Like most people, I used to enjoy taking hot, steamy showers.
I remember when I was a kid I’d stand under the showerhead and fall into a deep trance of relaxation, completely losing track of time. Eventually my dad would come knock on the door and tell me to hurry up because I was driving up the water heating bill.
Back then, I never would have willingly taken a cold shower. But a lot has changed since then…
Today I take cold showers every day–not just cold, but freezing cold. As in, knob turned all the way cold.
I took my first cold shower almost two years ago, sometime in the middle of my sophomore year.
I’m not exactly sure what motivated me to do it. I was kind of in a slump and I was looking for something new in my life. I guess I was going through a mid-college crisis.
Anyway, as bizarre as it sounded, it sparked my interest. And after reading an overwhelming number of positive accounts from people who had taken the challenge, I decided to give it a shot.
My First Cold Shower
It was 8 AM and I had a long day of classes ahead of me.
I stumbled to the bathroom still half asleep, took a piss, and stepped into the shower.
I turned the knob all the way cold, turned on the water, and stuck out my arm to give it a feel.
It was COLD.
I started to wonder why I had decided to do this…
Why in the world would anyone ever do this?
I felt like the devil was on one shoulder telling me to turn the knob back to the other side and enjoy a nice hot shower just like I always had. But a little angel was on the other shoulder telling me to do what I knew I had to do.
I was very, very tempted to turn the knob. But the angel won.
I gave myself a short pep talk and jumped into the icy cold water.
It was FREEZING.
Instantly, my body went into shock, my heart started pounding, and I thought I was going to die of hypothermia. It was painful, but I stuck it out for as long as I could.
And then something strange happened. When I turned off the water, I felt fucking amazing.
It was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. All of a sudden the colors seemed brighter, my senses seemed sharper, and I felt invincible.
After doing this for 30 days straight, I felt like a completely new person, and since then, I haven’t been able to stop. I’ve taken breaks here and there, but I always end up going back.
I’m addicted. And it turns out I’m not the first one.
The History of Hydrotherapy: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century
People have been using cold-water exposure as a form of therapy, called hydrotherapy, for a very long time. While the science behind it was initially poorly understood, the therapeutic benefits have long been recognized.
Before I get into the historical context, I think it’s important to understand that from an evolutionary standpoint, hot water is a very new and unnatural phenomenon.
For most of human history, hot water was a rare luxury.
“Modern” humans have been on this planet for 200,000 years and the very first water heating systems, called hypocausts, weren’t created until 1st century BC by the Ancient Greeks (“modern” water heating systems weren’t created until the 18th century AD).
This means that throughout 99% of human history, people had to bathe in whatever water was available to them (i.e. lakes, rivers, oceans, etc.). Only people who lived near hot springs could enjoy the comfort of a hot bath.
But what’s interesting is that even after the first heating systems were invented, many societies from different cultural backgrounds continued to bathe in cold water for a wide variety of mental, physical, and spiritual reasons.
The origins of hydrotherapy can be traced all the way back to ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations.
Various forms of hydrotherapy have also been recorded in China and Japan. For example, Japanese practitioners of the Shinto religion perform a purification ritual called Misogi, in which they immerse themselves in the icy cold water of waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and oceans in order to cleanse their spirits from impurities.
Modern Revival of Hydrotherapy (18th – 21st Century)
James Currie, the English physician who established the scientific base of hydrotherapy.
The “modern revival of hydrotherapy” can be accredited to two English physicians from the 18th century. The first is Sir John Floyer, a physician of Lichfield, who investigated the history of cold bathing and published Psychrolousia, or, The History of Cold Bathing: Both Ancient and Modern (1702), which became the basis for Dr. J.S. Hahn’s book, On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly Applied, as Proved by Experience (1738).
The other is Dr. James Currie of Liverpool. His publication, called Medical Reports on the Effects of Water, Cold and Warm, as a Remedy in Fevers and Other Diseases (1797), was the first to establish the scientific base of hydrotherapy.
