What is Cold Therapy?

While we’ve extensively covered studies into the benefits of sauna use, including for those with chronic health conditions, we thought we’d analyse some of the discussions around the latest wellness trend to start spreading through social media – cold therapy.

Cold therapy includes immersion in a cold environment, such a cold shower, ice bath or open swimming session. These practices have many reported benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving immune responses and boosting metabolism.

Practitioners like the Dutch motivational speaker Wim Hof have recently been popularising a form of cold therapy that is taking off in popular culture, with fitness professionals, influencers and celebrities all claiming to enjoy regular ice baths and the use of cold therapy machines.

Using cold to treat illnesses has a long and ancient history, but how much of the currently-touted benefits can you really expect to enjoy from cold immersion?

What are the Benefits of Cold Therapy?

The majority of evidence for the benefits of cold therapy is anecdotal, with most studies highlighting the limitations of their own data ranges. While this means there is some evidence to suggest users may experience most of the supposed benefits of cold therapy, this isn’t definitive and should be regarded as such.

Treats Inflammation and Muscle Soreness

Cold has historically been used to treat inflammation and swelling, with its uses being dated back to Ancient Egypt. The common approach to injuries during exercise is the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) and cold therapy works in a similar way to reduce swelling and soothe muscle pain after working out.

Boosts the Immune System

A Dutch study into the effects of activities like cold therapy, meditation and deep breathing saw a positive relationship between those practising the acts and an improved immune response to bacterial infection. The study noted that the test group saw a boost in the production of anti-inflammatory mediators and a reduction in proinflammatory cytokines.

While this study actually credits deep breathing exercises with having the most significant effects, it credits cold water therapy with improving the body’s reaction to excess stress over time.

Treats Depression

One study on how regular cold showers impact depressive symptoms found two cold showers a day reduced depressive symptoms in all of the test subjects, suggesting there could be a relationship between the two.

This study, however, also noted that the number of subjects was statistically insignificant and, of those tested, none had been clinically diagnosed with depression. 

This suggests that using cold therapy to treat depression can’t be taken as a scientific fact. Although, cold therapy like wild swimming or ice baths following exercise could be more likely to contribute to improved depressive symptoms due to their relationship to other positive factors like regular exercise and connection to nature.

Increases Metabolism

Some studies, like this one from 2010, have identified that cold water therapy can increase metabolism which can promote weight loss. This study observed increased metabolic rate from cold water immersions 5 periods of 5 minutes but it also notes an increase in oxidative stress, which can be harmful to the body tissues. 

The study notes that this can be reduced with acclimatisation, stressing the importance of gradual build-up with cold therapy for the best results. This also only covers cold water immersion, meaning regular cold showers may not have the same effects.

Improves Mood and Sleep

Exposure to uncomfortable levels of cold is said to boost the production of noradrenaline, a stimulant hormone that can affect attention and motivation, contributing to an improved mood. There are also suggestions that a lower body temperature is ideal for sleeping, meaning a cold shower before bed could improve how much deep restful sleep you get each night.

What is Hot and Cold Therapy?

Hot and cold therapy is typically used to treat muscle aches, sprains and other issues, typically following strenuous exercise. Hot therapy, including sauna therapy, is best for stiff muscles to help relax and for chronic conditions like arthritis. Cold therapy is more suited to treating inflammation and swelling, like in sprains and conditions such as gout and tendonitis.

Using hot and cold intermittently can be effective at managing pain from exercise but should be avoided if you have open wounds or swelling and inflammation, as heat therapy can sometimes have a negative effect on these issues.

Cold Therapy for Weight Loss

Some cosmetic procedures, like CoolSculpting, use extreme cold as a form of ‘body sculpting’ to freeze fat cells in order to shape the body in a specific way. However, this is unrelated to cold water therapy’s use in order to boost metabolism.

There have been studies that have found cold water immersion improves metabolic rate. This is because exposure to cold leads the body to work to generate its own heat, helping to burn more calories. 

This means that regular ice baths or cold water immersion could help improve metabolism in the short term. No studies have yet to find a long-term metabolic benefit to ice bathing and it’s unlikely that the practise leads to significant weight loss when used on its own.

How Cold Therapy Works

When immersed in cold water, your blood vessels contract, reducing blood flow through your body, which is why the practice can be helpful at fighting inflammation and swelling. It’s also thought that, due to the huge amount of cold receptors on the skin, the initial shock from the exposure leads to a surge in electrochemical activity and the boost in the production of a number of hormones and other chemicals in the body.

How to do Cold Therapy at Home

Cold therapy is gaining popularity most likely because it’s a highly accessible practice that anyone can take part in. The hashtag #coldtherapy has over 95m views on TikTok, with #coldshowerchallenge currently on 4.8m views. 

If you’re looking for a full-body immersion, wild swimming or ice baths are a good place to start. 

Making an Ice Bath:

  • Add ice to cold water and ensure the temperature sits at around 10-15 degrees Celsius.
  • Start gradually, staying submerged for a minute and building up to no more than five minutes at a time.

Tips on Wild Swimming:

  • Never go alone, cold water can cause shock and can affect your reaction times.
  • Ensure you warm up immediately – take a hat, gloves and towel or robe, walk around to raise body heat or find a warm place to sit once you’re done.
  • Don’t warm up too fast, though – rapid changes from cold to hot may cause you to pass out.

If you’re not yet brave enough to take the plunge, you can start cold water therapy with cold showers. Start by showering at your preferred temperature and gradually reduce the temperature until the feeling of discomfort doesn’t subside. Spend only a short amount of time under the cold water at first but gradually build yourself up to a minute or two to start enjoying some of the benefits of cold water therapy at home.