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Before you take the (cold) plunge

by Palak Barmaiya
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Before you take the (cold) plunge
Cold Plunging involves submersing the body in very cold water. In the face of limited scientific evidence of its benefits, here is what to know about this therapy’s potential benefits and risks.

The most recent #ColdPlunge trend on TikTok is the new wellness hot topic. Users are sharing their reactions to cold plunging in their bathtubs, pools, or tubs designed specifically for cold plunging. The practice has been linked to benefits with pain recovery, immunity, and others. Cold water submersion (also called cryo plunging) spas are springing up in big cities’s hip neighborhoods.  

While the scientific evidence of its benefits is limited, people are jumping on the bandwagon to try cold plunging that, experts suggest, is not safe for everyone. Read on to understand this new wellness trend and if it’s for you.  

What is Cold Plunging?

Cold Plunging is a therapy that involves submersing the body in cold water. One can do a cold plunge in a bathtub, pool, or a natural water body such as a lake, river, or ocean. For beginners, the recommended water temperature is 15 degrees Celsius and submersion duration no more than 30 seconds to a minute.

 “Cold plunging is when the body is exposed to cold ice/water causing a decrease or vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) of blood flow to the area which can reduce swelling and inflammation,” explains Dr. Michael Dakkak, DO, Sports Medicine Physician, Cleveland Clinic Weston Hospital.

In medicine, cold water immersion practices are used for athletes to treat sports-related injuries and for pain management. Cold water can help with sore muscles and decrease inflammation.

Cold immersion practices might be trending currently, but it has been around for centuries in different cultures. Using cold temperatures for therapeutic purposes has been documented by ancient Greeks.  In Nordic countries, cold plunge pools are used to cool down after sauna sessions. Russian ‘banya’ or bathhouses consist of a similar routine where cold plunges are used to cool down after intense heat exposure. Polar plunge in icy ocean water is commonly used to raise funds for good causes.

Potential Benefits and Risks

Wim Hof, aka the Iceman, is a wellness influencer and an extreme athlete known for devising his own technique, the Wim Hof Method. One component of the technique is cold therapy which when combined with breathwork, can have mental and physiological benefits.

While Hof’s method has been criticized by many for lacking scientific evidence (among other controversies), he can be credited for making cold plunging popular on the internet. Some of the popular benefits linked with cold plunging include- improved metabolism, improved sleep, reduced inflammation, and reduced anxiety and depression, among others.

“The published research and evidence to date is limited, some research may support some of these effects, while others have no evidence supporting these assumptions,” says Dakkak.

Some of the benefits popularly linked with cold plunging include improved metabolism, improved sleep, reduced inflammation, and reduced anxiety and depression. 

Cold Plunging to Recover and Recharge

“Overall, in the field, research is lacking but some reported benefits include decrease in lactate levels during recovery, minimizing markers of delayed onset muscle soreness, and improved psychophysiological responses from short-term temperature changes,” says Dakkak. He advises you to consult your medical provider before taking the plunge.

The physiological mechanism of the body when immersed in cold water after a high-intensity exercise has been shown to reduce muscle soreness and accelerate fatigue recovery.

Other benefits associated with cold water immersion include improved immunity and metabolism.

A combination of physiological and psychological mechanisms may explain how cold water exposure can stimulate the body’s immune response, potentially leading to an increase in the circulation of immune cells, including leukocytes (white blood cells), which play a crucial role in fighting off infections.

Before you take the (cold) plunge1
Similar to cold plunging is polar plunge or jumping into icy cold water outdoors which is often used for fundraising.

When the body is exposed to cold water, it evokes the fight or flight response of the body, leading to heightened levels of stress hormones in the body like cortisol and adrenaline that can make you feel alert or awakened. These hormones can have various effects on the immune system, including mobilizing immune cells to respond to potential threats.

Cold exposure can trigger the activation of brown adipose tissue (brown fat), a metabolically active fat type that generates heat. Brown fat might play a role in regulating the immune system and could potentially impact the production and function of leukocytes. Brown fat also helps burn calories and therefore improves metabolism.

It’s important to note that while there is some evidence to suggest that cold water exposure can modulate the immune response, the exact mechanisms and their clinical significance are still areas of ongoing research. The effects of cold water immersion on immune function can vary among individuals, and other factors, such as the duration and frequency of exposure, may also play a role.

Cold Plunging for Mental Health

Cold plunging enthusiasts have shared mental-health-related benefits such as reduced anxiety and better mood. A few studies done on cold water immersion show its potential to treat depression and elevate positive emotions.

As mentioned earlier, the fight or flight response of the body when exposed to cold temperatures can make one feel alert. This initial response of the body, also known as cold shock, causes an increase in dopamine and serotonin levels. Swimmers describe this experience as “post-swim high.”

Other physiological mechanism theories have been proposed that may explain the impact of cold water immersion on mental well-being. One such theory is based on cross-adaption which suggests that exposure and adaptation to one stressor impact the response to another stressor.

In other words, adapting to cold water immersion might have broader effects on the body’s ability to cope with various stressors, including those related to mental well-being.

In the United Kingdom, winter swimming has gained popularity with an increasing number of people sharing their positive experience with the activity. Taking cold showers has shown similar benefits with the potential to treat depression and boost immunity.

Should you Try Cold Plunging?

While the benefits may sound tempting, it is important to note that cold-water exposure or plunge can have several potential risks and should be approached with caution.

“It is not safe for everybody. Please speak with your doctor before starting. Some things to think about include the duration, temperature of the water, and the depth of body being plunged,” says Dakkak.

Certain medications can impact heart rate and blood pressure, which may be further influenced by the sudden shock of cold water. “One study even suggests troponin levels can be elevated.” Troponin is a protein linked to heart attacks.

In fact, more people in the UK die from cold shock than from hypothermia.

Dakkak notes that it is important to consider shivering which can potentially lead to muscle breakdown and, in extreme cases, temporary or permanent kidney damage. Furthermore, he cautions against the risk of hypothermia, adding, “So I suggest making sure you have towels and a heater when exiting the cool temperatures.”

Tips to stay safe

 Dakkak suggests:

* Hydrating before and after cold plunging

* Consulting with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe for you

* Having supervision or a companion with you during the activity

* Keeping warming materials accessible

* Gradually acclimating by starting with cooler showers or exposing your skin to cold water or a cool towel before full immersion.

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