Cold Exposure: Why It Could Be the Best Thing for Your Health
11th Jan, 2023
If you’ve not heard of cold-water swimming, you’ve likely been living under a rock for the past few years. Year-round thousands of people nationwide have taken to lakes, rivers and the sea for a quick dip in the ice-cold water. You might have also heard of the infamous Wim Hof - the man who summitted Everest in shorts and ran a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, otherwise known as ‘Iceman’.
Cold exposure has been increasingly studied in recent years and early research is suggesting that there is method behind the madness of plunging into icy water, the cold itself could be the bio-hack that we are all sleeping on.
Brown Fat & White Fat
Brown adipose tissue (BAT) functions slightly differently from white adipose tissue (WAT) - the fat that builds up around your stomach when you put on weight. BAT has key functions in thermoregulation, which basically means it helps maintain overall body temperature by increasing energy expenditure when you are cold. It is fairly well established in science that exposure to cold – both acute and prolonged – activates BAT to burn more calories to keep you warm. However, new science is suggesting that in addition to this, its activation has beneficial effects on metabolism, making us more sensitive to insulin, increasing glucose metabolism and the breakdown of fats. This means that those who regularly expose themselves to the cold may be at lower risk of diseases like obesity and diabetes type 2.
Finding comfort in the uncomfortable
Known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, stress is a carefully designed body response we adopted from our ancestors to save ourselves from getting killed or injured. When the body experiences particularly cold temperatures, our stress response is activated as our body alerts us to the threat of cold and that we need to get warm. Similarly, when you go cold water swimming, your natural response is to get out of the water ASAP. But, scientists are uncovering that when you increasingly expose yourself to physical stress by submerging yourself in cold water, you adapt to the stress and improve your tolerance. The great thing is that this appears to not only be limited to swimming and can help you manage your response to other life stresses – known as ‘cross-adaption’. Meaning that the cold shower you had in the morning can make you more resilient to life’s pressures throughout the rest of your day - big meetings, long gym sessions, and traffic jams are all made easier in exchange for just 30 seconds of discomfort each morning!
Conquer the cold, conquer your mind!
Very similar to post-exercise euphoria, conquering cold water has been found to have the same mood-boosting effects. In one study, the post-cold water hit of dopamine (one of the happiness hormones) was found to be 530% higher than controls. Studies have found the effects of cold exposure to be potentially beneficial for a variety of physiological and mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and even at times a method for reducing the need for medication.
Although it seems that getting yourself a bit chilly appears to be a hot ticket to health, it doesn’t come without risk. If you’re unsupervised and unprepared, cold exposure can lead to severe problems mainly stemming from the body’s shock response induced by the cold. Risks include hypothermia, drowning, heart attack and compromised lung function. So, if you are new to the cold, approach with caution with an experienced guide.