Cold Exposure, It’s Snow Beneficial
What is cold exposure?
Cold exposure – you’ve likely heard about it or tried it yourself in some way or another. Not only is it a fun activity, such as winter skinny dipping in the ocean with your friends or lover, it’s also a potent type of medicine. Naturopathic doctors have used cold exposure, in the form of hydrotherapy, throughout history to treat a variety of ailments; athletes have used ice baths for many years to aid recovery; and the general public is using cryotherapy nowadays for its many benefits. As you can see, cold exposure therapy comes in many forms. In this blog, we’ll cover what cold exposure is, how it affects the body, and why it’s used as a therapeutic modality.
The “Iceman”, Wim Hof
No conversation about the cold can be done without speaking of the famous “Iceman” himself, Wim Hof. The man who has run a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, climbed the highest mountains wearing only shorts, swam underneath ice for 66 meters…I mean the list goes on, no one is cooler than this dude.
Wim Hof has an incredible story about how cold exposure changed his life by unlocking his full potential and allowing him to heal from deep trauma. The cold is his teacher, and he believes everyone can learn from it to accomplish more than they thought possible, if they are willing. In his words, “if we always choose comfort, we never learn the deepest capabilities of our mind or body.”
Wim Hof’s premise is that the body is able to adapt to extreme temperatures and survive within its natural environment. He explains how clothing and artificial temperature control in modern-day life has reduced this natural stimulation of our bodies, causing us to lose touch with our inner power. However, our inner power can be reawakened by intentionally stimulating these physiological processes (through cold exposure). He says, “we have become alienated from nature, but the cold is capable of bringing us back to what we once had lost.” And not only can it return us to nature, it can re-connect us with ourselves and the present moment. Hof describes how “when you go into the cold, you cannot think. You have to be. You learn to be…to be the best version of yourself.”
What does cold exposure do to the human body?
Cold exposure is exactly what it sounds like – exposing the body to a cold environment. This is usually done for brief periods of time by using methods that involve cold air or water. In this way, we can manipulate cellular activity by changing external temperature to achieve specific health benefits.
Thermoregulation, the body’s process of maintaining core temperature, is ensured by adaptive thermogenesis, the body’s regulation of heat production. The adult human body maintains a core temperature of 97.6-98.8 °F (36.4-37.1 °C) in order to continue functioning. If the body is consistently exposed to cold that drops body temperature below (or above) this range, adaptive changes will occur to maintain and protect core body temperature.
The body has 2 main physiological responses to cold exposure.
One response involves utilizing insulative properties to reduce heat loss. When the body is exposed to cold, it tries to insulate itself (it’s vital organs) by constricting blood vessels in the arms and legs, thereby shunting blood flow from the body’s shell to the body’s core.
The other response involves increasing energy expenditure to replace heat loss. The body produces heat via shivering thermogenesis (involuntary muscle contraction) in extreme cold and non-shivering thermogenesis (upregulation of thermogenic tissues) in mild cold, both of which increase metabolic rate. Non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) is the target of cold exposure therapy because it causes health-promoting stimuli, and it can be done without the discomfort of shivering.
The thermogenic tissues involved in NST include brown adipose (fat) and muscle tissue. Brown adipose tissue (BAT) has the ability to turn carbs and fat into energy in the form of heat. There are two types of fat in the body; white fat (one large lipid droplet) and brown fat (many small lipid droplets and a high number of mitochondria). The majority of our fat stores are made up of white fat, especially in individuals who live in warmer climates.
However, it is thought that regular cold exposure can increase the amount of brown fat in the body and therefore increase the metabolic rate and ability to produce heat (AKA stay warm!). It is not yet understood how muscle plays its role in NST. NST increases energy expenditure by up to 30% (and 2.5-5% of this is due to BAT).
What are the health benefits of whole-body cold exposure?
Now that we have reviewed the science, we can better understand the benefits of this therapy. Whole-body cold exposure is a very common practice for athletes after intense exercise to combat inflammation from muscle tissue damage, reducing soreness and speeding recovery. It is also used commonly for weight loss, beauty, anti-aging, metabolic health, pain relief, and as treatment to relieve symptoms of many medical conditions.
Here is a list of health benefits that whole-body exposure is claimed to have:
- Stimulates metabolism and fat loss
- Enhances circulation of blood and lymph vessels
- Supports detoxification
- Decreases inflammation
- Reduces swelling and sore muscles
- Supports quality sleep
- Heightens focus, alertness
- Increases physical/mental energy
- Increases mitochondrial function
- Boosts/regulates immune response
- Improves stress resistance
- Promotes longevity
- Uplifts mood (relieves depression/anxiety)
- Releases endorphins
- Balances hormones and nervous system
- Increases pain tolerance
- Enhances hair and skin health
- Improves cooling response
- Prevents neurodegenerative disease
What are the types of whole-body cold exposure?
Whole Body Cryotherapy
This method involves entering a cryogenic chamber and being cooled with extremely cold air (liquid nitrogen). The chamber covers everything except your head, and you enter it with nothing but your undies and socks on. The process lasts just a few minutes, and temperatures reach negative 200-300°F. This is commonly done in a series of sessions. It is a considered a type of physical therapy that is now used world-wide for its benefits.
Cold Water Immersion
Ice baths and cold plunges involve entering a tub full of extremely cold water. The bath/plunge covers everything except your head and lasts several minutes in temperatures of 50-59°F. This is commonly combined with alternating use of the sauna or hot tub. Fun fact: 5 minutes in an extra-hot sauna followed by jumping into a cold plunge pool is part of Tony Robbins morning routine, it gives him the blast of energy he needs to sustain long days of inspiring talks!
This method is the least expensive and most convenient way of performing whole body cold exposure – because it can be done anywhere with a shower. It involves spending a certain number of minutes in the shower under cold water settings in temperatures below 70°F. There are different ways of doing this, such as taking a cold-only shower, alternating cold and hot, or ending the shower with cold.
These 3 methods discussed above cover the primary and most common methods of whole-body cold exposure. As you can see, this type of therapy is a powerful way to activate natural healing and promote an overall sense of health and wellness. It is not an easy practice, it requires a mind-over-matter perspective, but it is well worth it. It’s important to keep in mind that the benefits of whole-body cold exposure come as a result of regular exposure – adaptation requires routine training. Note that cold injury is always a risk with this type of therapy, all these practices should be done under the guidance of a health care professional.
Written by Jordan Valdez
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