Finding Balance in the Cold
Exploring the Therapeutic Benefits of Cold Exposure
The idea of plunging into cold water isn’t overly appealing to many. In today’s world, people prioritize comfort, so why would someone willingly make themself uncomfortable? When this question is directed to those who make cold exposure part of their daily routine, you will find, not only is it something they enjoy, it is something they crave – a natural high, a clear mind, and a dose of energy to jump start their day.
Cold exposure as therapy is not new, however, over the years this activity has become increasingly popular, largely due to Wim Hof whose method of cold exposure involves breath work, commitment, and controlled exposure to cold, which has led to more scientific studies on the health benefits of this practice. According to Dr. Susana Søberg’s research, if you immerse yourself in cold water you reset your nervous system and to achieve this, you only need to stay in for 11 minutes per week. When you step into the cold water, the contrast of the quick temperature change sends the body into a state of stress that then reboots your nervous system. Although we have placed the idea of ‘stress’ as a negative state, stress is good for our bodies. Through Hormesis, that exposure to the extreme shock from the cold helps to build stress resilience, making challenges you may encounter throughout the rest of the day not feel as intense or anxiety inducing.
In colder climates, the idea of doing hot and cold circuits isn’t a fad, it is part of a normal routine. In Finland, for example, we know of their high esteem towards sauna culture but part of this heat exposure is paired with cold exposure, whether it’s a cold plunge in the icy lake or rolling around in the snow. According to Dr Susanna Søberg’s research, it doesn’t need to be freezing cold for you to benefit from exposure. Basically, anything colder than your skin temperature will help activate the sympathetic nervous system, and this stimulates and promotes brown fat to develop. Brown fat is something babies have when they are born, to help them keep warm as their muscle tremors aren’t yet developed (they cannot shiver). Described as something between a muscle and a fat, brown fat uses sugar and fat (white fat) to fuel itself and warm up your body. Of course, it is a bit more complex than this, but for a basic explanation of brown fat, you can understand how it works. Yes, in order to activate brown fat, you need extreme temperature exposure but this doesn’t mean diving into freezing cold, ice waters. Simply shocking your body will do the trick, and on warmer days, going for a cool lake swim or jumping in the ocean will activate the benefits - the key is to end your temperature exposure on cold to allow for your body to warm up slowly and naturally if your goal is to increase your metabolism.
“Every time I step into a cold body of water, it is never comfortable. I focus on my breath and after 30 seconds or a minute my body releases and greater depth in my ability to embrace discomfort is found. I then listen to my body and respect it when it tells me it’s time to get out.”
If you talk to cold water dippers, you can get direct insight into the experience. Jessica Wiebe, an artist and cold dipper, has been practicing for three years, “Every time I step into a cold body of water, it is never comfortable. I focus on my breath and after 30 seconds or a minute my body releases and greater depth in my ability to embrace discomfort is found. I then listen to my body and respect it when it tells me it’s time to get out.” She continues on, to detail how much of this experience is based on the breath. After a few years of cold exposure year round, “The resistance has transformed into more of an excitement or anticipation of the weather conditions and the sheer adventure of how I will physically get into the water that day.”
Like everything, practice makes perfect, and with cold exposure, the more you do it, the easier –or more tolerant– you are to the extreme contrast of temperatures. There has to be something to these cold dips or we wouldn’t be seeing so many people around the world posting about their daily or weekly outings into the cold. Like most extreme things, there are ways to go about it safely, in fact, the perfect time to start dipping outdoors is when the season begins to change. Better yet, begin by adding a hit of cold water to end your shower (20-30 seconds and slowly increase time). Ending your heat exposure with cold allows your body to activate and warm up slowly. In other words, you allow your body to do what it is trained to do in a cold situation.
Of course, there are many other benefits to cold exposure: it increases dopamine and noradrenaline, increases circulation, strengthens immune system, builds mental fortitude and helps to calm/balance the nervous systems, increases energy, reduces inflammation, and increases metabolism which can help with weight loss. With all these benefits, and more, it is no wonder this activity has been becoming increasingly popular, and also, when dipping in groups, it becomes a fun social event to be shared. Community is a large part of this practice. For just a minute a day, would you expose yourself to the discomfort of the cold? ■
*If you suffer from any heart conditions, it is not recommended that you dip - always consult a doctor if you have any fears or concerns. It is also important to practice safety when going for a dip: never go alone, listen to your body and don’t push yourself to stay in for a long period of time. Cold exposure is not a time to be competitive with yourself!