Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Ice Baths and Cold Water Immersion (CWI) is nothing new. We see many athletes used these methods for supposed sport recovery and some nations residents do it as almost a tradition. What can cold water do for us? We don't have time or the space to fill a bath with ice and fully submerge however, most of us have cold water from the mains in our showers. Well a study in 2016 did just that by looking at the reported sickness days from people that took a hot to cold shower versus the control group taking only a hot shower.
Cold bathing has been claimed to have multiple beneficial effects on health such as improvement of the immune system, cardiovascular circulation and vitality...
Buijze, Geert A et al
From an exercise an recovery perspective, CWI is not a solid science. Many claim it aids recovery yet some studies haven't been able to show any objective differences. Though these studies are relative short lasting. Likewise, if the benefits do aid recovery the balance of the effect is that protein synthesis may be hindered as a result of metabolic growth.
...post-exercise cold water immersion may blunt chronic adaptations by reducing muscle protein synthesis and therefore limiting muscle mass maintenance and growth
Tavares F, Simões M, Matos B, Smith TB and Driller M (2020)
Protein synthesis aside, does the the mental stimulus aid training exertion, therefore increasing metabolic growth. In theory yes; CWI may have the indirect effect on the mind through a combination of temporary stress increase leading to a chain of hormone releases thereafter. The studies about CWI have usually been on elite athletes and involved full body immersion. What about us general population folk? Using only a shower?
Cold water immersion seems to provide little benefit to recovery in the acute setting (within the training week), however, chronically, there was a trend toward a benefit when implementing cold water immersion in well-trained volleyball athletes over 16 days.
Tavares F, Simões M, Matos B, Smith TB and Driller M (2020)
Any positive effect from a cold shower may be minimal and counteracted or vastly outweighed by other health implications. In the general population, instead of elite athletes, does the mental resilience lead to more consistent training enough to counter the negative protein synthesis effects? Likewise, most effects in elite athletes seem to be perceived and any physical markers are statistically insignificant. As we are coming at this from a gen pop POV, perceived fatigue instead of actual fatigue may preclude the idea of completing a workout. So a cold shower may be more of more a boon for the psychological rather than the physiological by being enough of a mental stimulus to get to the gym more often than not.
Generally from the material I had a look at, the effects of a cold shower are thus:
Short term effects may include increased alertness and more perceived energy (like having a coffee).
Long term effects may include better circulation, reduced illness and the big one....reduced stress....which thereby improves sleep, aids fat loss and increases wellbeing!
The long term effects however, only appear after consistent repeated doses! In comes the 30 day cold shower challenge...
The rules are simple. Take a normal shower and then at the end (don't get back to a warm shower, let your body do the work) turn the temperature right down for 30 seconds. This can be done in stages over 5 - 10 seconds or straight away. Daily! You're welcome to do more than 30 seconds however, Buijze, Geert A et al found no does response relationship.
I had a go at the challenge and below is how it went for me!
Day 1 - First cold shower, 30 secs, reduced temp in increments over ~10 secs changes in temp were not nice at first but quickly eased. Felt refreshed and alert immediately post shower. Still had a coffee anyway more out of habit. Feeling generally colder than normal 45 min post shower.
Day 2 - After a rather boring treadmill run thanks to Storm Eunice making outside a tad risky, willpower to have a cold shower was tested a little further. Did the 30 secs and a bit more as I fannied about with a timer and wet hands. The cold was a fraction less shocking but all the same refreshing. Feet felt cold for a while after.
Day 3 & 4 - In all honesty, these two weren't pleasant and nor did I really feel any benefits such as added energy and alertness from the previous days. I just felt cold. However, these showers were taken much later in the day than normal.
Day 5 - Felt cold afterwards, less noises coming out of me, new shower head with more spread. Felt normal post shower.
Day 6 - Felt colder than usual, little more energised. Less dread when starting now, feels more like a chore instead of a borderline painful experience.
Day 7 - Shower didn't seem as cold. Better ambient temperature or am I getting used to it? I even managed to un-clench my fist this time.
A common pattern occurring is that my feet and...ahem...gentleman parts stay rather cold for a good hour or more after the shower each day. In addition I am sleeping more (Day 5+) though still tired after waking. Sleep quantity is improving but not quality. My skin seems to be better too, I'm getting less breakouts on may back which a troublesome area for me and seems to be supported by Sara Lindburg and reviewed by Alan Biggers M.D, MPH. Lastly, another common occurrence would seem to be an increase in libido at this stage.
