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Considering Cold Showers? This is How and When You Should be Doing Them

cold shower benefits
12 Science-Backed Benefits of Taking Cold ShowersShaf Bdn - Getty Images

We're rehashing an old joke here, but how do you know if someone takes cold showers and enjoys ice baths? Don't worry, they’ll tell you. While it's tempting to chalk up the hype around cold exposure to just that, hype, the positive data around taking cold showers is more than lukewarm.

What a lot of instagram ice bath devotees don't tell you though, is that you don't necessarily need to take the plunge into frigid wheelie bins full of icy water to reap the most potent benefits of cold exposure – a cold shower at a temperature that's uncomfortably cold, but you can manage for a few minutes is probably more than enough.

Still not warming to the idea that cold showers are good for you? We've looked into the science to collate 12 cold shower benefits, which should put your excuses on ice, as well as answer some of the most asked questions on the subject.


12 Cold Shower Benefits

Elevate Your Mood

When you step under a cold shower, the water stimulates the cold receptors in your skin, which send strong electrical impulses to your brain. This triggers the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters. One study revealed that at biochemical level, whole-body exposure to cold triggers release neurotransmitters such as serotonin, cortisol, dopamine, norepinephrine, and β-endorphin, which play a crucial role in emotion regulation, stress regulation, and reward processing.

Jolt You Awake

Struggling from a case of morning grogginess? As the study above noted, freezing water boosts the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, two hormones that shift your nervous system into a more alert and focussed state – this essentially means that it’s a powerful great way to get hyped up, whether that's before your workout or your work day. Our fitness director and self professed 'big fan of the cold' Andrew Tracey recommends pairing a cold shower with a double espresso for a powerful pre-workout pick me up.

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Fire Up Your Circulation

Turning the dial down ‘instantly reduces your core temperature, which makes your body work harder to warm itself back up by pumping blood around a lot faster,’ says personal trainer Ollie Hayes, former professional rugby player and founder of So Fit. 'This massively improves your circulation, which has longer-term health benefits.'

Boost Your Metabolism

Counter-intuitively, an icy bath or shower can help you warm up before training. It flips your body’s internal thermostat, raising your metabolism and kick-starting your in-built heat-producing mechanisms . A 2022 meta-analysis suggested that acute cold exposure can also activate more metabolically active 'brown fat' cells, which is more metabolically active than the more common white adipose tissue . Some studies suggest that increasing BAT mass and activity may help with metabolic health, insulin sensitivity and obesity.

Tracey says to be leery of overblown claims around cold exposure and fat loss, though: 'Ultimately, it's still going to come down to energy expenditure. Calories in, calories out. And there's some research to suggest that cold exposure can even increase your appetite. Cold showers might give you some pep to attack your diet and training with more vigour, great. But don't rely on them as tool for direct fat burning.'

Hasten Your Post-Workout Recovery

Here’s how: it constricts the blood vessels near the surface of your skin, diverting blood towards your core – a process known as vasoconstriction. ‘The purported recovery benefit is that this reduces swelling and inflammation in the muscles,’ says sports scientist Adam Ridler, a master trainer at Ten Health and Fitness. ‘It helps to draw waste substances and lactic acid away. When the body begins to warm up, vasodilation occurs, pumping fresh, warm blood around the tissues bringing nutrients, and oxygen and aiding in recovery.’

But it's not all good news. We recently reported on studies suggesting that post workout cold exposure could blunt hypertrophy (muscle building). So keep the hot tap on after your bodybuilding workouts, and save the cold plunges for the days in between.

Ease DOMS

As well as flushing your muscles of toxins, making your post-workout shower a cold one also tricks your brain into making a speedier recovery. Cold water immersion effectively reduces muscle soreness and accelerates fatigue recovery, according to a meta analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology. However as we noted above, this could slow down your muscle building progress, so wait until the next few days to crank down the temperature. That's when it hurts anyway, right?

Shore up Your Immune Defences

Contrary to popular wisdom around cold temperatures and illness, repeated exposure to cold water stimulates production of the infection-fighting white blood cells that defend your body against common illnesses, Charles University found. Plus, when you do succumb, you’re less likely to suffer. People who take cold showers are 29 per cent less likely to call in sick for work or school, a study published in PLoS One revealed, leading researchers to conclude that the icy spray makes a person’s illness feel less severe than it actually is.

Ease Depressive Symptoms

Taking a cold shower for five minutes, once or twice daily, showed signs of relieving symptoms of depression in a small trial by Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. As well as boosting levels of norepinephrine, cold water promotes the release of beta-endorphin, ‘a substance that can block the sensation of pain,’ says Dr Stephanie Ooi, GP at MyHealthcare Clinic. Although there's no quick-fix for bouts of poor mental health, this is one small step you could take to hopefully ease yourself in the right direction.

Quell Inflammation

You don’t need us to tell you that unchecked inflammation is bad news for your health. Over the long-term, your inflammatory response can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs, upping your risk of serious diseases like cancer, arthritis and hardened arteries. Cold showers are a panacea: they activate your sympathetic nervous system, lowering levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokines that contribute to chronic inflammation. It's actually this exact anti-inflammation response that has been linked to slowing down muscle growth, so, swings and roundabouts.

