Ice Bath Benefits: Science-Backed Reasons To Take The Plunge
You know the shock that overwhelms your body (and soul) when you step into a cold shower? Well, research suggests there are physical and mental perks to cold exposure like soothing muscles, easing stress and fatigue, and—believe it or not—improving overall health. Taking an ice bath, in which you purposefully submerge yourself in a tub of ice-cold water for a set period of time, is one technique that has a ton of benefits to its name.
Read on to get the scoop on the proven benefits of ice baths and learn how you can take the plunge for the sake of your health.
Proven benefits of ice baths.
Cold showers and ice baths are both examples of hormesis—positive stressors that cause the body to push beyond its comfort level and adapt physically and cognitively.
"The concept of hormesis is simply that if you apply a little bit of stress to a system it will get better," Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., founder of Extreme Human Performance, previously told mindbodygreen.
Charles Tabone, N.D., a naturopathic practitioner with Pause Studio, explains that when our bodies are shocked by a drastic temperature change, our brains send a signal to the body that it's under stress and needs to respond accordingly.
When done safely (in a controlled environment for a set amount of time), immersing yourself in an ice bath can result in the following benefits:
Aids in muscle recovery and cellular energy.
Professional athletes who jump into ice baths post-workout are onto something. As shown in a 2022 meta-analysis1 published in the journal Sports Medicine, cold water exposure is beneficial for muscle recovery.
Lalitha McSorley, P.T., a physical therapist at Brentwood Physio not involved in the study, explains that the research presented in the analysis showed positive results "for muscle strength, perceived recovery, and reduced muscle soreness," as the drop in temperature reduces creatine kinases (enzymes released when muscle cells are damaged), reducing the effects of an injury.
"People are using deliberate cold exposure to reduce inflammation post-exercise and reduce inflammation generally, and people are also using cold to enhance performance in the context of strength training and endurance training," Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. says on the Huberman Lab Podcast.
However, as exercise physiologist Ben Greenfield explains on the mindbodygreen podcast, ideally you'll wait at least two hours after exercising to take your plunge. This gives your body enough time to build new mitochondria2 after the stress of exercise.
"Paradoxically, if you get in the cold before you work out, the sympathetic nervous system response means it can actually be a pre-workout booster," he says. "An ideal scenario would be that you do a quick cold soak, hop in a hot tub or hot shower for a few minutes to get blood flow going, and then go hit your workout."
Reduces stress and increases resilience.
Taking a deliberate dip in an ice bath can also help you cope with taxing emotions like stress and anxiety.
"A study3 published in the journal JMIR Formative Research found that cold temperatures during an immersion bath can stimulate your vagus nerve," Laura DeCesaris, a functional medicine expert, tells mbg, adding that "stimulation of this nerve has been shown to help you relax and de-stress."
Taking regular ice baths can also activate cellular mechanisms and signaling pathways that shift the way you react to stress and make you more mentally resilient moving forward.
This happens because when we dip into a cold environment (or just think about dipping into a cold environment), our bodies release "fight-or-flight" hormones like norepinephrine and epinephrine4—sometimes at levels up to five times over our baseline. By intentionally exposing ourselves to these hormones, Huberman explains on his podcast, "we can learn to maintain mental clarity and calm while we are in a state of stress, and that can be immensely useful when encountering stressors in other parts of life."
Taking an ice bath definitely wakes the body up at that moment, but one randomized study5, in which the nocturnal core body temperature, sleep, and heart rate variability was assessed in male athletes, found that those instructed to wholly immerse themselves in an ice bath after running on a treadmill clocked in better-quality sleep.
Supports mood and alertness.
Taking a dip in freezing cold water might not sound like a mood-boosting activity, but science says otherwise. Cold water immersion triggers the release of a variety of neurotransmitters6, among them dopamine7, a happy hormone that elicits feelings of pleasure.
Immersing yourself in the freezing cold is also bound to give you a nice jolt of energy that you can carry with you into your day; one reason that sleep expert Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. starts every morning with a quick cold therapy session.
Potential benefits of ice baths.
There are still a handful of benefits of ice baths that have yet to be scientifically proven. Cold immersion's ability improve your overall skin appearance and aid in weight loss as two of the biggest speculations to date:
Improved skin appearance.
The jury's still out on whether or not taking ice baths should be part of your skin care routine. That said, DeCesaris is quick to remind us those blood vessels in the skin do constrict with cold exposure, which "starts a signal to promote blood circulation." Then, when you get out of the cold plunge, your vessels dilate, giving your skin a glow. Because of this, DeCesaris says it's theorized that ice baths can "reduce skin inflammation and wrinkle appearance over time."
Cold immersion does increase metabolism,8 and there is data to suggest9 that ongoing cold exposure can help convert white fat to more metabolically healthy beige or brown fat.
However, "more data needs to be seen as to possible long-term metabolic impacts of cold immersion over time," DeCesaris tells mbg. "One session here or there is likely not frequent enough to have a significant impact on body composition or metabolism."
What's next for ice bath benefit research?
There are many unanswered questions about ice baths just waiting to be rigorously researched. One that DeCesaris is most interested in is the effect of cold plunging on menstruation and whether it is most beneficial to spend more or less time in the water, depending on the menstrual cycle phase.
"Since we know the hormone profile of women is changing throughout a cycle, it would be prudent, I think, for women to see how they feel trying cold water immersion early in their cycle versus later," DeCesaris tells mbg. "Women can be more prone to higher cortisol and less resilience leading up to their period, and a cold plunge may 'feel' more difficult here. I'd love to see a body of research on this in the future."