In the 19th century, Vincenz Priessnitz initiated the revival of hydrotherapy in the Czech Republic. Many now consider him to be the “founder of modern hydrotherapy.” German priest, Sebastian Kneipp, who developed the systematic and controlled application of hydrotherapy as a medical treatment, continued the revival and published his own book, My Water Cure, in 1886.
Hydrotherapy spread to the United States in the 1840s, and at its peak in the late 19th century, there were over 200 hydrotherapy establishments in the United States.
By the beginning of the 20th century, hydrotherapy had become a popular treatment for mental illnesses and was used at many psychiatric institutions. At the London Asylum, for example, cold-water therapy was used to treat patients diagnosed with manic-depressive psychoses (bipolar disorder).
Before Word War II, various forms of hydrotherapy were also used to treat alcoholism. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcohol Anonymous, used hydrotherapy treatment himself in the early 1930s.
The popularity of hydrotherapy, however, began to decline during the mid-20th century as modern medicine’s advancements (particularly with drug therapy) replaced many water-related therapies.
Today, athletes often use ice baths to treat injuries and recover faster from intense training sessions or competitions.
An ice bath is thought to:
- Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues
- Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
- Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown
Although many athletes swear by its effectiveness, I was surprised to find out that there is questionable evidence that cold water immersion has positive effects on exercise recovery and muscle soreness.
A publication from PubMed, which references 24 different sources on the topic, states that “it is not an evidence-based recommendation and studies performed thus far have been small or inconclusive.” Apparently, some studies have even found that cold water immersion may actually make athletes more sore the next day.
After finding out that this very common practice is not as legitimate as it’s made out to be, I was curious to look into the evidence that supports all the claims about the health benefits allegedly associated with taking cold showers.
A natural skeptic, I started to wonder if maybe it was all a load of BS. Every article I had read about the benefits of taking cold showers provided very weak sources of evidence, if any at all.
Even though I didn’t start taking cold showers for the health benefits, when I started writing this article I decided to find out how many of these claims were actually backed by credible scientific research.
Seven Scientifically Supported Health Benefits of Taking Cold Showers
After spending hours reading through LOTS of garbage, I was able to find scientific research that supported the following 7 health benefits of taking cold showers.
Please keep in mind that while the following studies may have supported certain hypotheses, not all of these studies definitively prove their validity (be sure to check out the individual case study links for more details).
1. Improved immunity.
Short-term cold exposure creates changes in uric acid and glutathione levels which produce oxidative stress. One study found that repeated oxidative stress in winter swimmers results in improved antioxidative protection, which reduces the risk of disease. Another study, also on the effects of winter swimming in cold water, showed that red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets count increased significantly after brief exposure to cold water.
2. Increased energy.
Exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response — a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event or threat to survival. This triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus and the secretion of certain hormones that create a natural boost of energy in order to give the body increased strength and speed. In other words, you experience an adrenaline rush.
There is also theoretical evidence that exposure to cold can temporarily counteract physiological changes often associated with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Therefore, research suggests that repeated cold stress (as represented by 3 minute cold showers in a study done in 2007) can reduce fatigue in CFS patients.
3. Weight loss.
A recent study has found that exposure to cold can stimulate growth of brown fat – the “good” fat that burns energy and helps keep us warm. Similarly, another study has found that shivering for 10-15 minutes can have the same effect as exercising on a bicycle for 1 hour.
4. Relief from symptoms of depression.
“Exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and to increase synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain as well. Additionally, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect.”
5. Decreased stress.
A 1994 study that looked at winter swimmers found a drastic decrease in plasma uric acid concentration during and following the exposure to the cold stimulus.
“This can be viewed as an adaption to repeated oxidative stress, and is postulated as mechanism for body hardening. Hardening is the exposure to a natural, e.g., thermal stimulus, resulting in an increased tolerance to stress, e.g., diseases. Exposure to repeated intensive short-term cold stimuli is often applied in hydrotherapy, which is used in physical medicine for hardening.”
6. Refined hair and skin.
Most people think using hot water opens your pores, while cold water closes them. But that’s a myth. Pores don’t open or close. Pores are nothing more than tiny openings in your skin. They don’t have muscles, which means they can’t open or close.
