Here’s What Happens When You Start Your Day with a Cold Shower Shock
From shinier hair to increased clarity and focus, our morning routines will never be the same.
Imagine: You are at the Russian banya with sweat streaming down your spine, the eucalyptus scent seeping into your open pores as you walk over to the cold plunge pool. You hold your breath and jump into the chilly 52-degree water. Almost instantly, you feel every nerve ending in your body jolt and you break the surface, gasping for air. Despite the shock, you leave feeling refreshed, calm, and ready for anything.
Now, what exactly is it about a shock of cold water that feels so invigorating? Turns out there are many tangible benefits to this practice, including increased circulation, increasing the body’s intake of oxygen, decreased inflammation, and improved hair, skin, and scalp health.
Luckily, you don’t have to trek to the spa every time you want to experience it (although it is tempting to do so)—may we introduce to you the cold shower shock. This is when you turn your shower to cold after your normal routine and spend a few seconds with your entire body under the stream of frigid water.
To better understand how exactly these bursts of freezing water benefit us, we turned to two experts: naturopathic doctor Nigma Talib and VENN’s co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Kevin Mun.
What Happens to the Body When We Introduce It to the Cold?
When we introduce our bodies to freezing temperatures, the veins in our bodies go through the process known as vasoconstriction, which is a fancy way of saying our veins become narrower. Dr. Talib explains, “[Vasoconstriction] increases your heart rate and respiration rate. [Additionally,] your body’s metabolism has to work harder to maintain a stable temperature.” With narrower veins, our blood pressure naturally increases, which pumps significantly more oxygen to our cells than it would in warmer temperatures.
The Benefits of a Cold Shower Shock
Reduction of Inflammation: Have you ever seen a video of an all-star athlete slowly make their way into an aluminum basin full of ice? There is a reason why people who work out strenuously undergo this treatment. Dr. Talib states, “We know that the cold actually reduces edema [swelling in the body] quite well,” which is why it is advisable to apply cold compresses to a sprained ankle. The same goes for all inflammation in the body—through vasoconstriction, blood rushes away from inflamed areas. This process helps reduce inflammation in sore muscles, hands, and feet.
Increase in Heart Rate and Respiration: As our veins become narrower, our heart rate naturally increases to supply the body with more oxygen-rich blood. An increase in heart rate causes respiration to expand to supply the blood with more oxygen (think of how we tend to gasp for air or breathe deeper in cold water). This is the basis of the Wim Hof method, a somewhat more extreme version of cold shock therapy. As we breathe deeper and pump blood at a higher rate, our cells receive more oxygen, which helps them to function better.
Boost in Immunity: With an increase in blood pressure comes a spike in the number of white blood cells delivered to the body. As we can recall from Biology 101, white blood cells are the body’s soldiers that protect us from disease. When increasing the movement of white blood cells in our systems, Dr. Talib explains that “white blood cells are more readily available to attack those pathogens, which stimulates the immune response.” In layman’s terms, our immune system functions better when there are more white blood cells. In fact, a study in the journal PLoS One reveals that people who take cold showers in the morning are 29 percent less likely to call out sick than those who do not take cold showers in the morning.
Improvement in Mood and Focus: Although cold showers do not completely abolish anxiety or depression, they can help alleviate symptoms. According to a study published in Medical Hypotheses, “cold showers activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the availability of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins.” This in turn causes an improvement of mood, much like a good workout session would. Additionally, cold showers can improve clarity and focus when we are experiencing brain fog. Dr. Talib explains this increase of oxygen levels acts as a “natural dose of energy,” which is why we feel so invigorated after a good plunge at the spa.
Improvement in Hair, Skin, and Scalp Health: Finishing off your shower routine with a blast of cold water is an easy way to boost your hair’s shine. Hair contains a protein called keratin, which acts as a shield around follicles to protect it from damage. Dr. Mun explains, “Soft keratin cells become easily damaged by heat. When [that happens], hair becomes weak and dry and loses its shine. A cold shower can help prevent the hair from getting damaged by heat.” He then explains that due to an increase in blood circulation, the body supplies the hair bulb with more oxygen and nutrients, making hair stronger and shinier.
Just as our veins become smaller when exposed to cold, our pores also tighten in the cold, making skin appear smoother and more taught. Additionally, cold showers aid in the removal of toxins in our skin. Says Dr. Mun, “A cold shower can trigger the circulatory system to stimulate the skin to release waste and reduce inflammation.” This helps to reduce breakouts and redness in the skin.
Finally, there is no healthy head of hair without a healthy scalp as its foundation. Cold water constricts arrector pili muscles, small muscles in the scalp attached to the hair follicles. Dr. Mun reveals that through this constriction of muscles, “[there is a reduction of] sebum and [improvement in] scalp elasticity.” Additionally, hot water can rid the scalp of its sebum, whereas cold water allows these natural oils to exist undisturbed. Whether you have a dry or oily scalp, cold showers can balance the amount of sebum on your head, resulting in less buildup and better hair days all around.
Cold Shower Shock Best Practices
Now that we’ve established the many benefits of a cold shower, it’s important to understand how to perform them safely and effectively. Says Dr. Mun, “Since cold water lowers the body temperature, we don’t recommend letting the cold shower run for an extended time.” Dr. Talib recommends starting with a thirty-second shock to reap the full benefits of this practice. After that, you can gradually increase the length of your cold shower and decrease the temperature over time. Although it might seem wise to go as cold as possible, Dr. Talib advises never dipping below a range of 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
Given that cold showers provide a boost of energy, they are best done in the morning or in the middle of the day. Much like you’d avoid drinking coffee before bed, you should also refrain from partaking in a cool blast of water that might keep you up at night.
Although this is a generally safe practice to do if you have no known medical conditions, a freezing cold shower can potentially harm people with heart conditions—one of them being Raynaud’s disease, a condition that affects the circulatory system. Dr. Talib states, “[One] should always check with [their] healthcare practitioner before embarking on anything like this.”
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