study. It has however stood the test of time and while I hate it when it first starts, it always helps! It’s also a great, non-invasive treatment for kiddos with congestion.
The gist is this: you put cold wet socks on your feet and then your body has to really increase circulation to warm up those cold toes. This is thought to reflexively increase circulation to the upper respiratory tract and lungs to aid in decreasing congestion that comes with a cold virus.
Here’s how you do it:
Get a pair of cotton sock wet and put them in the freezer or soak for 10-15 minutes in a bowl of ice water.
While you’re waiting for the socks to cool, take a warm bath or at least a warm foot soak.
Then take the icey cold socks and put them on your feet – I know…but try it.
Cover with a pair of wool socks and head to bed.
The cotton socks will be dry in the morning and you’ll feel less congested. If you wake sweaty, change your pajamas but try and leave the socks on.
Contrast Hydrotherapy Shower
This can be done when you’re not feeling well but ideally this is an easy to do, not too intense cold therapy that you can do daily to get all the benefits of cold therapy.
Again, this is thought in naturopathic medicine to support our overall vitality but we also know cold exposure will stimulate your vagus nerve – a long, cranial nerve that runs from your brainstem throughout your abdomen connecting to all of your main organs and is responsible to turning off your fight or flight AKA stress response. As well research shows that when your body is exposed to the cold, it can actually boost your production of health-promoting antioxidants such as glutathione (1) making this an important habit if you’re fighting an infection or have any type of autoimmunity.
Another way to support glutathione is to take it in supplemental form such as this awesome formula.
One study actually looked at subjects who swam regularly in ice-cold water in the winter. Following their chilly swim, they found that there was a jump in their levels of the antioxidant glutathione (1).
After you take your morning hot shower, switch the water to cold and give yourself a rinse with cooler or cold water. Try to get the back and chest especially to stimulate lymphatic flow – especially when your sick – but ultimately you want your whole body in the cold water. And be sure to get your face for that glow!
Now, do not start with a full blast of cold – what I wish someone would’ve told me! As I mentioned above, during my first go at this I was toasty warm in my shower and then blasted freezing cold water right to my face and chest. Not sure I’ve ever been as surprised – or angry.
Not the way to go! Instead work your way up to this. Start with switching the water to cool and get your hands and feet in there. Move on to getting the water as cold as you can. Then as you’re ready, start getting your legs and arms there. Maybe after a week or so you’ll be ready to do a cold blast to your chest and face and eventually your whole body – with all the benefits and less swear words.
And to get the metabolic and fat burning benefits of cold you will want to do this long enough to induce a shiver – read on to find out why in the next section.
I also do this each night as I wash my face before bed: finish my warm wash with cool water to increase circulation to my face and bring all those nutrients there and again, get that glow.
This is not for the beginner and if your adrenals or thyroid on on the fritz you may want to resolve that before taking a full icey plunge. With this type of cold exposure you will have an increase blood pressure as your vessels constrict to conserve heat and your sympathetic nervous system may not be able to handle this.
So while the research shows clear benefit like any diet, exercise or lifestyle strategy you have to weigh it on the Hormone Hierarchy (see this post for more) and see if this therapy will work for you or would the risks to outweigh the benefits.
Not sure how your cortisol and adrenals are faring? Take my quiz to learn more! Or better yet contact me to discuss options for testing.
If you live near a lake, stream or the ocean in a cooler climate you can certainly do a daily dip! You can also use ice baths either in your bathtub or get an outdoor ice tub set up.
The how-to is at the end of this section, so read on!
This more aggressive form of cold therapy has a fair bit of research to support that it boosts your metabolism and can help you burn fat faster.
Some of this research shows cold’s unique effect on brown fat, called such due to its darker color than whiter subcutaneous fat. Brown fat is much more metabolically active and has some unique health benefits.
Cold thermogenesis can actually increase amounts of brown fat (via activation of PPAR) which has been shown to boost fat burning and improve insulin sensitivity.(2) Insulin sensitivity is important as insulin is the hormone responsible for transporting glucose from the blood to the cells where it can be used for energy.
Other key metabolic hormones get in the cold mix here as well. Epinephrine and norepinephrine, promote heat production when you’re exposed to the cold. They’re responsible for triggering mechanisms that increase your calorie expenditure, like shivering (3).
Also, thyroxine (thyroid hormone or T4) also increases following cold exposure. This boosts your resting metabolism – meaning you burn more calories at rest, without any extra effort (4).
So for starters you want to keep up that #mantrawalk in the winter! Follow me on Instagram to see my daily #mantrawalks which I routinely post in my stories.
For these specific metabolic benefits, here’s the how to:
Again, this is a bit more aggressive than the wet socks or the contrast hydrotherapy shower and to get these fat burning benefits you have to induce a cold shiver.
You can do this after your warm shower – again, work up to this – and keep that cold blast going enough to shiver. Or as I mentioned above you can hop in a lake or ice tub (indoors or outdoors).
While you want to get to the point of a shiver, you want also to stick to 5 to 10 minutes at a time when it comes to cold showers or baths and no more than once or twice daily .
So while all of this type of advice has to again be filtered through your current hormone landscape to see if it will work for you or not, cold therapy can be an inexpensive addition to your wellness arsenal.