While hot water can help loosen all of the dark spots that are clogging up your pores (this has nothing to do with changing the size of the pores), it’s well known that hot water dries out your hair and skin.
Board-certified dermatologist Jessica Krant, MD, in an article on HuffingtonPost.com, advises against using hot water because “excessively hot water will strip healthy natural oils from your skin too quickly.”
7. Improved breathing, body oxygenation, and blood circulation.
I wasn’t able to find any specific studies on this one, but it seems that the reason is because conducting a study isn’t necessary to prove this point. The above processes are the body’s natural physiological responses to cold conditions. When the cold water hits your skin, you experience the phenomenon of cold shock, an involuntary response characterized by a sudden rapid breathing (hyperventilation) and increased heart rate. The rapid breathing opens up your lungs (just like physical exercise does), which brings in more oxygen to your body and all of your vital organs.
The cold also causes our arteries and veins to constrict. In this process, called vasoconstriction, your blood rapidly circulates to your vital organs to keep them warm. This improves circulation because it forces blood to flow at a higher pressure, because there is less space for the blood to flow.
In my research, I also learned a few things that I didn’t expect:
- Most of the benefits of taking cold showers seem to stem from exposure to cold temperatures in general, not just cold water. Water is simply a means to an end.
- There are a number of health risks associated with taking hot showers. Chlorine and other disinfectant chemicals become volatile when the water is heated, and can then enter then body when you breathe in the steam. So at the very least, you should avoid taking steaming, hot showers.
- MUCH more research needs to be done before we go around claiming cold showers to be the end-all-be-all cure for health problems.
Two Life Secrets I’ve Learned From Taking Cold Showers
Like I said before, I didn’t start taking cold showers for the health benefits. It’s good to know they exist, but the real reason why I take cold showers is this:
If you want to achieve anything great in your life, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. – Tweet This
However easy success might look from the outside, it never is.
Achieving big goals requires discomfort.
Any time you see someone successful, know that they had to put in a lot of hard work to get there, and probably had to overcome many obstacles along the way.
That’s where cold showers come in.
By constantly challenging ourselves with something, even if it’s as simple as taking a cold shower, we build our tolerance for discomfort. We develop a mental toughness that enables us to keep calm in times of stress, to adapt to the obstacles that life throws at us, and to fearlessly take on new challenges.
Our mind is like a muscle — the more we work it out, the stronger it gets.
Taking cold showers has helped me learn how to do two very important things:
1. Stop thinking, start doing.
The hardest part about taking a cold shower is getting into the water.
You can’t stop thinking about how cold and uncomfortable it’s going to be. Even after having taken hundreds of cold showers, I still hesitate sometimes.
But the longer you hesitate, the harder it becomes.
Over-thinking creates anxiety, and anxiety prevents action.
When the cold water first hits you, your body experiences a shock and you begin breathing rapidly. This is an involuntary response that you cannot control.
But after that initial shock, you are in control of your response. You can scream and curse, or you can focus on slowing down your breathing and remaining calm.
I like to close my eyes and think about the water that’s hitting my skin. It feels cold, but that’s it. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is.
Accept it and relax.
Welcome adversity into your life, rather than try to fight it off. Because in real life, we don’t control the things that happen to us. What we do control, is how we respond to those things.
In times of stress, or pressure, or hardship, we often let our emotions get the best of us, and we start to panic.
During these situations, remember to breathe.
Try to look at things objectively. Nothing is inherently good or bad, unless you label it to be. Obstacles aren’t roadblocks, but rather opportunities to change, improve, and grow stronger.
Taking cold showers has changed my life.
A cold shower in the morning gives me a natural high that gets me going, ready to take on whatever challenges the day has in store for me.
A cold shower at the end of a long, stressful day helps me clear my mind and refocus on what’s important.
Normally addictions control you, but this one puts YOU in control.
Note: Based on my research, people with high blood pressure are advised against taking cold showers. Low temperatures constrict blood vessels, which can cause a spike in blood pressure. But, I am not a doctor. Please use your own judgement (or consult with a doctor) to decide if taking cold showers is right for you.