Ice baths are nothing new – even in ancient Greece and Rome, people would brave ice-cold springs for the plethora of benefits that cold water immersion brings.
In more recent years, dutchman Wim Hof is credited for popularizing ice baths again by breaking world records in cold exposure, and developing his own method to teach others how to do the same. And most likely, you’ve seen at least a few fitness gurus in your feed raving about the benefits of cold water therapy (we admit, the Peak State team is drinking the cold water Kool Aid).
But is there any truth to the health claims about ice baths, or is this just the fitness world’s latest, hottest trend? Let’s break down what ice baths are, how they affect your body, and what the research says about the possible benefits and risks of cold water therapy.
How Do Ice Baths Affect Your Body?
An ice bath is exactly what it sounds like – intentionally submerging your body in cold water. When you plunge into cold water, the blood vessels in your body narrow in a process called vasoconstriction. This causes blood to redirect and pump into your organs.
But the water itself also puts pressure on your body, known as hydrostatic pressure. This pumps even more blood into your brain, lungs, and heart, rushing oxygen and nutrients into these vital organs.
When you emerge from the cold water, your blood vessels begin to expand (vasodilation). This pumps the oxygen-rich blood back into your tissue and muscles, which helps to lower inflammation, boosts circulation, and gets rid of waste products like lactic acid.
In simple terms, the practice of cold water immersion boosts and strengthens your cardiovascular system, which is central to many of our core body functions, as well as a range of other systems in your body that keeps you healthy.
7 Health Benefits of Ice Baths
Although cold water therapy is an ancient practice, the research is still budding, with many new studies consistently being published and expanded upon. But here are six possible benefits to taking ice baths, as supported by current research:
1. Improved Circulation & Stronger Cardiovascular System
Heart health is central to most of our bodily functions, as well as our ability to physically recover. Ice baths train your cardiovascular system by strengthening your blood vessels, which leads to healthier muscles, tissues and organs.
This study found that cold water therapy, and contrast water therapy especially, significantly improved circulation in participants and pumped more oxygen into the submerged muscles.
2. Reduced Inflammation
Cold water immersion is often used in physical therapy as a tool to relieve pain and increase the pace of healing, both in chronic and acute conditions.
So-called contrast therapy, which alternates cold and hot water, has proven especially effective at treating pain, among others in people with ankle sprains, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
It is believed that this is partly due to the blood vessels constricting and widening, which creates a pumping effect that delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the injured areas. Another study also points out ice baths' effect on the central nervous system, and that cold water immersion may help to block the nerve cells that trigger pain.
Another study found a correlation between the amount of cortisol (stress hormones) and inflammatory proteins in the blood stream when subjects combined cold exposure with breathing techniques through the Wim Hof method. The voluntary and controlled exposure to cold water increased the cortisol levels in the blood, and as a result dramatically lowered the inflammatory proteins in the blood stream, even up to six days afterward.
3. Improved Resilience to Stress
Your vagus nerve is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax after a period of high stress and danger. Training the vagus nerve, according to certified strength and conditioning specialist Aurimas Juodka, can help you face stressful situations better, which makes this one of the foremost benefits of ice baths.
Studies have also found that cold water immersion triggers the release of adrenaline, epinephrine, and creates a concentration of noradrenaline of up to 530% compared to regular levels. This, in combination with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system when emerging from an ice bath, may improve you reaction to stress and anxiety over time.
When your body’s stress hormones are triggered, it’s followed by a phase of resistance, as your body fights to adjust to the perceived danger and surge of hormones in your body. Learning to remain calm and breathe through this reaction in a controlled environment may help to build up your mental resilience for future times of high stress and anxiety.
In fact, people taking regular ice baths have reported less anxiety, depression and stress, and studies have also shown that ice baths can lead to as much as a 250% boost of dopamine, the so-called feel good hormone that regulates our mood.
However, it’s important to note that ice baths are not intended to replace professional help in the case of anxiety and depression. But it may be beneficial as a compliment to other forms of therapy in accord with your doctor.
4. Improved Immune Function
According to Dr Thanu Jey, director at the Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic, taking ice baths may help regulate the body’s inflammatory response, since icy water lowers the body’s temperature in the submerged area. When you emerge from the ice water, blood pumps back into tissue and muscle, which speeds up recovery and helps to lower inflammation.
