While people will regularly seek out new and innovative ways to improve their health and physical performance, one much older method that often gets overlooked is cold therapy.
While many will have seen pictures of athletes submerged in ice baths, most will have decided it looks too unpleasant to warrant any further investigation.
That is truly unfortunate, as it is an easy to use technique that offers a huge range of health and fitness advantages.
For anyone who is considering giving it a try, perhaps the best way to start is with a cold plunge.
Easier to both execute and bare than some other options, it is a great way to ease yourself into cold therapy and all the benefits it offers.
That is why I want to give you a comprehensive guide to the complete list of cold plunge benefits.
I will outline everything from how they work to what you can hope to achieve by performing them. This should ensure everyone has all the tools they need to give cold therapy a try for themselves.
What Is Cold Water Therapy?
Cold water therapy is a process where you completely immerse your body in cold water that is below 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius).
This activates many of the body’s systems and provides natural healing abilities to help offer relief from chronic illnesses and their symptoms.
What Does A 2 minute Cold Plunge Do?
When you perform a 2 minute cold plunge, the cold water instantly numbs the nerves around your joints and muscles.
This causes hormones and endorphins to be released, which provides immediate benefits, like relief from joint pain and inflammation, as well as enhanced recovery of muscle strains.
What Temperature Is A Cold Plunge?
While anything below 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) is considered a cold plunge, the optimal temperature for the process is between 45 °F (7 °C) degrees and 55 °F degrees (12-13 C°).
How Do Cold Plunges Affect the Body?
The shock brought on by the cold water in a cold plunge affects your body and its various systems in a number of ways.
It puts your circulatory system into overdrive, increases blood flow, constricts blood vessels, and improves the circulation of blood near your skin and vital organs.
When you exit a cold plunge tub, the blood vessels re-open, improving circulation and helping to flush out parts of the immune system.
These effects can sometimes be replicated using a combination of hot and cold showers as well.
Physical Benefits Of Cold Plunges
We will look first at the various physical benefits of cold plunges.
These are the benefits that directly affect how our body works and feels and are the most notable when it comes to improving our ability to complete daily tasks or physical activities.
Promotes Effective Blood Circulation & Heart Health
Exposure to cold temperatures causes the effects of the circulatory system to ramp up significantly, leading to a notable increase in blood flow.
This will not only help to reduce inflammation and boost recovery and the functions of your other systems but also helps to improve the health of the heart.
This makes it a great option for preventing cardiovascular disease and hypertension or relieving the symptoms and reversing the conditions in people who have already developed them.
A study of people who engaged in regular swimming sessions in cold water below 41 °F (5 °C) showed it had a positive effect on many of the body’s functions, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems, as well as the brain and psyche.
Alleviates Muscle Strains And Enhances Recovery
Studies conducted have attributed this largely to the increased flow of oxygenated blood they produce.
The icy water prompts your central nervous system to constrict the blood vessels in your arms and legs, forcing the warm blood to your vital organs.
Then, when you get out of the water, your blood vessels dilate, causing the blood to flood back to the muscle tissue in your extremities and skin.
This not only speeds up muscular recovery and reduces muscle soreness but also provides a great workout for the blood vessels, helping to make them stronger in the long run.
These effects can be further accelerated by taking a warm shower after exiting the cold plunge.
Helps Provide Joint Pain Relief & Reduces Inflammation
Lowering the temperature of the body with a cold plunge is a great way to reduce inflammation.
This leads to a significant relief from joint pain, making it incredibly beneficial for people with conditions like arthritis, and also creates a much more suitable environment in which for healing to occur.
On top of the anti-inflammatory benefits of cold plunges, a study of people with arthritis found that they achieved a better quality of sleep when subjected to cold water treatment.
This led to these patients having lower pain levels than those in the control group, as healing occurs during sleep.
Stimulates Hair Follicles & Improves Health Of Nails And Skin
The increased blood flow caused by cold plunges helps nourish and activate hair follicles, helping to make hair thicker and grow faster, preventing hair loss, and even encouraging regrowth in some cases.