A point to note about sleep is that I had also made some changes to my business which at first impressions were yielding better results which in turn made me feel more positive and less stressed which may therefore account for better sleep, maybe better skin and increased libido. Now establishing cause and effect, was the improved mood entirely business related or did the proposed benefits of a cold shower reduce stress levels enough to generate enough head space to take on the new business directions???
Days 8 --> 15 - Generally the showers have become more bearable with less noticeable after effects. Is my body getting used to it or is my mind? Sleep quantity is happening more but quality is still not there yet. I have taken the approach to gradually reduce the shower temperature to being cold and then start the timer so I'm spending longer in the cold with not such a sharp transition...is that defeating the purpose though?
Days 16 --> 20 Not a lot to report besides just cracking on. The anticipation prior to the cold is getting less daily and the cold doesn't seem to be as cold....better weather leading to warmer ambient temperature maybe?
Day 21 - A noticeable turning point. The shower no longer felt supremely cold. Also the general energising effect has either balanced out or worn off. I don't dread the showers now. It's just something that is done.
Day 22 - Absolutely shattered from long sword sparring the day before and entertaining the in-laws for lunch. That energising effected I said had gone on day 21. I definitely had a pick me up in the evening after the cold shower despite running on coffee all morning. Point to note here is that coffee did very little yet the shower helped out a lot for a few hours.
Day 23 --> 26 - Mainly just getting the job done. Not a lot of boost but nor is there any suffering either.
Day 27 --> 29 - Would you believe it, I actually almost look forward to the chill and fresh of the shower. Perhaps at the level of appreciate rather than enjoy.
Day 30 - Easily now just another shower and a common routine! Not feeling cold afterwards anymore but also not getting the regular energy boost.
Overall I only missed 2 days but extended by 2 more days to make up for it. On the one occasion I was out in the cold all morning and only just warmed up so couldn't face a cold shower. Even in the literature the advice is not to have a cold shower if you're already cold. The second occasion was after a German long sword session where muscles were damned tight as it was let alone after tensing up so stuck with a warm shower.
After 7 days some thoughts came to mind. The time of day that the shower is taken seems to have an impact. The benefits of being a PT means my day starts late (but work late too) so when I shower late morning like days 1, 2, 5-7 the positive effects occur. However when showering in the evening like days 3 + 4 I just felt cold. Would a morning shower before work be even better? Refreshed, awake, energised and ready to make a dent in the day?!
Another thought was if shower routines effect the process. For example I have the cold shower, turn it off then towel dry. After that I'm still naked as a baby whilst I tend to my tattoo care and sort my beard out. Someone else that drip drys or jumps straight into a bath robe may experience different temperature fluctuations....food for thought.
So what's my anecdotal subjective conclusion?
I reckon Iv'e expanded my comfort zone, shown by better tolerance and attitude towards the cold part of showers. Don't get me wrong, my comfort zone isn't massively bigger now but I'm a little more tolerant of life stresses.
I'm certainly having less breakouts on my skin. Not really the aim of the cold showers but a nice bonus worth keeping.
I'm getting off to sleep faster. Not necessarily feeling any more awake in the morning but less of a chore to get off to sleep. This could be attributed to less stress and thus not having quite so many racing thoughts at night. Note: Less stress not no stress.
It doesn't cost anything, takes 30 secs and has additional benefits with seemingly no negatives.
The rollercoaster of stress and emotions from life vastly outgun the improvements made by a cold shower. Yes, the peaks are a smidge higher and troughs slightly shallower but don't expect to be a happy Larry 24/7.
Will I carry on? Yes
Even if the whole thing is a placebo, the very nature of the challenge is to stimulate mental health, so as long as you feel a positive impact is being made, considering there's not really a downside, then it works....for you!
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Buijze, Geert A et al. “The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” PloS one vol. 11,9 e0161749. 15 Sep. 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161749 [Available online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5025014/ (accessed Feb 2022)
Lindburg S (2021) Cold Shower vs. Hot Shower: Which One Is Better? (Online) Available at https://www.healthline.com/health/cold-shower-vs-hot-shower#Why-do-we-like-hot-showers? [Accessed 23 Feb 22]
Tavares F, Simões M, Matos B, Smith TB and Driller M (2020) The Acute and Longer-Term Effects of Cold Water Immersion in Highly-Trained Volleyball Athletes During an Intense Training Block. Front. Sports Act. Living 2:568420. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2020.568420 [Available online] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2020.568420/full (accessed Feb 2022)