Cold Exposure Therapy And Longevity
We live in a time with countless health tools available at our fingertips, and we all have our unique “wellness kits” made up of various practices and resources that we use to support our health and longevity. Some common wellness or healthy habits include favorite exercises, go-to health foods and supplements, mindfulness techniques like journaling, gratitude, and meditation, and various other services such as acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, and talk therapy. But have you ever considered deliberate cold exposure as a tool to incorporate into your wellness toolkit?
Cold exposure therapy, or the practice of intentionally exposing the body to cold temperatures for short periods of time, has become increasingly popular in recent years and adopted by athletes, celebrities, and health enthusiasts to boost overall health and well-being. However, many of the proclaimed health benefits are based on subjective claims and anecdotal cases. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at the scientific literature on how cold exposure impacts the brain and body, and how this wellness tool can be leveraged to improve physical health, mental health, personal performance, and especially resilience. We’ll also provide practical tips for incorporating this tool into your longevity toolkit if inspired.
What is Cold Exposure Therapy?
Cold exposure therapy involves exposing the body to cold temperatures for brief periods of time. This therapy can be implemented in various ways: ice baths, cryotherapy (at a center), cold water (polar!) plunges, or simply turning the shower knob to cold for part of your shower. Even a winter walk after dinner, with your neck and head exposed for a few minutes before fully bundling up, is one way to experience benefits from the cold. The practice of cold exposure therapy has been recently popularized by Wim Hof, who developed a method that combines cold exposure with breathing exercises and meditation. While cold exposure therapy might seem like just another fleeting trend, various cultures have utilized it for centuries, such as the Scandinavian tradition of alternating saunas and cold dips. When incorporated properly, there is evidence that intentional and regular cold exposure can benefit the body and brain and strengthen the ability to cope with adverse conditions of all kinds.
The Science Behind Cold Exposure Therapy and Its Benefits
Research is still being conducted to support the influx of attention on this wellness tool, and most interest focuses on the potential effects of cold exposure therapy on energy expenditure, metabolic health, focus, mood, energy, physical performance and recovery, and resilience. There is also attention on how cold exposure therapy can affect inflammation, insulin sensitivity, and immune function.
Keep in mind that some of the health benefits received from cold-water exposure may not be solely causal and could also be linked to other factors like living an active lifestyle, the use of breathing and mindfulness techniques, and even an increased amount of time spent in nature. There is a need for more evidence-based scientific research on this topic, as most published information is concentrated on small populations, or only specific types of cold-water exposure, or the research is lumped together with heat therapy (like the use of a cold plunge and then hot sauna use immediately following). This makes it difficult to pinpoint a causal relationship.
Cold Exposure Therapy Effects On Metabolism
Cold exposure therapy activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the release of hormones and stimulating metabolic processes such as thermogenesis and fat burning. In the short term, the body burns calories to increase core temperature when exposed to cold temperatures. More substantial metabolic effects occur from the conversion of white fat (energy storage) to beige or brown fat (highly metabolically active) upon cold exposure. The increased activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT) increases metabolic rate, improves fat burning, leads to healthier mitochondria, and supports cold adaptation or feeling more comfortable in the cold.
Studies show that whole body-energy expenditure can be increased by 40-80% in humans when thermogenic adipose tissues are fully active, thus suppressing weight gain and improving systemic metabolism and insulin action. BAT activation has also been linked to improved immune function and a reduction of inflammation, both of which support longevity.
Cold Exposure Therapy Effects On Focus, Mood, and Energy
There is hope that the use of cold exposure therapy can support mental health. Studies show cold exposure therapy results in significant releases and prolonged elevations of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine leading to increased energy, focus, attention, and an elevated mood. The prolonged elevation of neurochemicals can positively affect energy and focus long after the time spent in a cold environment.
According to Andrew Huberman, Ph.D.: “One study showed significant and prolonged increases in dopamine when people were in cool (60°F/15°C) water for about an hour up to their neck, with their head above water. Other studies describe significant increases in epinephrine from just 20 seconds in very cold water (~40°F/~4°C).”
Cold Exposure Therapy Effects On Physical Performance and Recovery
Cold exposure therapy can be used as a tool to support physical recovery. A meta-analysis of the effects of cold-water immersion on recovery showed improved recovery of muscular power one day following high-intensity exercise, as well as a reduction of circulating creatine kinases and improved perceived feelings of recovery. The analysis indicated that immersion in lower temperatures for a shorter duration held the most efficacy for recovery from high-intensity exercise. If partaking in cold exposure therapy for physical performance and recovery reasons, it is best to delay exposure until at least 6-8 hours after training to maximize gains, though it can even be beneficial up to 24-72 hours after exercise.
