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Think Ice Baths Are Absurd? These 4 Health Benefits Could Change Your Mind

Proven benefits of ice baths.

Cold showers and ice baths are both examples of cold water immersion, a practice that Charles Tabone, ND, a naturopathic practitioner with Pause Studio, tells mbg has “been around for millennia.”

Though uncomfortable, exposure to cold water under these circumstances (safely in a tub or pool or body of water) acts as a positive stressor that causes the body to go beyond its reactive instincts, and, rather, adapt physically and cognitively.

“When shocked with a drastic temperature change, various signaling proteins are produced, which can also cause numerous systemic effects,” Tabone explains. In other words, the shock of cold causes the brain to signal to other parts of the body that it’s under stress and needs to respond accordingly.

Tabone says this can result in the production of mitochondria (membrane-covered structures that generate the chemical energy cells need to perform specific functions), an increase in a person’s resting metabolism (how many calories the body burns at rest), and/or the release of endorphins (aka happy hormones). There are also mental benefits to taking ice baths, Tabone adds.

Here are the health benefits of ice baths that have been the most extensively studied in scientific research:

1.

Aid in muscle recovery post-workout.

You might want to consider adding ice baths to your post-workout routine. According to a 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine, cold water exposure proved beneficial for muscle recovery. Lalitha McSorley, PT, a physical therapist at Brentwood Physio not involved in the study, explains that the research presented in the analysis showed positive results “for muscle strength, perceived recovery, and reduced muscle soreness,” as the drop in temperature reduces creatine kinases, reducing the effects of an injury.

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2.

Reduce stress

Taking a dip in an ice bath can also help reduce taxing emotions like stress and anxiety. “A study1 published in the journal JMIR Formative Research found that cold temperatures during immersion bath can stimulate your vagus nerve,” Laura DeCesaris, a functional medicine expert tells mbg, adding that “stimulation of this nerve has been shown to help you relax and destress.”

3.

Improve sleep.

Taking an ice bath definitely wakes the body up at that moment, but one randomized study2, in which the nocturnal core body temperature, sleep, and heart rate variability was assessed in male athletes, found that those instructed to wholly immerse themselves in an ice bath after running on a treadmill clocked in better quality sleep.

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4.

Support mood.

Taking a dip in freezing cold water might not sound like a mood-boosting activity, but science says otherwise. Studies show that cold water immersion triggers the release of a variety of neurotransmitters3, among them dopamine, a happy hormone that elicits feelings of pleasure.

Unproven benefits of ice baths.

There are still a handful of benefits of ice baths that have yet to be scientifically proven. Cold water immersion method’s powers to improve your overall skin appearance and aid in weight loss as two of the biggest speculations to date.

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1.

Improved skin appearance.

The jury’s still out on whether or not taking ice baths should be part of your skincare routine. That said, DeCesaris is quick to remind us those blood vessels in the skin do constrict with cold exposure, which “starts a signal to promote blood circulation.” Then, when you get out of the cold plunge, your vessels dilate, giving your skin a glow. Because of this, DeCesaris says it’s theorized that ice baths can “reduce skin inflammation and wrinkle appearance over time.”

2.

Weight loss.

Cold immersion does increase metabolism, and there is some data4 that suggests ongoing cold exposure can help convert white fat to more metabolically healthy brown fat. However, “more data needs to be seen as to possible long-term metabolic impacts of cold immersion over time,” DeCesaris tells mbg. “One session here or there is likely not frequent enough to have a significant impact on body composition or metabolism.”

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What’s next for ice bath benefit research?

There are many unanswered questions about ice baths just waiting to be rigorously researched. One that DeCesaris is most interested in is the effect of cold plunging on menstruation, and whether it is most beneficial to spend more or less time in the water, depending on the menstrual cycle phase.

“Since we know the hormone profile of women is changing throughout a cycle, it would be prudent, I think, for women to see how they feel trying cold water immersion early in their cycle versus later,” DeCesaris tells mbg. “Women can be more prone to higher cortisol and less resilience leading up to their period, and a cold plunge may ‘feel’ more difficult here. I’d love to see a body of research on this in the future.”

Ice bath how-to.

When gearing up for your first ice bath, it’s important to remember that, physical discomfort aside, it’s largely a mental obstacle. To prepare, Tabone suggests leaning into that mental game, and viewing it as such, with barriers to overcome.