This has been shown to be particularly effective in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and they will often be given an ice cap as a result.
The cold can also reduce the size of your pores, tighten your skin, and limit the amount of oils the pores secrete.
This can help to prevent greasy hair and bouts of acne, while keeping your hair and skin healthy, moisturised, and smooth.
This improved skin health, combined with the paralyzing of nerves caused by the cold also make it an effective treatment or method of prevention for issues like hives, eczema, and chronic itching, as well as various other skin conditions.
Helps To Lower High Blood Pressure
By improving the efficiency of blood flow and the circulatory system, cold plunges help to decrease your heart rate which, in turn, can help to lower blood pressure.
A study on patients suffering with high blood pressure found that even submersion in water as warm as 68 °F (20 °C) could decrease heart rate and blood pressure by up to 12%, with the results becoming even more dramatic when lower temperatures were used.
Provides Immune System Support
When the human body tries to rapidly warm itself up during exposure to extremely low temperatures, the metabolic rate dramatically increases and activates the immune system.
This then leads to a significant increase in the production of the white blood cells that fight diseases.
A study of people who regularly swim in cold water, below 65 °F (18 °C), found that they had improved immune responses, higher levels of leucocytes, monocytes, and stress hormones, and experienced notably fewer infections than those who performed no form of cold therapy.
Studies also showed that these results were enhanced in people who undertook cold therapy regularly, as opposed to occasionally, while they also had better antioxidant responses and could deal with oxidative stress more efficiently.
Elevates Lymphatic Circulation
The lymphatic system is a network of vessels located throughout the human body which transport waste bacteria, toxins, and many other harmful substances away from your cells.
Poor lymphatic functioning can quickly lead to a constant cycle of aches, illnesses, and infections.
The lymphatic system relies on the contraction of muscles to circulate fluids around the body and remove these toxins.
As a cold plunge causes muscles throughout the body to contract, it gives a huge boost to the lymphatic system, significantly enhancing the removal of waste products.
Activates Brown Fat & Encourages Weight Loss
During periods when the body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures, a substance known as brown fat or brown adipose tissue (BAT) is activated.
This stimulates a process called thermogenesis, which raises the internal temperature of the body.
During thermogenesis, oxidation of the body’s fat cells dramatically increases, with studies showing fat can be burned twice as quickly in this state.
This occurs as fat is required to produce energy to allow your body to continue producing the additional heat it needs.
It makes using a cold plunge a great way to enhance weight loss, particularly when combined with a good diet, exercise, and sleep routine.
There is even evidence to suggest that regular usage of cold plunges can help to convert bad white fat into good brown fat, enhancing this effect even further.
Another of the benefits of activating your brown adipose tissue stores with cold plunges is that it can enhance your metabolic rate.
Your metabolism is the process by which your body converts the fats, carbs, and proteins in the food you eat into energy.
Studies show that cold plunges can increase your metabolic rate by as much as 93%.
This can be beneficial for weight loss, energy production, and preventing weight gain, as well as providing an efficient transport of nutrients to fuel your muscles and help them grow.
Other benefits of an effective metabolism include balancing your blood glucose levels and increasing insulin sensitivity, both of which are important for your overall health and fitness.
Elevates Energy Levels
Performing a cold plunge can increase the secretion of a hormone known as norepinephrine, which offers a number of benefits to the human body, one of which is energy production.
When you combine the greater presence of this hormone with the more efficient flow of nutrients produced when your metabolism is enhanced, it makes cold plunges and other forms of cold therapy a great way to boost your energy levels and enhance your exercise performance.
Helps Make Your Body More Resilient
Exposing your body to extreme temperatures has been shown to make it more resilient, as it is forced to adapt to the initial stimulus, to prevent you from going into shock.
This is true of both extreme heat and extreme cold.
Performing regular cold plunges will force your body to become stronger, due to a process known as hormesis.
This means that, over time, you’ll gradually be able to withstand more extreme temperatures without feeling pain or discomfort, increasing your tolerance and resilience.
