The popularity of cold exposure has increased since 2017 in continental Europe, US & Australia through the work of Wim Hof. Whether it is through cryotherapy or cold water immersion more and more people practice and hashtag: #coldexposure. Cold therapy has its roots back in South East Asian yogic traditions and Eastern European-Scandinavian cultures. In this article, I will cover 3 benefits, training with cold offers to those of us living a modern lifestyle.
How old is cold therapy?
The moment you ask this question you realize that cold has been accompanying humans from the very start of our existence. As temperatures in nature constantly fluctuate, humans have been exposed to cold: voluntarily or not for a long time.
From a therapy standpoint, cold exposure is listed in “The Edwin Smith Papyrus” dated 3,500 BC (Wang H et al., 2006). In certain parts of the globe (ie. Russia, Bulgaria, and Scandinavian countries) cold training has been part of the culture, practiced in banya or plunge pools, as well as a standard procedure in hospitals to prevent further damage in patients with cardiovascular (Ref) and neurological conditions (Ref).
In recent years Wim Hof (a dutchman Guinness record holder) popularised cold training through his workshops across the globe. It was my training with Wim in 2016 that initiated my journey in cold exposure.
1. Cold exposure improves Circulation & Cardiovascular Function
Think of cold exposure as a workout for the circulatory system.
Most people think of cardio when it comes to improving their cardiovascular function. Cold exposure though offers a unique way to strengthen one’s cardiovascular system (CVS).
Our cardiovascular system is surrounded by epithelial muscles which facilitate the circulation of blood. At low temperatures, the epithelial muscles surrounding the veins and arteries of our extremities constrict – preserving the blood and the nutrients carried in it for the more vital organs in the trunk and the head. When the body returns to higher temperatures the epithelial muscles in our extremities dilate again allowing for the blood to flow freely there. In a similar way that our biceps get stronger as they contract during bicep curls (or chaturangas) our cardiovascular system can get stronger through cold exposure.
Good circulation means no athlete’s foot, no cold extremities, better cognitive function, ability to heal/recover faster and perform better in sports.
2. Cold exposure as a meditation technique
Those that practice cold water immersions for some time report a sensation of stillness in mind (usually 30 seconds to a minute after the initial exposure). A friend of mine Luke Wills (founder of Ataraxia) said he reached a similar state of mind in his 2nd ice bath, with that on the 7th day of a vipassana meditation retreat. Anecdotal evidence like this was confirmed to be valid in a study published in May 2018 titled “Brain over Body“. In this study participants with no previous experience in cold exposure and Wim Hof, were interchangeably exposed to cold and neutral temperatures. One of the most striking differences between the inexperienced subjects and Wim was the Dutchman’s ability to reduce activity in the insular cortex part of the brain during cold exposure. The insular cortex is an area involved in emotional attachment to external stimuli and self-reflection. Activity in this part of the brain has been shown to be linked with meditation and control of emotional eating.
Meditation is the 5th of the 8 limbs of yoga. Cold exposure is one of the many ways to enter into a state of meditation.
3. Cold exposure helps us overcome fears
Cold exposure is demanding on many levels:
• the adrenal glands
• musculoskeletal system
• circulation and
• the brown fat tissue is activated at low temperatures.
Aside though the multiple biochemical adaptations in the rest of the body:
our brain changes through cold exposure.
The initial response is that of: “fight or flight”. A small area of the brain called the amygdala (Greek word for almond) – activates the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) axis – signaling a stress response to the rest of the body. While this initial stage is universal the way one deals with cold thereafter depends on his/her experience and ability to use her breath.
By training the body to deal with a stressful situation (ie. a cold immersion) in a controlled environment (such as a shower or a bath) we can reprogram our mind to deal with stressful situations which are out of our control. Our main tool is our breath. Dealing with fear was the focus of a workshop I gave in 2017 to a group of actors.
The list above is not exhaustive of the benefits one can get from cold exposure.
• Controlling pain perception [Ref]
• Generation of Brown Fat [Ref]
• Strengthening of the immune system [Ref]
• Improved tolerance to cold [Ref]
are also good reasons for modern “over-civilised” humans to train with cold.