Why Cold Therapy?
Cold therapy, also known as cold thermogenesis, is getting the body, or parts of the body to experience cold for a short time.
Our ancestors, those living away from the equator, would have experienced cold for prolonged periods in the ancient past. Baths in an icy river, cold walks to find and bring home food, sleeping without a fire. They would have shivered more.
Modern science is only now rediscovering how allowing our bodies to experience this type of cold leads to massive benefits.
Potential benefits of cold exposure and thermogenesis which are gaining in evidence are:
Weight loss and muscle gain muscle without exercise
Eat more and weight less
Lowering body fat
Increasing metabolically active brown fat
Less discomfort in environmentally cold conditions
Improved sleep quality
Possible lifespan enhancement
Strengthening the immune system
And many more links to better health are just beginning to be explored.
The thing is, when we shiver, we are depleting muscle glycogen (the sugar stored in our muscles). This mimics a hard workout and has been shown to release growth hormone. This release can have huge benefits on the body, mimicking many benefits of an actual workout.
Cold exposure has also been shown to burn extra calories and allow people to eat more calories without gaining weight, if that’s your thing.
Most people are familiar with the use of cold to reduce inflammation, which is why most sports teams have cold tanks for athletes to use after a game or workout. I do not recommend cold directly after a workout if your goal is muscle gain. It can stop the inflammation needed after a workout to stimulate muscle growth.
Also, when we get cold and shiver, the body taps into an ancient pathway to burn body fat to create heat. Typically the body uses fuel to make energy in the mitochondria, but this process can be changed to allow the body to generate heat instead. In order to make heat to stay warm, the body burns its own fat stores. Winter fat loss, anyone?
Even your mind and mood are enhanced for tangible reasons. When you shiver and get cold, your body produces neurotransmitters that boost mood and energy, such as norepinephrine.
When you shiver and get cold, your body produces neurotransmitters that boost mood and energy, such as norepinephrine.
The question is, how much cold do we need to experience to get the benefit. No one wants to be cold all the time. And the answer is not fully agreed upon, but from subjective experience, and limited research data, small amounts of cold exposure can have massive benefits.
Context and History of Cold Exposure
While there isn’t definitive research on exactly how long we need to experience cold, I do not think it means we have to just be cold and uncomfortable all winter.
Human ancestry in wintry climates used to experience cold more than now, but not unbrokenly. Cold prevention such as fires, shelter, huddling, and primitive clothing has long been a part of the human toolkit to achieve habitation in wintry climates.
But when winter came in the past, we were indeed colder more often. We didn’t have heated showers, central heating in our homes, and high-tech winter weather clothing materials.
We worked and lived outdoors more often, even during winter.
By experiencing cold in this way, humans adapted to the cold in ways that made them feel less discomfort in cold temperatures. We could bathe in cold streams and walk through the cold in search of food without being overwhelmed or debilitated by the cold. This is an evolutionary reason why we adapt to cold in the first place- to allow for survival in evermore wintry climates so we can increase human territory.
I remember when I cold-adapted my first winter, I was able to wear a t-shirt and walk comfortably and slowly from my car, down the entire parking lot and into the store. It was -25F. And windy.
Think about how many people complain of being cold all winter and how a few minutes a day of actually being cold can take all that away. Sitting in a room at 65F feels quite comfortable when cold-adapted.
Most of us though, wake up to a balmy 72 degrees in the dead of winter. We head to our heated garage and our preheated cars and drive to work. Our workplace is also heated to 72 degrees. We then go to the gym, the store, or out to eat and then back home.
How many minutes do you experience cold during a day? Likely you aren’t outside for more than a few seconds.
Winter means being cold once in a while. It also means changing diet to reflect the local environment and using appropriate light to signal to our body that it’s winter and time to repair.
By bringing back winter, we allow the body to rejuvenate and repair after a long summer.
Our entire body reads the local environment. From the light to the temperature to the food we eat. Using these signals, the body is able to maintain optimal health, assuming we’re not interfering with those signals by using inappropriate lighting, living an indoor life, staying too warm all the time. Human ancestry has had tens of thousands, of not hundreds of thousands of years, to adapt to a winter environment. It has had less than 100 years to adapt to artificial measures to mask winter. Physiologically, it knows how to optimize for wintertime, far better than how to optimize for an artificial environment.
