Hydrotherapy or treatment with water of different temperatures and pressures has been used in many ancient cultures. They have been used historically for both mental and physical health in countries such as India, Egypt, and China. (11) Today, taking cold showers has become a common practice among many professional athletes and influencers. Continue reading to learn about the top evidence-based cold shower benefits.
What are the benefits of taking a cold shower?
Cold showers can be used to produce many therapeutic effects. For this reason they can help to maintain general health and wellness, and prevent, or manage certain conditions. (11)
1. Immune function
One benefit of cold showers is that they may improve immune function. This effect may be due to the fact that the shock of cold water increases the production of certain cells and molecules that play a role in immune function, including leukocytes, granulocytes, interleukin-6 (IL-6), and natural killer (NK) cells. (11)(12)
A study conducted in 2015 which included 3018 adults without any severe comorbidities and no past experience of cold showering examined the effects of cold showers. The study found that those who took cold showers, for at least 30 seconds called in sick 29% less than those who took warm showers. (4)
Cold showers may speed up metabolism. When you are in cold water, your body works hard to maintain a normal body temperature by increasing the body’s metabolic rate. (2) This could help you lose weight or prevent obesity over time; however, cold showers should not be used to replace a healthy diet or exercise routine.
3. Mood and energy
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and approximately 5% of adults suffer from depression globally. (6) Some common symptoms of depression include fatigue, feelings of sadness, low energy, low self-esteem, insomnia, digestive issues, and pain. (15)
A 2002 Finnish study followed 25 participants during the winter season to determine whether winter swimming can positively impact mental health. The participants of the winter swimming group did report experiencing improvements in their mood. However, the authors of the study did not find any differences between the winter swimming group and the placebo group on the Crown-Crips Experimental Index (CCEI) or the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20). The CCEI is used to measure anxiety, obsessionality, depression, and hysteria while the TAS-20 measures the ability to recognize or describe emotions. (10)(14)
One study found that cold showers activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase blood levels of energizing neurotransmitters and endorphins such as beta-endorphin and noradrenaline. Additionally, the same study suggests that cold water exposure may also send electrical signals from peripheral nerve endings found in the skin to the brain, all of which could result in improved mood and energy levels. (15)
Another study involving 82 individuals found that the participants who engaged in regular cold water immersion experienced significant improvements in tension, memory, mood, and energy compared to those who did not use this practice. The authors of the study concluded that cold water dips, often referred to as “winter swimming,” may result in improvements in energy, mood, and general well-being. (9)
The same way icing an injury can help to reduce pain and swelling, cold showers may help to reduce chronic pain and inflammation. This is because the superficial application of cold can decrease local metabolic function, edema, muscle spasm, and produce local anesthetic (pain numbing) effects. (10) Moreover, it was also found that regular cold water immersion helped reduce pain for those who suffered from asthma, muscle tension, rheumatism, or fibromyalgia. (9)
5. Post-exercise recovery
While the results from research examining the benefits of a cold shower after a workout are mixed, taking a post-game or workout ice bath or shower is a common practice for many professional athletes. (2)(13)
A review of 17 studies found that cold water immersion can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, which commonly occurs after exercise. (3) Cold showers may also be effective for addressing exercise-induced hyperthermia, elevated body temperature caused by vigorous exercise in a hot environment. (5)
However, there is also some research that indicates that ice baths or cold showers may not be ideal for those looking to increase muscle size and strength as it may hinder muscle fiber growth and delay muscle regeneration. (13)
How to take a cold shower
Taking cold showers, especially in cooler seasons may not seem ideal. Luckily, the research indicates that some benefits can be observed in as little as 30 seconds. (4) Furthermore, the water does not need to be cold the entire duration of the shower as benefits have also been observed with contrast (hot-cold) showers. (7) This means you can start by taking a warm shower and turn the water to cold for the last 30 seconds, gradually increasing the intensity based on your comfort level.
The bottom line
Cold showers may provide some physical and psychological benefits and improve general well-being. However, research supporting the effects of cold showers is mixed. Although they may provide some benefits, cold showers should not be used to replace medications, supplements, a healthy diet, or any other part of your healthcare regimen. Always check with your practitioner before changing your current healthcare routine.
- Bhatia, S. K., & Bhatia, S. (2007). Childhood and Adolescent Depression. American Family Physician, 1(75), 73–80.
- Bleakley, C. M., & Davison, G. W. (2009). What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold-water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(3), 179–187.
- Bleakley, C., McDonough, S., Gardner, E., Baxter, G. D., Hopkins, J. T., & Davison, G. W. (2012). Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
- Buijze, G. A., Sierevelt, I. N., van der Heijden, B. C. J. M., Dijkgraaf, M. G., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. W. (2016). The effect of cold showering on health and work: a randomized controlled trial. PLOS ONE, 11(9), e0161749.
- Butts, C. L., McDermott, B. P., Buening, B. J., Bonacci, J. A., Ganio, M. S., Adams, J. D., Tucker, M. A., & Kavouras, S. A. (2016). Physiologic and perceptual responses to cold-shower cooling after exercise-induced hyperthermia. Journal of Athletic Training, 51(3), 252–257.
- Depression. (2021, September 13). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression
- Higgins, T. R., Greene, D. A., & Baker, M. K. (2017). Effects of cold water immersion and contrast water therapy for recovery from team sport: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(5), 1443–1460.
- Hirvonen, J., Lindeman, S., Joukamaa, M., & Huttunen, P. (2002). Plasma catecholamines, serotonin and their metabolites and beta-endorphin of winter swimmers during one winter. Possible correlations to psychological traits. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 61(4), 363–372.
- Huttunen, P., Kokko, L., & Ylijukuri, V. (2004). Winter swimming improves general well-being. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 63(2), 140–144.
- Lindeman, S., Hirvonen, J., & Joukamaa, M. (2002). Neurotic psychopathology and alexithymia among winter swimmers and controls – a prospective study. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 61(2), 123–130.
- Mooventhan, A., & Nivethitha, L. (2014). Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. North American Journal of Medical Sciences, 6(5), 199.
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (2014, January 17). Immune Cells. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-cells
- Roberts, L. A., Raastad, T., Markworth, J. F., Figueiredo, V. C., Egner, I. M., Shield, A., Cameron-Smith, D., Coombes, J. S., & Peake, J. M. (2015). Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. The Journal of Physiology, 593(18), 4285–4301.
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