Cold plunges have become a buzzy health practice, with a slew of celebrities swearing by ice baths for their mental and physical wellness. Kristen Bell, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and more have even shared videos on Instagram of themselves cold plunging.
But while ice baths have been used by athletes for years for physical recovery, cold plunges haven’t really been in the public consciousness until recently. So is immersing yourself in freezing cold water actually worth the inevitable discomfort that comes with it? And what does the science say? Here’s what you need to know.
At a basic level, a cold plunge involves dipping your body in chilly water. “Cold plunges are a recovery technique that utilize ice baths that can range in temperature anywhere from 40 to 60 degrees,” says Mark Slabaugh, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center.
Wim Hof, a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete, has popularized cold plunging over the past few years, and plenty of celebrities have taken up the practice.
Cold plunges can vary by person—some prefer to just keep a certain body part, like the legs, in chilly water, while others will immerse themselves up to their shoulders.
Cold plunges have been practiced in the athletic community for years as a way to help with recovery, Slabaugh points out. “Athletes use them to recover after an intense workout to help to decrease inflammation and help with muscle soreness,” Slabaugh says. “Since inflammation is limited by the cold, this allows athletes to feel less pain and recover more quickly so they can resume their training within a shorter time period.”
But some people swear that cold plunges can help with mental health issues as well. Hof says that a combination of cold plunges and meditation techniques can help lower levels of anxiety and stress. He’s created something called the Wim Hof Method, which is a combination of breathing techniques and cold water exposure with the goal of having better mental health, according to his website.
Cristina Velocci, Chief Content Officer of SHE Media (Flow’s parent brand), recently tried a cold plunge at Remedy Place in New York City. “The endorphin and dopamine rush felt equivalent to working out without actually having to exert myself,” says Velocci. “The circulation boost was also noticeable: I FaceTimed my mom afterwards and she said I looked younger because of the rosy glow in my face.”
There is some debate about how effective cold plunges are. “There may be minor benefits to cold-water exposure, but very little research has confirmed the advantages,” says Tracy Zaslow, M.D., a primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and a team physician for Angel City Football Club and LA Galaxy.
However, there are some studies that suggest there may be something to cold plunges, both from a physical and mental perspective. One small study of well-trained cyclists found that those who did cold plunges after a hard workout reported less muscle soreness than those who just rested afterward. Another small study had healthy young adults do intense leg exercises, with some doing an ice bath afterwards while others did not. Those in the ice bath group also reported feeling less sore afterward.
There are several studies that suggest cold plunges may help people with stress, anxiety, and depression, but the results are a little complicated to interpret given that they usually involve people swimming in cold water. Exercise alone is also linked to lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, making it tricky to parse out if it’s the workout or cold water that helps, Zaslow says.
One study of 228 people between the ages of 19 and 88 found that those who swam in the ocean in the winter reported lower levels of stress and better feelings of well-being than those who didn’t do a cold water plunge. Another cold water swimming study found a link between people who swam in chilly water and lower levels of fatigue, bad mood, and memory issues. One scientific review even suggests that cold-water swimming could help lower symptoms of depression.
But experts say that the most robust scientific data to support cold plunges is really around relieving muscle soreness. “Cold plunges decrease the body’s core temperature but more importantly help to decrease the temperature of the muscles that have had an intense workout,” Slabaugh says. “This helps to decrease inflammation and helps to decrease muscle soreness.”
Cold plunges can be a good fit for many people, but there are a few things to consider before deciding if this is right for you. “Individuals who participate in intense workouts of more than an hour would benefit from cold plunges if they plan on working out the next day with a similar exercise regimen,” Slabaugh says.
However, he points out that people with cardiovascular, vascular, and lung issues should consult their doctor before trying this. Zaslow agrees, noting that there is a risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and even heart attack. “It’s not a completely benign activity,” she adds.
It depends. While experts say cold plunges can be helpful for muscle recovery, they’re not entirely convinced of other benefits. Zaslow points out that the uncomfortable feeling of hanging in cold water may not be worth it for some people.
But if you’re interested in trying out a cold plunge, Slabaugh says you don’t need to go to an expensive spa to do this. “Cold plunges can be done at home with an inexpensive tub that you fill up with ice and water,” he says. “Alternatively, if you have a bathtub, this can also be done easily with ice, water, and a digital thermometer to measure the temperature.”
Slabaugh suggests doing several “safety checks” if you want to try this at home. “When first starting out, I would recommend the water be around 60 degrees until you can acclimate your body to these recovery plunges,” he says.
He also recommends starting slowly, spending only a minute or two in the tub to ease into it. “After an initial few sessions you can then either decrease the temperature of the water or stay in the cold therapy baths for a longer duration,” Slabaugh says. Even as you progress, he recommends that you “aim for a max of 15 minutes total in the cold water therapy baths.” Anything longer than this runs the risk of a “significant decrease” in your core body temperature, Slabaugh says.
After your plunge, Zaslow suggests taking off your wet clothes and putting on warm, dry layers. One thing she doesn’t recommend is jumping into a hot shower immediately afterwards. That, she says, could cause your blood vessels to dilate quickly and raise the risk that you’ll pass out.
Cold plunges aren’t for everyone and experts stress that research into the practice is ongoing. However, if you’re interested in trying them out, just be sure to do it safely.
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