The Benefits of Cold Showers

For the past month I’ve been foregoing my usual steaming hot shower for a cold one. Not everyday, that habit is a hard one to break, but the majority of the time I voluntarily froze myself in pursuit of science.

I try a lot of crazy shit on myself, so let me answer the usual questions even before we get started: Yes, it’s difficult and uncomfortable. No, I’m not crazy. Yes, I have very good reasons. Yes, I’ll probably keep doing it. No, I never regretted my decision.

Ok, you got me, that last one was a lie.

Why Am I Doing This to Myself?

Ah, the eternal question. It’s good to know the answer before you try doing something distinctly uncomfortable, like freezing your ass off, voluntarily.

With a good enough Why?, you can push through almost anything. The more painful something is the more important it must be. The more potentially beneficial.

Giving up your favorite dessert will help you reach your goal weight, but that’s pretty easy. Going through chemotherapy is much harder, but it might save your life.

The trials need to be worth it in the end.

Lucky for me, I don’t take cold showers because I woke up one day and decided to be a masochist. There are very good reasons for putting myself through that, too many to get to in this post even.

And thankfully, after several distinctly uncomfortable days, I’ve even started to enjoy it.

The Benefits

There is an abundance of research on the benefits of cold showers. Much of it is on longer term exposure, but some has looked into cold showers in particular. Here are some of the most well-documented benefits:

Treatment for Depression

At least one study has shown that cold showers are a potential treatment for depression. The theory is that due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower sends an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect.

Relieve Pain

Cold hydrotherapy is known to reduce pain. It’s a stress-induced analgesic (pain reliever) for the same reason it is a treatment for depression. The heightened nerve signals ‘crowd out’ the pain signals, and the effect persists after the exposure.

More Brown Fat, Less Other Fat

Brown fat, or BAT (brown adipose tissue) is a type of fat that burns energy and glucose to generate heat. It’s good fat, and you have a tiny amount of it, mostly concentrated in the neck/shoulder/upper back area. More brown fat boosts your metabolism, keeps you warmer throughout the day, and thus just like muscle it burns fat all day long.

Fat that burns fat. Cool.

Long term cold exposure  stimulates the growth of brown fat. Each shower also stimulates those fat cells into action generating heat to warm you back up, so you are literally burning fat to keep you warm while you shower. I won’t overstate it though, this benefit is probably only a few pounds a year from cold showers alone.

Improved Insulin Sensitivity

More brown fat improves your insulin sensitivity, which is a very good thing. Type II diabetes is caused by decreased insulin sensitivity. The authors of the paper above suggest that increasing your brown fat may be a promising therapeutic strategy for treating both diabetes and obesity. Even if you’re not concerned about diabetes, higher insulin sensitivity is still a good thing.

Reduces Fatigue

Cold stress has been shown to reduce the level of serotonin in most regions of the brain, which would be consistent with reduced fatigue according to animal models of exercise-related fatigue. Source.

Better Immune System

Acute cold exposure (like a cold shower) is used in Siberia as a preventative measure against illnesses. Of course, being Siberia, they just run outside in swim wear and dump a bucket of water over their heads. It’d be funny if it didn’t work but for those that practice what they call ‘dousing’, 95% go through the flu season without getting sick compared to 75% of the others.

I should mention that the example I have is on children aged 2 – 6. If a six year old can do it you probably can too.

Additionally, from this paper, ‘there is accumulating evidence that daily brief cold stress can increase both numbers and activity of peripheral cytotoxic T lymphocyctes and natural killer cells, the major effectors of adaptive and innate tumor immunity.’ Basically, the paper hypothesizes that brief cold-water stress every day for months could enhance anti-tumor immunity and improve survival rates for non-lymphoid cancer.

Improve your cancer outcome just by turning the shower knob to the right instead of the left…maybe.