Improves Lung Health
The first time you perform a cold plunge you will likely experience breathlessness, due to a combination of the extreme temperature and holding your breath when you submerge your head.
Over time, your lungs will adapt, helping you to feel less breathless each time and plunge for longer.
Studies have shown that this can lead to an improvement in your lung health and lung function. This will help make day to day activities easier and can notably improve your exercise performance, particularly when performing extremely intense physical activities.
Mental Benefits Of Cold Plunges
We will now move on to looking at the mental benefits of cold plunges.
These are the benefits that improve your cognitive abilities and the way you feel within yourself, rather than your physical health or capabilities.
Treats Depression Symptoms & Elevates Mood
The use of cold plunges is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system, elevating the levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline in your blood, while also increasing the synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain as well.
Low levels of norepinephrine have been shown to be a major cause of depression and other mental health issues, while heightened levels have been proven to energise the brain and make it more alert.
Many antidepressants are even based on compounds that boost norepinephrine production.
The benefits to mood occur as the peripheral nerve endings in the numerous cold receptors in the skin send a plethora of electrical impulses to the brain.
By doing this, you can alleviate many of the symptoms of depression, resulting in a happier, healthier, more relaxed mental state.
During a cold plunge, you will also achieve increased stimulation of the vagus nerve.
This will decrease sympathetic activity and increase parasympathetic activity, leading to longer term improvements in mood, as well as greater pain management, resilience, and wellbeing.
Improves Mental Clarity, Discipline & Focus
When exposed to extreme temperatures, your brain goes into survival mode and focuses solely on the situation at hand, clearing everything else from your mind.
It also stimulates the release of the hormone norepinephrine, which enhances attention and focus, among other things.
By performing cold plunges on a regular basis, you can learn to channel this singlemindedness and transfer it to other areas of your life.
This can improve everything from your physical performance and mental health to various other aspects of your daily life and overall health.
It has also been shown to elevate the production of certain proteins that have neuroprotective properties.
These can not only boost your mental clarity in the short term but can also be used to both treat and prevent degenerative neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The activation of your sympathetic nervous system that occurs when you first take a cold plunge puts your body in a state of stress.
While this is bad in the short term, it also causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become stronger, in order to combat the issue.
As the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for functions like rest and relaxation, it is vital for helping you to destress.
The stronger it becomes, the more control you will gain over it, meaning you can consciously activate it to help you deal with periods of mental stress.
It will also help you to improve your autonomic nervous system and boost your heart rate variability, meaning your body is better prepared to combat stressful situations, even without your conscious intervention.
Boosts Your Quality Of Sleep
One of the most common causes of poor sleep is elevated cortisol levels, which is also known to cause weight gain.
As cortisol is a hormone that is released when you are stressed, the stress relieving benefits mentioned above can help to improve your quality of sleep at the same time.
By regularly taking cold plunges, you will have better control over your mind, enabling you to relax, drift off to sleep much faster, and then experience a deeper sleep.
Performing a cold plunge shortly before bed can also add the destressing benefits of the autonomic nervous system as well, leading to an even greater quality of sleep.
Cold Plunge FAQS
Before we conclude our comprehensive guide to the complete list of cold plunge benefits, I want to answer some of the most frequently asked questions people have about cold plunges.
This will hopefully ensure no one is left unclear or with any lingering questions when we are done.
How Long Should You Stay In A Cold Plunge?
While some studies show that as little as 2 to 3 minutes in a cold plunge can be beneficial, around 10 minutes is seen as the optimal duration.
15 minutes is deemed to be the absolute max, as your body will have acclimatised, so the benefits will begin to stop, while the plunge itself will start to warm up.
A study of cyclists who experienced soreness in their lower body muscles after a strenuous training session found they recovered much faster when they took a 10-minute cold plunge straight after exercising.
How Often Should I Take A Cold Plunge?
It is believed that there are benefits to be obtained from taking a cold plunge every day, while there are also no known issues with doing this.