The piece that’s the hardest to bring in is cold. Granted it’s free, but it’s uncomfortable.
Cold is important because it opens up ancient pathways that are rarely used in modern humans.
Cold is important because it opens up ancient pathways that are rarely used in modern humans.
These ancient pathways are what scientists believe lead to the massive benefits of cold. Living in a tropical climate is fine if it is a natural climate because light is abundant. Our bodies are adapted to natural environments. But if you live in a wintry climate, light is not abundant and we need cold, our bodies know how to adapt to a winter far better than 20th-century inventions.
We need to bring back winter to experience these benefits.
My Favorite Eight Ways To Do Cold Therapy
If you want to experience the benefits of cold, you do not need to be freezing and uncomfortable all the time. It really only takes a few minutes each day.
Back when I was a kid in NY, there were stories from Native American tribes that when white children ran away from home and joined the Tribe, they would be cold-adapted quickly. To cold adapt, the members would have the children sit in a cold stream or frozen lake for two smokes of the pipe. This would allow the children to adapt to the cold and live with the Tribes. This is the story I was told over and over as a kid.
That’s one way to cold adapt, but it’s pretty extreme.
There is a sequence for cold adaptation that is easy to follow and comfortable for most people. You do not have to get into a frozen lake or a cryo-chamber on day one. In fact, you don’t ever need to do that for the benefits of cold.
You do not have to get into a frozen lake or a cryo-chamber on day one. In fact, you don’t ever need to do that for the benefits of cold.
After extensive cold adaptation experience, here are my favorite ways, in order or easiest to hardest, to cold adapt.
- Shiver Walk. Start cold adapting in the fall by wearing as few clothes as possible as it gets colder. At this point in the year, coming off summer, 55F will feel cold. I usually wear shorts and no shirt as it cools down.
- Mindset and Breath. Know that you can do this. Know it’s going to be cold and get over it. When you start getting cold, control your breathing. Breathe slow and steady and focus on your breath. Your breath is the key to doing this right. Relax into it and breathe.
- Face Plunges. Here’s a link to our Youtube showing how to do a face plunge. It’s easy and you can do it all year. There may be systemic (whole body) effects from just face plunging and yes, this alone helps adapt to cold. It’s harder than it looks your first three times. You might get an ice cream headache, but it goes away after a few sessions. Just fill up a sink with cold water, add some ice and dunk you face and head.
- Swimming. Swimming in water that’s below the air temperature is cold adaptation and you can do this anywhere. Bonus points for doing it in a natural body of water, but swimming pools work too. The ocean is nearly always colder than air temp and so are most lakes. Get in, get cold and biohack your biology.
- Cold Shower. You can turn your shower to cold for 2-5 minutes at the end of your hot shower. Personally, I cannot stand cold showers. I’d rather jump in a frozen lake or stand outside without a shirt on for 5 minutes, but that’s just me. Many people love these and get a huge boost of energy afterward.
- Cold Bath. This is more extreme, as your body is completely immersed in cold water and water transfers heat very efficiently. Fill up your tub with cold water and, if you like, add ice. The ideal temperature isn’t freezing, it’s actually said to be 55-65F water temperature. You can stay here for 5 minutes to an hour if you like. Some people wear wool hats and mittens because it’s about cooling your skin and core down and not freezing your digits.
- Chest Freezer. If you have the means and enjoy the benefits of cold, you can create your own chest freezer set up. Please use caution and read up on using these properly, like unplugging them before you get in. You can control the water temperature to whatever you like and do this any time of the year.
- Cold Lake Plunges. You can begin cold water swimming at any time of the year and continue throughout the winter as ice covers the lakes. Never do this alone and always be sure to stay in only as long as you are comfortable. Some people can build up to many minutes in the water, but usually 1-3 minutes is plenty. This is extreme and no one actually needs to do this to cold adapt.
Build Your Cold Tolerance and Build Health
Personally, after experimenting for years with cold therapy I get better sleep, feel less cold all winter, and haven’t been sick since I started this practice. Plus, it feels so good after a cold session that it can become a bit addicting.
My advice to you is start slow and build up.
There seems to be no question that cold therapy can and does increase health if done properly. Whatever your comfort level, I encourage you to experiment with getting cold and notice what benefits you receive. Welcome to Biohacking!