Does cold water therapy actually work? I tried it for seven days and spoke to experts about the benefits (and risks) of this popular health practice. Here’s what I found out.
Ever since the Wim Hof Method—a combination of cold water immersion therapy and breathing techniques—went mainstream a few years ago, it seems like everyone can’t stop talking about cold therapy. In fact, “cold water therapy” has over 250 million views on TikTok. The practice involves getting into frigid water (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit) for a short amount of time. The anecdotal benefits seem endless: from decreased stress levels to increased confidence to improved physical recovery. But does cold therapy actually work? I spoke to experts about the benefits (and the risks) of cold water therapy and tried it out for a week to find out.
What Is Cold Water Therapy?
Cold water therapy is the practice of using cold water to treat a range of health conditions. It involves immersing your body in a body of water, an ice bath, or a cold shower at a temperature below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cold Water Therapy Benefits
So, what exactly does cold therapy do? Here are some impressive cold water therapy benefits to know.
Lower Overall Stress Levels
“[Cold water therapy] builds resilience,” says Susanna Søberg, PhD, a scientist who specializes in metabolism, resilience with stress, and cold and heat and author of Winter Swimming. “When you handle this short-term stress and learn to calm the nervous system, you learn to stay calm in other stressful situations.”
One study found that repeated exposure to cold water reduced the adrenaline-driven sympathetic response to a different stressor (in this case, dealing with a lack of oxygen at high altitude) and increases the parasympathetic activity that calms the body down. So, if you expose your body to cold temperatures and learn how to calm yourself down, you’ll be able to do so in other (unrelated) stressful situations.
In the short term, however, cold water therapy can also lower stress levels. “It temporarily impairs cognitive function, [inducing a] meditative mode,” Dr. Søberg says. One study found that cold water immersion reduced stress in elite athletes after high-intensity exercise.
Higher Level of Alertness
“Cold water stimulates receptors in the skin, which ramps up metabolic activity via your cell’s mitochondria (the energy powerhouse for each of your cells),” says Eric First, MD, fellow at The American Institution of Stress (FAIS). “This leads to enhancement of the oxygenation of the blood, which wakes your body up, leading to a higher state of alertness.” Cold water also stimulates you to take deeper breaths, decreasing the level of carbon dioxide throughout the body, which helps you concentrate and keeps you focused throughout the day.
Improved Mood and Confidence
Taking the cold plunge may actually help you feel better about yourself in the long run. “Cold water therapy increases endorphins, an important hormone, and neurotransmitter for mood, which gives joy,” Dr. Søberg says. “It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system and stabilizes serotonin, which leads to mental balance and good sleep.”
And finally, it can help with willpower in the long run. “Cold water therapy increases dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for motivation, which can lead to the desire to repeat the action,” Dr. Søberg says. Added bonus: By continuously exposing yourself to the uncomfortable cold, you’ll feel more confident about yourself.
Reduced Pain and Improved Physical Recovery
Calling all gym rats: Cold water therapy could seriously benefit your recovery routine. Cold water immersion therapy lowers inflammation, which is a leading cause of pain and injury. A meta-analysis of 23 peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that cold water immersion can help enhance recovery and reduce feelings of fatigue. So if you’re hitting the gym hard or simply want to up your workout game, cold water therapy could help.
More Robust Immune Response
Scientific studies have reported that taking a cold shower increases the number of white blood cells in your body, which protect your body against potential illnesses. It is thought that this is a result of an increased metabolic rate, which stimulates the immune response. Additionally, a study in the journal PLoS One, found that people who take cold showers are 29 percent less likely to call in sick for work or school.
In Dr. Søberg’s recent study in Cell Press, she and her team found that winter swimmers have increased energy expenditure upon cold and faster glucose metabolism. “Several studies found that cold stimulation in human adults is a strong inducer of brown adipose tissue (BAT) activation and increased energy expenditure,” Søberg says.
Adipose tissue function is crucial for a healthy life and is one of the main drivers of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Søberg. It can be divided into two categories: white and brown, with brown being the more mature type. White fat stores energy and calories, while brown fat burns energy and calories—so having more brown fat is beneficial. “The cold induces brown fat maturation within the brown fat depot with the potential to expand BAT volume,” Søberg explains.