A daily cold plunge can increase your norepinephrine production and keep your levels maxed out, ensuring your attention, focus, and energy levels remain at their peak.
Does A Cold Plunge Burn Fat?
Cold plunges have been shown to encourage the development and activation of brown fat, which boosts our body’s rate of thermogenesis.
This increases your level of calorie burning, before moving to the stubborn white fat stores to source additional energy to continue the process.
This makes cold plunges a great way to burn fat and lose weight at a much faster rate than usual.
Can A Cold Plunge Make You Sick?
A healthy, sober adult should be able to safely perform a regular cold plunge without experiencing any adverse side effects.
This is because the length of a normal cold plunge won’t be long enough to cause the core temperature of your body to drop too far.
This is, of course, assuming you stick to the average “safe” recommendations of being immersed for no more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time, at a temperature between 50°F and 59°F (10°C and 15°C).
Those who exceed these ranges do put themselves at risk of complications such as hypothermia or frostbite.
Hyperventilating is also possible, so it is important to focus on your breathing and also makes it a good idea to have someone else around the first few times you perform a cold plunge, in case you faint or pass out.
When Is The Best Time To Perform A Cold Plunge?
The best time to perform a cold plunge can depend on the exact benefits you are trying to achieve from it.
For most people, first thing in the morning is the ideal time to take a cold plunge, as it helps to wake you up and make you alert, setting you up for the day in the best way possible.
However, if you are hoping to utilise its sleep boosting properties, the best time to take a cold plunge is right before bed.
This will make the most of its relaxation benefits, helping you to drift off quickly and achieve a deep, high quality of sleep.
Does Your Entire Body Need To Be Submerged In A Cold Plunge?
While you don’t need to have 100% of your body submerged throughout a cold plunge, it is important to submerge as much of it as you can if you are going to reap all of the benefits.
Many people will choose to keep their head above the water when they use a cold plunge, as it is more comfortable, both in terms of temperature and ability to breathe.
However, if possible, it is a good idea to try and submerge your head for at least some of the time you are in the cold plunge.
Does Cold Water Therapy Tighten The Skin?
Cold water tightens and constricts the blood vessels in your extremities, before dilating and flooding the areas with an elevated flow of blood after you exit the cold plunge.
It also closes the pores, preventing them from secreting too much oil, which can lead to spots and blemishes.
This allows cold plunges to help give your skin a tighter, firmer, more supple appearance and a healthier glow.
Cold Plunge Vs Ice Bath: What Is The Difference?
An ice bath is literally a bathtub or similar vessel filled with ice, while a cold plunge can be anything where you can submerge your body in water below a certain temperature.
This means that, while an ice bath can be considered a cold plunge, a cold plunge doesn’t necessarily mean an ice bath.
Ice baths are among the most extreme type of cold plunges, as they will feature temperatures at the very lowest end of the range that is considered safe.
While this means they are able to offer the full benefits of cold plunges, it also means they should be reserved for more experienced users.
Cold plunges are an incredibly effective way to optimise many of your bodily functions and systems, with barely any negatives or drawbacks.
As they are also extremely easy to perform, there is no reason why virtually everyone can’t make the most of their benefits.
Sure, they certainly aren’t the most appealing activity to undertake, particularly if you have never done one before.
However, once you get over the initial fear and shock of the process, even the most ardent disbelievers will simply have to admit just how incredible this activity is.
Now that you know all of the ins and outs of this tried and true method of making the most of cold therapy, you are fully prepared to give it a try for yourself.
You could even consider combining it with a sauna blanket, to build a cycle that takes advantage of both hot and cold therapies.
While you can simply use a bathtub, those who want to take their cold plunging seriously should consider purchasing a dedicated home cold plunge.
For those who aren’t sure what they are looking at, our top pick is the Renu Therapy Cold Plunge.
Steve is a retired professional wrestler with over 10 years of experience in the personal fitness industry. He is a certified personal trainer working with a wide variety of athletes as well as a fitness writer.