Cold Exposure Therapy Effects On Resilience
Perhaps most significantly, engaging in cold exposure therapy is a healthy way to build resilience and train the mind. Here is a powerful excerpt from Huberman Lab, referenced below, that elaborates on how cold water exposure builds resilience:
“By forcing yourself to embrace the stress of cold exposure as a meaningful self-directed challenge (i.e. stressor), you exert what is called ‘top-down control’ over deeper brain centers that regulate reflexive states. This top-down control process involves your prefrontal cortex – an area of your brain involved in planning and suppressing impulsivity. That ‘top-down’ control is the basis of what people refer to when they talk about “resilience and grit.” Importantly, it is a skill that carries over to situations outside of the deliberate cold environment, allowing you to cope better and maintain a calm, clear mind when confronted with real-world stressors. In other words, deliberate cold exposure is great training for the mind.”
To further build resilience, a tip from Huberman is to move your limbs while they are submerged instead of staying completely still. While movement will make the water feel colder, it will prevent the creation of a thermal layer preventing insulation and further increasing resilience.
Safety and Efficacy of Cold Therapy Protocols
When incorporating cold exposure therapy, it is important to start slow and gradually build up both the length of exposure and the extremity of temperature. We also recommend seeking clearance from a healthcare professional if you have any history of heart disease or other significant illness before trying this modality. Treat incorporating cold exposure therapy like learning to lift weights. Like pumping iron, it takes time and consistency to build up strength. Start simply, with cool water exposure for short durations, even just 30 seconds to start. It is also important to note that individualized protocols based on age, health status, and other factors should be considered.
Incorporating Cold Therapy into Your Daily Routine
While most research is based on ice baths or cold water immersion up to the neck, cold showers are an accessible option that can provide benefits. Incorporating cold exposure therapy into your daily routine can be a powerful tool to support longevity.
Here is a basic, science-supported protocol by Andrew Huberman:
- To start: set a goal of cold exposure for 11 minutes per week total (for example, 2-4 sessions, 1-5 min each throughout the week). According to Huberman, this is the minimum amount required to achieve benefits.
- Water temperature: make it uncomfortably cold to be in, yet safe to stay in. What feels “cold enough” varies based on the individual. (60°F/15°C can feel cold for some, while 40°F/4°C may feel cold for others). The colder the stimulus, the shorter amount of time you need to expose yourself to reap benefits.
- Tip: Use the Huberman Lab “Counting Walls” Approach: during (or before) cold exposure, you may experience pushback from your mind – either you don’t want to expose yourself or once you do, you want to get out ASAP! Imagine these mental barriers as “walls”. By maintaining control of the urge to avoid or exit the cold environment, you will successfully “traverse” walls. You can choose to traverse an intentional number of “walls” during your session or set a goal of lasting for a certain amount of time. The walls approach can be helpful to build resilience as it will carry over to other scenarios and life stressors and enhance your mind-body connection.
- Advanced cold therapy protocols, such as ice baths, cold water swims, or cryotherapy can also be considered for more experienced practitioners.
The Benefits of Cold Exposure Therapy
In conclusion, cold exposure therapy may be a tool worth trying for your wellness toolkit. Note that research on cold exposure therapy is ongoing, and there is still much to explore. Lots of the existing research has been conducted on smaller populations and among individuals who engage in both cold exposure therapy and heat exposure like saunas afterward, which makes it difficult to attribute findings with 100% certainty.
We do know that cold exposure therapy holds the potential to support your physical health, mental health, personal performance, resilience, and all together, your longevity. Why not give it a try with the right guidance, and see how it can change your day, your mood, and your productivity?
Altered brown fat thermoregulation and enhanced cold-induced thermogenesis in young, healthy, winter-swimming men Søberg, Susanna et al. Cell Reports Medicine, Volume 2, Issue 10, 100408
Didrik Espeland, Louis de Weerd & James B. Mercer (2022) Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate, International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 81:1, DOI: 10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789
Moore, E., Fuller, J.T., Buckley, J.D. et al. Impact of Cold-Water Immersion Compared with Passive Recovery Following a Single Bout of Strenuous Exercise on Athletic Performance in Physically Active Participants: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Meta-regression. Sports Med 52, 1667–1688 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01644-9
Photos by: Mika Ruusunen & Tim Wilson