3 Health Benefits Of Cold Showers + How To Do It Correctly
What if we told you that you could supercharge your health with a three-minute shower hack? According to Mark Harper, M.D., Ph.D., consultant anesthetist at Sussex University Hospitals, cold therapy expert, and author of Chill: The Cold Water Swim Cure, it's totally possible. In fact, he has dedicated his work to discovering therapeutic uses of cold-water adaptation and open-water swimming—and his research on cold plunges and well-being is quite astounding.
Harper is partial to an ocean dip, he tells us on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, but before you dive head-first into icy open waters, it helps to start out small—like, say, with cold showers. It turns out, you can reap many of the same benefits, and it only takes a few minutes. Allow Harper to gush about the benefits of cold therapy below, and find his tips to get started today.
Benefits of cold water therapy.
"We want to keep the stress response in the good physiological zone rather than the bad pathological zone," Harper says, and cold water therapy can keep those stress levels steady: "If you go into cold water a few times, maybe half a dozen, that stress response is attenuated. Your baseline level of stress goes down, so you are spending more time in that good physiological level." And when you hover around those good levels of stress, very good things can start to happen:
"I wrote a paper1 suggesting that by putting people through a cold water adaptation program before surgery, you could reduce the number of complications," Harper explains. "One of the key aspects to why it might reduce complications is because cold water adaptation, as part of the response to stress, reduces your inflammatory response."
The theory is that cold water immersion activates the parasympathetic nervous system2, which is modulated by the vagus nerve—and the vagus nerve is connected to the inflammatory response. "That direct activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can actually reduce inflammation," notes Harper.
Cold therapy has also been lauded for its immune-supporting benefits, thanks to its ability to balance the inflammatory response. "There's one interesting study which showed that people who took a cold shower every day had less days off work sick," Harper notes. Specifically, this 2016 study found that people who took cold showers for at least 30 seconds for one month called in sick 29% less than the control group3, and 54% less if they also engaged in regular physical exercise. Consider it another lifestyle intervention for a strong immune system—sort of like investing in a quality immune-supporting supplement.
Better mental health
And because the vagus nerve is so important for emotional regulation4, cold water therapy is thought to have mood-supporting benefits as well. Harper even found that 61 outdoor swimmers participating in a 10-week introductory outdoor swimming course had short- and long-term reductions in negative mood, as well as increases in well-being and positive mood.
In another case report, Harper studied a 24-year-old woman with symptoms of major depressive disorder and anxiety (and who had been treated for the condition since the age of 17) and found that after participating in a weekly open cold water swimming program, she had gradually improved her symptoms of depression5—and even after a year of completing the program, she's still medication-free.
Of course, this is one woman's story, but other research backs up cryotherapy's anxiety-alleviating benefits6. For many, it's a powerful tool; better yet, when you pair it with a science-backed stress supplement, you can relieve those feelings of overwhelm before they build up into a problem.
How to do it correctly.
OK, so cold showers are associated with plenty of health benefits—but you shouldn't simply hop under a freezing spray and call it a day. Harper has a few tips to get the most out of your icy dip:
- Go in warm: Your body, generally, stores heat. "If you go into cold water and your storage heater is cold, you haven't got much reserve. But if you go in and your storage heater is warm, you're gonna have a more pleasant experience," says Harper. Perhaps start your shower off with a steamy spray, or opt for a cold shower after a sweaty, heart-pumping workout.
- Get cold as quickly as possible: "You want to get yourself cold as quickly as possible," says Harper. "It's as simple as that—keep warm first and whack it down."
- Stay in until your breath evens out: In terms of how long you should stand there shivering, Harper says to bear it until you can control your breath—usually around three minutes. If you can only stand the frigid temperature for 30 seconds, that's OK. Do what you can and work your way up to a longer stretch of time. And know that more does not necessarily equal better: "It really doesn't take much time," Harper says.
- Then dunk your face: For those who want to go the extra mile: "Once you've passed those three minutes and your breathing comes under control, then you can start putting your head underwater," Harper adds. Simply face forward into the spray for a couple of seconds.
- Dry off and warm up again: "The rule for any swim or cold exposure is to get dry and warm as quickly as you can," Harper says. Whether that's wrapping yourself up in a big fluffy towel or turning the faucet back to steamy, try to quickly get your body heat back to baseline.
Of all the health and well-being hacks out there, cold therapy is a relatively simple and budget-friendly option to try. After all, you can create a cold plunge in the comfort of your own bathroom. It's an easy way to supercharge your health, but it takes some precise techniques to reap the benefits. Not to fret: Harper has plenty of tips to prepare for a cold water plunge, and you can hear all about them in the full episode below.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.