Keeps Skin and Hair Healthy

Hot water dries out your skin and hair. Cold water closes your cuticles and pores, which can make your hair shinier and your skin look healthier. Pretty simple.

Increase Testosterone

Cold exposure has been shown to increase testosterone production, at least in men. In addition to increasing libido, higher testosterone levels boost overall strength and energy levels.

And More…

For a whole host of other benefits, read through this medical article that cites many many other studies and reviews concerning hydrotherapy (water-based therapy). It’s not exclusively about cold exposure, but a large part of the article covers that topic.

My Own Experience

Anecdotally I’ve experienced few of the benefits above (since it’d be a bit difficult to measure, and a month is too short anyways) but I know that the cold showers make me feel better. After taking one, I feel refreshed in a way that I don’t feel after a hot shower. I am noticeably warmer the rest of the day, so I’m more comfortable with a lower temperature in my apartment.

I also feel calmer and more aware of the present moment. It’s similar to the clarity that comes after a meditation session, in fact I’ve taken to doing my daily meditation after my shower most days to compound the effect. It seems to be related to the meditation practice in that it forces you to be aware of the present during the uncomfortableness of the shower, whereas in meditation the clarity of the present is done through focus.

From taking cold showers relatively consistently over the past month, I can say that I actually have started to prefer taking non-hot showers rather than hot showers. Occasionally I just want to take a hot shower and revel in the warmth, so I do, but most days I take a cool/chilly shower and occasionally a truly cold one.

How, You Ask?

Taking a cold shower is the simplest thing in the world. Get in the shower, and turn it on to full cold. Make sure you’re standing under the nozzle, and just keep pushing through the shivering, hyperventilating phase until it passes.

Have fun with that.

While that might be a good test of fortitude to do occasionally, it sucks. It forces you to us a lot of willpower to go through with it, and I’ve found a much easier way.

Here’s the routine I’ve taken up for shower time:

  1. [Optional] Warm Up. Taking a cold shower after getting warm, from a workout or just a few quick pushups, jumping jacks, or squats, is a lot easier than jumping in right out of bed.
  2. Turn on the shower.
  3. Get the temperature just cold enough for you to stand in without shivering. Over time you’ll be able to jump in to a colder and colder shower, so know your own tolerance.
  4. Jump in and get wet. Only after you’re wet all over do you turn the temperature down more, it’s much easier that way.
  5. While soaping/rinsing everything, continue to turn down the temp in little increments as you adapt.
  6. Continue step 5 until finished washing.
  7. If you still have a little time left, turn the temp all the way down and stay there until you adapt to it.

Keeping the temperature just under your comfort level promotes adaptation to the stressor, which is what we’re going for. After a month I am noticeably much faster at adapting to extreme cold and more comfortable starting out at a much colder temperature setting.

Eventually the goal is to be able to start on full cold and enjoy it, but it’s much easier to work up to it than to go full blast. I’m a big proponent of taking little steps in the right direction without going full bore and risking burn out. Habits that are painful are very difficult to start and stick with, and the protocol above makes this one easy.

The other thing that I do is timing. I want to take a 5 minute cold shower, but just setting an alarm would be boring.

So I just shower to music.

I listen to “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore. The version on Spotify is 4 minutes and 57 seconds long, perfect for timing a 5 minute shower. Plus, hopefully the refrain of ‘Ain’t It Fun’ will sink in and condition me into believing I’m having fun. The official version on YouTube is here, but it is over a minute shorter.

Regardless, that’s just my choice. Go ahead and pick your own song(s) to listen to. What was very helpful for me during the first few painful showers was also having a set-up song to pick me up beforehand, and a finale song to cue me for when I finished. (I queued up “Fuck You” by Lily Allen to play when I was done so I could get good and mad if I wanted.)

A Warning: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on the internet. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about health complications. This is especially important if you have heart problems, since I do know that acute cold exposure can exacerbate existing heart conditions.

Photo by Pascal Montsma