David Sinclair, Ph.D., a longevity expert and Harvard geneticist, tells the mindbodygreen podcast that he suspects more research will focus on the value of getting your body out of its temperature comfort zone more generally—be it through a cold bath or a hot sauna—in the future.
Ice bath how-to.
When gearing up for your first ice bath (whether in a studio, a cold lake, your bathtub, or an at-home cold plunge tub), it's important to remember that, physical discomfort aside, it's largely a mental obstacle. To prepare, Tabone suggests leaning into that mental game, and viewing it as such, with barriers to overcome.
"Start with the commitment to get in, then with the act of calming the physiological response to the cold," he says. "[Once you've jumped those hurdles], focus on the ability to maintain parasympathetic tone" (a state of relaxation) "and lastly, the willpower to remain for a few more breaths after your brain tells you to get out."
Most ice bath protocols recommend submerging your body from the neck down, in water that is approximately 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. Your breath can be an ally as you brave the cold, and incorporating breathwork techniques like the Wim Hof method might help you out.
Once your cold plunge is up, following it up with hot therapy—like a sauna or steam—can feel great and provide even more of that beneficial hormesis.
How long should you ice bathe for?
Good news: You don't need to wade in a pool of ice water for very long to reap the benefits of this method of cold water immersion. Tabone tells mindbodygreen that a general guideline is to work your way up to 10 to 15 minutes of exposure per week, divided over a few sessions.
There are different ways you can split this up: Huberman suggests doing deliberate cold exposure for at least 11 minutes per week in total. For best results, he recommends doing 2-4 cold sessions a week for 1-5 minutes at a time in his protocol.
Or, you could aim to get in a few minutes of cold exposure daily. "I have not seen any deleterious impact from a 365 days a year [cold approach]," Greenfield says. "More is better when we're talking about brief, consistent exposures to cold. More is not better when we're talking about taking a 2-minute session and trying to make it a 20-minute session. Consistency trumps volume."
So...how uncomfortable is ice bathing?
It's almost impossible to gauge what the average person's discomfort level will be when they are submerged in a tub full of ice water because every person is different—both mentally and physically.
House of Athlete medical director Jordan Shallow, D.C., likens it to attempting to lift a weight you're not strong enough to lift: It could cause injury. "Cold exposure is no different," Shallow tells mbg. "It's easy to objectify weights in a gym and have a ballpark idea of what we are capable of lifting, but most of us don't have an established baseline for what temperatures we are capable of withstanding."
The best way for beginners to safely get started, Shallow says, is to focus on their breathing: "A good rule of thumb is exposing yourself to temperatures that don't exceed your current capacity to go through a full inhalation and most importantly, exhalation."
Once you have a baseline, you can slowly and gradually work your way up to longer and colder baths. Use a little bit of ice during your first bath, then add more to your third bath, then a little more to your fourth bath, and so on, "decreasing the water temperature as your tolerance to the cold builds," McSorley says.
Where to take an ice bath.
- At home: The most budget-friendly way to take an ice bath is in the comfort of your own home. If you have a bathtub, fill it with cold water and add as many ice cubes as you'd like/can tolerate. No tub? McSorely tells mbg there are also companies that sell barrels and cold plunge tubs specifically for ice baths and that she's even heard of people "converting large garbage bins into ice bath containers." An inflatable pool would also work!
- A facility that offers ice baths as an amenity: Think spas and health clubs.
- Take a dip in a body of water like an ocean or lake. No tub? No problem. If you live in close proximity to a natural body of water, Tabone says it may be possible to safely get cold exposure in nature, depending on the climate and time of year.
Do cold showers count?
Ice baths aren't for everyone, and I don't just mean in the figurative sense. DeCesaris suggests anyone with circulation issues or diseases (like Raynaud's syndrome), peripheral vascular disease, who is or may be pregnant, who has a history of frostbite, who has open wounds, who's had recent surgeries or heart problems consult with a doctor before taking an ice bath.
That said, even those who are cleared by a professional to practice cold water immersion need to be aware of its side effects. For example, even if you are capable of staying in the bath for long periods of time, DeCesaris warns that prolonged exposure to the cold can put you at risk for hypothermia or frostbite.
Prolonged exposure can also lead to heart palpitations and other cardiovascular events,10 DeCesaris notes, as ice can "constrict the blood vessels, raise the heart rate and stress hormones." If you start to experience any of these symptoms, it's a sign to cut back.
Is it OK to take an ice bath every day?
If you're in good health, there's no harm in hopping in an ice bath for a few minutes every day. It's more or less a question of whether or not taking an ice bath every day is necessary to reap its benefits, but more research has to be done on the topic.
Are ice baths dangerous?
"Any extreme temperature exposure can be dangerous if a person isn't equipped to handle it," DeCesaris states. However, if you're healthy and understand your limits, taking an ice bath is not considered dangerous.
Are ice baths scientifically proven?
Research suggests that ice baths can help improve sleep, mood, and recovery, but more data needs to be collected on using ice baths for skin health and weight loss.
The science-backed health benefits of taking brief ice baths (2-4 times a week, for 1-5 minutes at a time) are pretty fascinating. Cold therapy is beneficial for mental health and resilience, exercise recovery, and mood and energy, and it may be helpful for skin health and weight loss when done consistently, too. That said, cold water exposure can present some risks, so it's important to talk to your doctor before giving it a try. Eager to take the plunge? These at-home cold tubs are here when you're ready to get started.
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER. Formerly the beauty editor for BestProducts.com, she's contributed to Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, PopSugar, and more. A book worm and fitness enthusiast, her happiest moments are spent with her husband, family, sipping tea, and cuddling with her Tabby cat, Aria.