Each morning, as part of my active recovery regimen, I take a cold plunge. A cold plunge refers to submerging your body into sub-59-degree water. A cold plunge has many benefits besides complete invigoration first thing in the morning (and throughout the day). Here are a few of them…
We are in a constant battle with our bodies and inflammation. Everything from the food we eat, the air we breathe to the activities we participate in cause inflammation. Cold plunges are shown to help decrease inflammation. It is also healthy for the skin. The constriction of blood vessels in our skin decreases swelling, giving a healthier look.
It also helps with weight loss causing the metabolism to begin processing fat into energy more quickly. Some studies show an increase in metabolism of 350% when immersed in 57-degree water.
Much like exercise, cold plunges illicit a hormetic response from the body. A hormetic response is defined by sciencedircet.com as “a beneficial or stimulatory effect caused by exposure to low doses of an agent known to be toxic at higher doses.” We provide a low dose of adversity, so the body can increase its tolerance for adversity.
Cold plunges cause vasoconstriction. The body decreases blood flow by constricting blood vessels. However, when you leave the ice bath, your blood vessels dilate, increasing flow to the muscles. This helps with muscle healing. In short, it works out your blood vessels by constricting and dilating them.
Cold plunges also influence lymphatic drainage. The body rids itself of waste through a process called lymphatic drainage. This is typically done by natural movements of muscle tissue. Cold plunges cause the lymph vessels to contract, forcing lymph fluids through the body and flushing out the waste.
Cold plunges are known to increase norepinephrine improving mood, focus, and energy. It can also reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Cold water immersion impacts the vagus nerve, the part of our nervous system that regulates between fight or flight and rest and digest, sympathetic or parasympathetic, respectively. Initially, when we enter cold water, our sympathetic nervous reaction is activated. But once you incorporate deep breathing into the practice, your body shifts into the parasympathetic nervous system. This increases your ability to deal with stress in a healthy way.
This effect can be measured by cold plunges’ impact on heart rate variability. Heart Rate Variability, or HRV, is the measure of how quickly your nervous system pivots from sympathetic to parasympathetic. Cold plunges done regularly over the course of time can improve HRV. Among other impacts on mental health, cold plunges are shown to increase dopamine and endorphins in the hours afterward.
In short, getting into a cold plunge is difficult, but once you get out, you’re clearer, in a better mood, more focused, and have more energy.
Because cold water immersion stimulates the vagus nerve, it causes us to have better quality sleep. Due to the body’s natural tendency to balance, if you tip the scale to the pain side – cold water immersion – it will create an opposite reaction once you’ve gotten out of the water. At the end of the day, this can look like better quality sleep. Sleep is governed by the rest and digestion part of our nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system. Cold plunges ultimately give more access to this side of the nervous system.
Far and away, the biggest personal benefit is the self-discovery earned by the practice. Each day, I am tempted to skip the plunge. This is because – as you would imagine – it is uncomfortable. But cold plunging it is an easy way to arrive at the point where you’re certain that you can’t go on. I think to myself, “I can’t take anymore; this is crazy.” But then something magical happens, and I get…more. My body has begun to adjust more quickly. Certain times I get a flood of warmth throughout my limbs, despite the cold water. I discover that I am capable of so much more than I initially believed. I experience this with running as well, but oft it takes hours to get there.
There is also a meditative effect. I focus on my breathing and drive a wedge between the sensations occurring in my body and my experience of them. I notice the sensation but reserve judgment. In these instances, there is much to be discovered.
Check out this video below on how to do a cold plunge…
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