For the past 30 days, I have not moved the temperature control lever on my shower. It is pointed permanently to the right (the coldest setting) as I submerge my reluctant body for 2 – 4 invigorating minutes under streaming frigid water each day.
Why would I voluntarily subject myself to this daily ritual of discomfort, especially during winter?
The Iceman Cometh
My interest in cold showers started when I came across a podcast interview with one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever encountered: a Dutch adventurer-athlete named Wim Hof.
Decades ago, while dealing with depression after his wife’s suicide, he somehow found relief by swimming in the ice-cold canals in his native Netherlands, leading to his now well-documented feats of cold exposure combined with deep breathing techniques.
He has set Guinness World Records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes, and nearly reached Mt. Everest’s summit, climbing 23,600 feet shirtless until a foot injury forced him to quit.
As amazing as these feats are, it is Wim’s insistence that these seemingly superhuman abilities are available to virtually anyone willing to learn them that have made his techniques, known as the Wim Hof Method, an instant hit among nascent biohackers and fitness buffs…like me.
Hormesis: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
Wim Hof’s teachings illuminate the vast array of health benefits that result from exposure to temperatures far outside of our comfort zone of 68-72 degrees.
It’s part of a biological phenomenon known as hormesis, which describes how small doses of toxic or stressful stimuli that would be lethal in higher doses can have a beneficial effect, such as improved health, stress tolerance, and longevity.
It’s the principle behind exercise, vaccines, and other forms of disease treatment and wellness protocols. And thanks to Wim Hof, some of the most popular and well-documented research in hormesis has revolved around cold exposure.
As I began to read more about cold water immersion and other hormetic practices, I wasn’t surprised to discover similar rituals of cold exposure in antiquity.
The ancient Greeks, for example, were known to finish hot baths with a plunge into a cold bath. 18th Century figures like Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson also practiced cold water bathing to relieve depression and maintain wellness. And in Scandinavia, “avantouinti” or ice hole swimming is a rich cultural tradition.
Despite the mounting evidence and growing popularity among health enthusiasts, I understand that converting to cold showers is, for most people, a tough sell. So what would it take to convince you to eschew the comfort of a nice hot morning shower and come over to the cold side? Here are 5 proven benefits to consider:
1. A Stronger Immune System. Exposure to cold water triggers a release of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, which resets your white blood cell counts, enabling your immune system to function at a high level. Studies have shown that regular cold exposure (90 seconds or longer) keeps white cells optimally regulated.
2. Improved Circulation and Detoxification. When you immerse your body in cold water, the blood rushes to surround your vital organs in an effort to keep them warm. Your heart is then forced to pump more efficiently, pushing blood through all your vessels and supplying every part of your body with the oxygen and nutrients it needs. Doing this on a routine basis can help promote healthy blood circulation and a healthy body.
3. Increase in Brown Fat. Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is a special kind of body fat that helps you produce heat when you get cold. It’s what prevents hypothermia when skiing or walking in an icy wind. What makes brown fat special is that it contains many more mitochondria than white fat. These mitochondria are the “engines” in brown fat that burn calories to produce heat. By increasing the amount of brown fat, consistent cold exposure ramps up the number of calories you burn and actually converts unwanted white fat to brown fat.
4. Skin and Hair Care. When the cold water hits your skin, the initial jolt you feel constricts blood vessels to temporarily close pores, which reduces redness and detoxifies your skin. It also tightens the cuticles in your scalp to better anchor your hair, which can reduce hair loss.
5. Builds Resilience. Let’s face it: We live in an age of addiction to comfort and self-indulgence. For many, making the daily decision to swim against the currents of mediocrity by leaning into discomfort builds an inner strength that translates into other areas of life. For example, choosing to work out over binge-watching TV, having that difficult conversation instead of putting it off, or rising early to pray or meditate instead of sleeping in. Something as simple as a cold shower can fortify your mental, physical and spiritual capacity. Life never ceases to present challenges; you either adapt and grow or you settle for less.
Finally, perhaps the biggest and most immediate benefit from a cold shower is you will feel totally energized, thanks to the stress hormone release that simulates an adrenaline rush, leaving you alert, focused, and ready for anything.
Have I convinced you to give cold showers a try? Here’s a simple challenge: For the next 5 days, try finishing your normal shower with 30 seconds of cold. Give it a try and send me your feedback.
And in my next post, I’ll share other popular practices that harness the principle of hormesis to revitalize your health, boost your energy and increase your mental and physical stamina!