(Updated: 9th Jan 2019)
The popularity of cold exposure has increased over the last few years. Whether it is through cryotherapy or cold water immersion more and more people practice and hashtag: #coldexposure. In this article I will cover the benefits of cold exposure for those of us living a modern lifestyle.
How old is cold therapy?
The moment you ask this question you realise that cold exposure has been accompanying humans from the very start. As temperatures in nature constantly fluctuate, humans have been exposed to cold voluntarily or not for a long time.
As a form of therapy, 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, Scandinavian countries) cold exposure has been part of the culture, practiced in banya or plunge pools. In 2015 Wim Hof (a dutchman Guinness record holder of a few endeavours involving cold exposure) popularised cold training. Training in 2016 with Wim 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 the 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 athletes foot, no cold extremities, better cognitive function, ability to heal/recover faster and perform better in sports.
2. Cold exposure is 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 the Optimal Health Method) said he reached the same state of mind in his 2nd ice bath, with that on the 7th day in a vipassana meditation retreat. Anecdotal evidence like this were 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. 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 in emotional eating.
Meditation is the 5th of the 8 limbs of yoga.
3. Cold exposure helps overcome fears
Cold exposure is demanding on many levels; the adrenals, musculoskeletal system, circulation and the brown fat tissue are activated at low temperatures. Aside though the multiple biochemical adaptations in the rest of the body, our brain also changes when we are exposed to cold. The initial response is that of: “fight or flight” . A small area of the brain called amygdala (Greek word for almond) – by activating the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) axis – signals a Stress response to the rest of the body. While this initial stage is universal the way one deals with cold thereafter depends on 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 in this process is our breath. Dealing with fear was the focus of a workshop I gave in 2017 to a group of actors. You can see footage from it in the video.
Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga” has the subtitle: “the yoga journey to wholeness, inner peace and ultimate freedom.” In our yogic journey (our journey to wholeness) we will have to ultimately face our fears. I believe that cold exposure offers a unique opportunity to learn how to do that.
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 humans to practice cold exposure.
Future workshops are listed here.