“When and if we expand BAT or increase the function of BAT, we have an interesting tissue in an anti-obesity perspective,” Dr. Søberg says. “Increased BAT function might explain why we see better glucose metabolism and BAT thermogenesis in the winter swimmers [from our study].”
Are There Any Risks Involved In Cold Water Therapy?
Despite these cold water therapy benefits, some risks are involved in the practice. Those with heart conditions and high blood pressure shouldn’t try cold therapy, says Dr. Søberg.
Additionally, prolonged exposure to cold water for too long can cause health problems, such as hypothermia or frostbite to the extremities. So if you’re interested in trying the practice, make sure you’re only staying in the cold water for a short amount of time (try five to 10 minutes).
Another pro tip? Always bring a buddy. “Caution should be taken always in deliberate cold exposure,” Dr. Søberg says. “Never go alone.”
My Experience Trying Cold Water Immersion Therapy for 7 Days
All the potential benefits of cold water therapy seemed pretty incredible for the low commitment involved, so I decided to try it out for myself. As a Midwesterner, I’ve experienced the cold plenty. However, stepping into a cold shower proved to be tougher than I expected. Here’s how it went down.
I’ll admit that I’m pretty used to starting my day with steaming hot water. To say taking cold showers for a week was tough mentally for me is an understatement. I could hear my mind protesting as I opened up the shower door. I jumped in, figuring it was better to get in as quickly as possible.
I’m not going to lie: It was shocking and uncomfortable. My whole body flinched when I got under the cold water. But after two or three minutes, I grew used to the temperature. I stayed in the cold shower for five minutes—just enough time to wash my hair and body—before quickly wrapping myself up in my warm towel.
If you want to try cold water immersion therapy but don’t want to commit to a five-minute shower every day (I don’t blame you!), try easing yourself into it. Add a 30-second cold blast of water at the end of your showers and slowly increase the time. Or, try taking a five-minute shower once a week and slowly increasing the frequency to whatever feels right for you.
My Cold Water Therapy Results
I wish I could say that cold water immersion therapy got easier for me as the week went on, but it didn’t. I struggled every day to get into the shower and to stay in for the full five minutes. Still, I felt extremely accomplished at the end of the week—so I could definitely see how this practice leads to improved confidence and willpower.
Ultimately, I felt it worked: After my cold showers, I noticed a true shift in my alertness. I wake up early to work out (around 6 a.m.), so by 10 a.m., I feel a bit tired. But the cold showers felt like a jolt of electricity through my body, and I powered through my mornings. I’m not a caffeine drinker, but I felt like I had a cup of coffee every morning (minus the anxious jitters I usually get from a cup of joe).
Unfortunately, I didn’t notice a true difference in my mental health or stress levels, though there is a lot of research behind this. It’s thought that cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of our parasympathetic nervous system and connects our brain to our organs, and counteracts the stress response. In a stressed state, our sympathetic nervous system is activated (which is commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response).
“It turns out cold water exposure, even if it’s only splashing our face, activates the vagus nerve, slowing down our breathing and heart rate and switching us into a state referred to as parasympathetic mode, but more commonly known as ‘rest-and-digest,’” Dr. First says. “This is relevant to our mental health because research demonstrates that prolonged and chronic stress results in changes in the brain found in anxiety and depression. Counteracting it by stimulating the vagus nerve via cold water therapy, may help improve these conditions.”
Plus, cold water immersion therapy has been shown to increase the production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and beta-endorphins), which can lead to improvement of symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Perhaps if I continued taking cold showers for another couple of weeks, I’d notice these amazing mental health benefits. However, after a week of cold showers, I was ready to return back to cozy warm water.
I don’t know if I would try cold water therapy again—it was tough mentally to get into a cold shower. But if you’re looking for a quick way to boost your alertness and increase productivity, I would recommend a quick cold shower. And, if you’re up for the challenge, they could even boost your mental health (and physical health) in the long run.