With the popularity of cold therapy recently, I receive questions on a daily basis. I decided to dive into this topic a bit further for this month’s featured article.  

The Wim Hof Method includes exposing one’s body to cold temperatures as one of its three pillars.  Wim Hof is a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete, also known as The Iceman.  He held the Guinness book of world record for the longest swim under ice, prolonged full body contact with ice and holds the record for a barefoot half marathon on snow and ice.  He claims his ability to expose himself to extreme cold conditions is due to his practicing with The Wim Hof Method, a combination of cold exposure, breathing techniques and meditation.  

Cold exposure has been very popular lately due to the linked health benefits.  Some of the health benefits include the following:

Increased metabolism– one of the ways this is done is through increased thermogenesis or the production of brown fat.  Brown fat is stimulated by cold exposure right before you start shivering.  As brown fat is stimulated, it starts the process of thermogenesis, increased heat production, which essentially causes more calories to be burned- thus producing heat to keep your core body temperature from dropping and increasing metabolism, which helps in weight loss.  

Reduces inflammation/swelling- It is well known that exercise increases muscular inflammation/swelling.  The addition of cold therapy post exercise will cause blood vessels to constrict, limiting the amount of blood to the damaged tissue and decreasing inflammation.  What is unclear, is how much inflammation is needed to help in muscle hypertrophy.  The research shows that chronic inflammation has a negative effect, however, there is unclear research on the effects of short term inflammatory responses and its necessity on the muscular effects of exercise (muscular growth or cardiovascular endurance).  

Reduces the pain associated with sore muscles – As per the above explanation, soreness occurs as a result of microdamage to muscular fibers and the production of inflammatory markers released during exercise.  Some of these inflammatory markers stimulate nerve endings resulting in the sensation of pain (produced in the brain) or soreness associated with working out.  Cold therapy may diminish the release of these inflammatory markers or help in the elimination of chemicals from the damaged muscle tissue and thus diminished muscle soreness.  

Improved sleep quality – Cold exposure increases the release of melatonin in your brain, which helps regulate your 24 hour sleep cycle or Circadian rhythm, helping with inducing sleep and better regulation

Improved focus– Cold exposure has been shown to increase the reaction of hormones, also termed hermetic stress.  This makes our brain more sensitive to endorphins, increasing the production of neurotransmitters, in particular, norepinephrine, which is responsible for several chemical reactions in the body, including focus, attention, vigilance and mood, increasing tolerance to stress.  

Improved immune response – Some believe that exposure to cold shocks your body’s infection fighting cells, leukocytes into becoming more active and therefore, may help fight off infection.  However, there are others that believe cold exposure makes these cells more sluggish, allowing infection to take over.  There is a belief that not covering up when it is cold, will cause you to become sick.  I treated a veteran Navy Seal while in chiropractic college.  Upon talking about the cold weather and me telling him to bundle up, he told me “That’s not true”!  He told me that he took part in many extreme cold operations and not once did he get sick.  There needs to be a pathogen present inorder for you to get sick.  

Higher energy levels – Cold exposure stimulates many nerves sending impulses to your brain, giving a jolt of electrical activity increasing clarity, alertness and energy levels.  

Relief of symptoms from autoimmune diseases- there have been many studies done looking at the effect of cold exposure on autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis (MS).  Mice with MS when exposed to cold were shown to have decreased MS symptoms, mainly neuroinflammatory reactions, as a result of protein complexes on monocytes (a type of white blood cell) being down regulated to prevent the resultant neuroinflammation.

Want to try Cold Exposure?  Here are some tips from a non-expert!

There is no need to purchase expensive tanks if you are just starting out with cold therapy.  

  • Start with a cold shower.  If you have not done any cold therapy in the past, try turning the temperature down at the end of your shower.  Count to 30, or whatever number of seconds you can withstand.  
  • Increase the time slightly as you feel ready to do so.
  • Once you can hold for 2min, you might want to change it up by submerging yourself in a tub with cold water with or without ice.  
  • Keep progressing slowly with time.  
  • Other options to try: Cold lake, cryochamber (available at some spas) or cold water submersion tub/bucket.  
  • Read more at wimhofmethod.com    

Please note:  Cold water exposure is not for everyone.  I am not an expert in this area.  If you have a medical condition where cold therapy is not recommended, please discuss further with your healthcare providers prior to trying these recommendations.