While soaking in a salty mineral bath might be your ultimate moment of detoxifying zen, there is a much less comfy-cozy approach to therapeutic bathing—an icy plunge. There are serious benefits to filling your tub with ice-cold water and having yourself a sit, especially after an intense bout of physical activity or a really vigorous workout streak. Here’s what you need to know.
With all the hype around lymphatic flow on the wellness front as of late, it’s easy to overlook the importance of making sure your blood circulation is tip-top as well. Ice-cold water helps jump-start not only the lymphatic system, but also your circulation, resulting in optimally oxygenated blood for quicker recovery, delivery of vital nutrients, clearer thinking, and more energy … as if the cold water won’t wake you up enough in and of itself.
Similar to icing an injury, ice plunging speeds the healing of workout-induced sore muscles as well. After all, soreness from an effective workout is a result of tears in the muscle fibers, which are, bottom line, tiny injuries. Lactic acid builds up in your muscles after this kind of activity, and an ice bath may reduce the amount of lactic acid, meaning less swelling and a quicker recovery time. Proponents of this recovery method claim it works by constricting blood vessels, “a mechanism that helps with the flushing of waste products out of the tissue. … The cold temperature will reduce swelling and tissue breakdown,” according to NCBI.
A flush of lactic acid and other stagnant waste in the tissue is also a great boost for your immune system. We don’t recommend a cold bath at the onset of a cold, but staying active during the typical sick seasons and treating yourself to salt baths and ice baths are great ways to boost your body’s natural defenses.
Are you familiar with that feeling of near-hyperventilation when you jump in a cold river or turn your hot shower to cold? You start to breathe quicker and shallower, taking inward gasps, and your heart rate quickens. This reaction is a boost in your metabolic rate, which can result in an increase of white blood cell production. White blood cells are what fight diseases and infection, so next time you think you’re freaking out in a cold plunge, think of it as a warm (OK, an icy cold) welcome to an onslaught of new white blood cells.
Another benefit of contact with cold water is improved mental health, or clarity. This theory is derived from the fact that cold therapy triggers our sympathetic nervous system, which in turn produces endorphins, aka our happy neurotransmitters. On top of hitting up the sympathetic nervous system, cold therapy also triggers our parasympathetic nervous system and is linked to the vagus nerve, which regulates the way we react to stress and its effects on the body. These increases in endorphins as well as adrenaline may also promote weight loss by heightening metabolism. According to this study, a cold plunge was said to increase adrenaline and noradrenaline by 530%.
Lastly, while hot water draws moisture from our skin, cold water soothes it. If you’re partial to hot showers and even lukewarm water gives you goosebumps, try easing yourself into the idea of a cold plunge starting with “cold outs.” Cold outs are when you turn your hot shower to a cold rinse for the last 30 seconds, making sure to coat every inch of skin and scalp with the cool droplets. Step one leg in, then single out the other, then bring your whole body into it and turn around, letting the cold water focus on your lower back and permeate with adrenaline-inducing chill. Soon you’ll be used to it, and ready to take the plunge!