Similarly, this comprehensive study found that by taking ice baths, you voluntarily activate your sympathetic nervous system, which helps to suppress the immune response - this could be an important find to help us treat persistent inflammation in the body.
Another study found that people who take daily cold showers have a higher concentration of white blood cells, which helps to combat diseases. The study indicates that cold exposure helps to activate and strengthen the immune system over time.
5. Faster Muscle Recovery after Exercise
However, if you’re trying to build muscle mass, you may not want to rely on ice baths after every exercise, since it may slow the buildup of new muscle mass.
6. Central Nervous System Function
According to Dr A. Brian Gardner, taking ice baths can aid your central nervous system, primarily by improving the quality of your sleep, which makes you experience less fatigue.
It may also help to activate your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, which gives you a natural energy boost and helps to improve your mood.
This is in part because of the ATP molecule, which is also known as the energy molecule – it plays a huge role in our energy levels, and the formation of ATP is aided by oxygen. Studies have found that exposure to cold water in combination with breathing techniques may aid the formation of ATP, and as a result, our energy levels.
7. Cold Resistance and Faster Metabolism
Brown fat tissue could be likened to your body's own radiator. By breaking down glucose and fat cells fast, brown fat generates heat and helps us to maintain our body temperature, and it's primarily activated when we are exposed to cold.
As children, we have a high concentration of brown fat, but as we get older it naturally decreases. But according to studies, cold water immersion can not only activate but build up more brown fat in the body.
Over time, this makes us less sensitive to cold temperatures. Because of how brown fat breaks down fat and glucose, it may also speed up metabolism and play a role in weight loss. The study indicates that already at a water temperature of 20C, the metabolic rate doubles – in water temperature of 14C, it is already four times the normal rate.
The study also found a direct correlation between brown fat and body fat, where more brown fat meant less body fat, which further indicates how building brown fat could aid in weight loss.
Who Should Try Ice Baths?
There are many who can benefit from cold water immersion. If you have physically pushed yourself in exercise, or do so regularly, ice baths may help you recover faster from muscle soreness. Likewise, ice baths may benefit people living with chronic conditions, since it can help to relieve physical pain.
But anyone who wants to experience the benefits of cold water therapy, or wants to build up their resilience, may consider trying ice baths or cold showers.
However, ice baths put your body under strain, and people with certain conditions should proceed with caution. If you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, a lymphatic condition, diabetes, or nerve damage, make sure to consult your doctor before taking any risks with cold water therapy.
If you’re recovering from an injury or living with chronic pain, cold water therapy may be beneficial, but it's still recommended to discuss your specific case with a doctor before plunging in.
What Are the Risks of Ice Baths?
It's important to always be smart when practicing cold water therapy, and to listen to your body’s signals – ‘cause while a plunge into ice cold water comes with many potential health benefits, there are also certain risks.
Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that occurs when your body temperature sinks too low – namely, below 35C. There is always a risk of hypothermia when taking ice baths, if you stay in for too long or the water is too cold.
To safely take ice baths, listen to the recommendations of experts and ease yourself into the practice, so you can learn your own limits. Ideal temperature for an ice bath ranges between 50-59 Fahrenheit, and you should limit yourself to 10-15 minutes maximum in the water – though if you’re just starting out, take it slow and let your body build up a tolerance.
It’s also worth learning the symptoms of hypothermia, which include shivering, memory loss, slurred speech, tiredness, and confusion, among others. And as a general rule, never go cold water dipping alone, without supervision, or while performing breath work at the same time.
Shock & Heart Attack
If you are not used to ice bathing, or if you have any of the conditions mentioned above, a sudden plunge into ice cold water may shock your system, or in a worst case scenario, trigger a heart attack.
This is why it’s so important to listen to guidelines, consult your doctor if necessary, and ease yourself into the practice. Ideally, try and get started in a controlled environment, like a fitness center, with a guide, or physical therapist, before doing it on your own.