Fine-Tune Your Focus

Big day at the office? Crank the dial to boost your focus and perform at your peak, no nootropics necessary. Cold showers increase blood flow to your brain, delivering a bumper hit of oxygen and nutrients that improve your concentration, whilst also ramping up your nervous system for alertness and mental clarity.

Build Resilience

‘Cold showers definitely help with mental resilience,’ says Hayes. ‘Simply having one is a feat of willpower in itself. You’re training your body and mind to go out of your comfort zone, which makes you stronger and more resilient. Things that once felt really tough can suddenly feel a lot less tough as you can tolerate more physical and mental discomfort.’

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Raise Your T-levels

When athletes were subjected to extremely low temperatures after a tough sprint session, the concentration of testosterone in their saliva was 21 per cent higher two hours after their workout, and 28% higher after 24 hours, sports scientists at Swansea University found. Being athletes, they used a cryotherapy chamber, but a cold dip’ll work just as well.


Cold Showers: Your Questions Answered

Let's put off actually jumping in a cold shower a little longer while we answer some important questions on the subject.

How Long Should You Cold Shower For?

If you've decided to practise cold showers, but don't want to spend a second longer shivering under the freezing water than you have to, a study by Danish researchers concluded that cold showering for 11 minutes per week, split between two to four sessions, with each lasting one to five minutes was optimal. Tracey suggests beginning by focussing on your breath and trying to stay in the cold for seven deep breaths, aiming for a long exhale. 'Focussing on the breath won't just help you to control your shock response to the cold and regulate your nervous system,' says Tracey, 'it will also give your mind something to focus on, other than thoughts of wanting to get out.'

What Temperature Should You Cold Shower At?

It a bit of a boring answer, but the temperature you should be cold showering at really depends on you, because some people are able to tolerate cold better than others. Rather than aiming for a temperature, aim for a feeling. When you're in the cold shower, it should be uncomfortable and you should want to get out, but you should also safely be able to stay in. Tracey says, 'Cold water out of the taps in the UK is generally below 15 degrees, which is the temperature below which most studies on cold water exposure are conducted. So work your way down towards a full blast of the cold tap, with no hot'.

Generally speaking, just make it so cold that you really want to get out, and try to resist that urge for as long as you can'.

Should You Cold Shower After Training or Before?

You've just finished a session, you're hot, sweaty and exhausted, a perfect time to enjoy a cold shower, no? Well, a meta analysis looking at the effect cold showering had on recovery found that cold water immersion straight after training boosted muscle power and perceived recovery while at the same time decreasing muscle soreness.

However, as we've mentioned, having a cold shower after you train can limit some of your muscle gains if done too close to working out. If your reason for training is hypertrophy, it's better to have a cold shower before you train, boosting your mood and performance, without the drawbacks.

Should You Cold Shower at Night or in The Morning?

We'll leave this one to the expert. On his YouTube channel, Wim Hof said you should be taking cold showers 'mostly in the morning ... because then you activate the cardiovascular system, and that is when action starts. Yet when you have cortisol in you and you can't sleep well because of the presence of cortisol then going into a cold shower could be an answer because it raises the adrenaline and brings down the cortisol.’

Tracey agrees with Hof and suggests the morning, or pre-workout for your cold spray, but believes in the heat of the summer a cold shower in the evening can help to lower your core temperature, helping you to get a better night's sleep, which is always a major win for your health.

How to Start Taking Cold Showers

So, you’re committed to your new shower habit, but can’t quite face a five-minute stint straight off the bat? Mediate the sting of the spray by easing into the habit with short, sharp blasts. Begin by lowering the temperature incrementally at the end of your usual shower. Make sure the water is cold enough that it’s uncomfortable, but not unbearable.

Sustain the cold for two or three minutes, breathing deeply to allay any discomfort. Resist the temptation to stiffen up and try and lean into the experience. The following day, drop the temperature further and stick it out for another 30 seconds. While ‘fully acclimatising’ might be a wishful goal, you’ll soon anticipate the post-blast endorphin rush.

The Drawbacks of Cold Showers

We’ve covered the many ways that taking a cold shower benefits your physical and mental health, but it’s worth distinguishing that while an icy blast under the faucet can certainly add value to your life, it’s not a panacea for all ills.

In fact, there are a small percentage of people for whom cold showers could be harmful. If you’re feeling under the weather, have recently been in hospital, or are immunocompromised, exposing your skin to freezing temperatures may well do more harm than good.

More generally, if you’re already cold before you jump into the shower – because it’s winter, for example – turning the dial down mightn’t transfer the same benefits. Plus, it’s likely to take a long time for your body to warm back up. In short: be sensible.

If you’re currently taking medication for your mental health – for example, if you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, bipolar or borderline personality disorder – ditching your prescription in favour of a cold shower isn’t advised. At all. Stick to your doctor’s advice.

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