“Start with the commitment to get in, then with the act of calming the physiological response to the cold,” he says. “[Once you’ve jumped those hurdles], focus on the ability to maintain parasympathetic tone” (a state of relaxation) “and lastly, the willpower to remain for a few more breaths after your brain tells you to get out.”

How long should you ice bath for?

Good news: You don’t need to wade in a pool of ice water for very long to reap the benefits of this method of cold water immersion. Tabone tells mbg a general guideline is to work your way up to 10-15 minutes of exposure per week, divided over three to five sessions.

So…. how uncomfortable is ice bathing?

It’s almost impossible to gauge what the average person’s discomfort level will be when they are submerged in a tub full of ice water because every person is different–both mentally and physically.

House of Athlete medical director Jordan Shallow, D.C. likens it to attempting to lift a weight you’re not strong enough to lift: It could cause injury. “Cold exposure is no different,” Shallow tells mbg. “It’s easy to objectify weights in a gym, and have a ballpark idea of what we are capable of lifting, but most of us don’t have an established baseline for what temperatures we are capable of withstanding.”

The best way for beginners to safely get started, Shallow says, is to focus on their breathing: “A good rule of thumb is exposing yourself to temperatures that don’t exceed your current capacity to go through a full inhalation and most importantly, exhalation.”

Once you have a baseline, you can gradually work your way up to longer and colder baths. Use a little bit of ice during your first bath, then add more to your third bath, then a little more to your fourth bath, and so on, “decreasing the water temperature as your tolerance to the cold builds,” McSorley says.

Where to take an ice bath.

At home: The most budget-friendly way to take an ice bath is in the comfort of your own home. If you have a bathtub, fill it with cold water and add as many ice cubes as you’d like/can tolerate. No tub? McSorely tells mbg there are also companies that sell barrels and cold plunge tubs specifically for ice baths and that she’s even heard of people “converting large garbage bins into ice bath containers.” An inflatable pool would also work!A facility that offers ice baths as an amenity: Think spas and health clubs.Take a dip in a body of water like an ocean or lake. No tub? No problem. If you live in close proximity to a natural body of water, Tabone says it may be possible to safely get cold exposure in nature, depending on the climate and time of year.

Do cold showers count?

Cold showers are another method of cold water exposure, but they’re not one and the same as ice baths. Depending on the time of year and your geographic location, Tabone says showers might not be able to get as cold as ice baths. What’s more, ice baths offer full body submersion, therefore maximizing the surface area of the body that is exposed to the cool temperature, whereas shower streams do not. But if you want to start getting some of the benefits of cold exposure, start off with making your shower water ice cold for 30 seconds, working your way up to 3 minutes.

Side effects.

Ice baths aren’t for everyone, and I don’t just mean in the figurative sense. DeCesaris suggests anyone with circulation issues or diseases, peripheral vascular disease, who is or may be pregnant, who has a history of frostbite, who has open wounds, who’s had recent surgeries or heart problems consult with a doctor before taking an ice bath.

That said, even those who are cleared by a professional to practice cold water immersion need to be aware of its side effects. For example, even if you are capable of staying in the bath for long periods of time, DeCesaris warns that prolonged exposure to the cold can put you at risk for hypothermia or frostbite. Prolonged exposure can also lead to heart palpitations and other cardiovascular events, DeCesaris notes, as ice can “constrict the blood vessels, raise the heart rate and stress hormones.” If you start to experience any of these symptoms, it’s a sign to cut back.

FAQs

Is it OK to take an ice bath every day?

Experts seem to agree that if you’re in good health, there’s no harm in hopping in an ice bath for a few minutes every day. It’s more or less a question of whether or not taking an ice bath every day is necessary to reap its benefits, but more research has to be done on the topic.

Are ice baths dangerous?

“Any extreme temperature exposure can be dangerous if a person isn’t equipped to handle it,” DeCesaris states. However, if you’re healthy and understand your limits, taking an ice bath is not considered dangerous.

Are ice baths scientifically proven?

Research suggests that ice baths can help improve sleep, mood, and recovery, but more data needs to be collected on using ice baths for skin health and weight loss.

The takeaway.

While more research needs to be done on the subject, there are some scientifically backed health benefits to reap from ice baths. That said, cold water exposure can present some risks, so it’s important to talk to your doctor before giving it a try. Ready to take the plunge? These cold tubs can help you get started.

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