Tips for Staying Safe With Ice Baths:
While there are risks, there are of course ways to stay safe while ice bathing, and many thousands across the globe practice cold water therapy every day. Here are some general rules of thumb to remember before you take the plunge:
- Know your limits, and go slow in the beginning
- Be kind to yourself about time spent in the water
- Don’t go ice bathing alone
- Only take ice baths while sober
- Always go feet first
- Regulate your breathing
- Have a plan to warm up again
Tips for Getting Started With Ice Baths:
So, you’re ready to give ice baths a go? Here are some tips for safely practicing cold water therapy, and making your journey to becoming an ice bath guru a smooth one.
Where to Take Ice Baths?
You can take ice baths in many different places – from the (relative) comfort of your home, at various physical therapy and/or fitness centers, or even out in nature. The key component is a body of water at approximately 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people start with cold showers, by simply turning down the temperature at the end of their shower for as long as they can endure it.
The Beginners Guide to Ice Baths:
If you’re just starting out, it's a good idea to begin with cold showers. This allows you to build up a tolerance for cold water before submerging yourself all at once.
When the cold showers start to feel more bearable, you can begin to ease into cold water dipping. If you prefer to fully submerge in an ice bath at home, simply fill up your tub with the coldest water on your tap, and check the temperature with a thermometer. If necessary, you can add ice cubes.
Start slow, by staying in the water between 30 seconds to 5 minutes while carefully regulating your breathing. Each individual has different tolerances, so listen to your own body and don’t compare yourself to others. From there, you can begin to build yourself up over time. But remember, even when well-trained, it is not advised to stay in the water for longer than 15 minutes.
If you’re starting to shiver or shake, it's definitely time to get out. For maximum benefit, let yourself warm up naturally, rather than with a hot shower – and enjoy the thrill of having successfully practiced cold water therapy. You will feel like a million dollars for the rest of the day.
FAQ: Ice Baths
Here's are the answers to some frequently asked questions about ice baths:
What are the benefits of taking an ice bath?
The potential benefits of ice baths include lower inflammation levels, stronger cardiovascular system, improved circulation, improved stress reaction, better sleep, increased amount of brown fat, and quicker recovery post-exercise.
How often should you take an ice bath?
There is no one limit to how often you should take ice baths – some practice cold water immersion monthly, others weekly, and some people even daily. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve with cold water therapy and how your body reacts to it.
However, if you’re trying to build muscle mass, taking ice baths after each workout may slow your progress, since ice baths may slow down the growth of muscle mass if practiced often.
How long should you ice bath for?
If you’re just starting out, it's recommended to begin with cold showers and then slowly build up a tolerance to submerging fully in an ice bath. Over time, you may build up to staying in for as long as 10-15 minutes, but we do not advise staying in an ice bath for longer than 15 minutes, since it increases the risk of hypothermia and frostbite.
What temperature should an ice bath be?
Many sources suggest the ideal temperature of an ice bath when starting out is between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10-15 degrees Celsius. You can start with slightly warmer temperatures if you prefer, or colder if you have experience. If you’re in a natural body of water which is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, be careful not to stay in for too long!
Are cold water showers as effective ice baths?
Cold showers come with many benefits, and is a great place to start out with ice baths. But the practice of submerging your whole body in cold water at once, and staying in for multiple minutes, comes with additional benefits, including the effects of the water’s pressure on your skin.
Are Ice Baths Safe?
Ice baths are safe for most people, so long as they don’t stay in for too long and listen to their body’s signals. However, people with heart conditions, high blood pressure, nerve damage, lymphatic conditions, or diabetes should be careful and consult with their doctor first.
Bottomline: Are Ice Baths Good For You?
Ice baths come with many potential health benefits, including a stronger cardiovascular system, lower inflammation levels, pain relief, quicker recovery from exercise and an improved stress response. It is a widely popular practice in the health and wellbeing community, and more research is consistently being done in this field.
However, ice baths put your body into an extremely cold condition, which comes with risk of shock or hypothermia if not practiced safely. Never stay in the cold water for longer than 15 minutes, and don’t dip in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When first getting started, it’s important to let your body build up a tolerance for the cold, and it’s recommended to first start with cold showers.
Likewise, anyone with a heart condition, high blood pressure, diabetes, a lymphatic condition, or nerve damage should consult their doctor before starting cold water therapy. If you hope to use ice baths as a method of treating a specific injury or condition, you should also consult with a professional first.