Healthy by Ice Bathing?

Who does not love to go into a warm sauna or have a warm shower in the winter? The heat has been shown to have a calming and warm effect on us. Besides, there is no need to overcome it. However, this article does not deal with the effects of heat, but it shows that obviously, a temperature outside of our core body temperature has a health effect on us. The cold on the other side, which goes also outside of our core body temperature, doesn´t feel as nice as the heat. I´ve been ice bathing for two years now and at no point, it feels as easy as a warm shower. So, is it really necessary to go into cold water if a sauna may be also possible?


Firstly, cold doesn´t have a real difference to the heat. Environmental stresses such as extremely warm or cold temperatures challenge both human health and body homeostasis (2). Also, the human body can adapt relatively well to heat and cold environments, but recent studies have also elucidated that particularly heat stress might be even highly beneficial for human health (2). Cold stress may challenges our physiological systems too much and can be detrimental to human health if it done wronge (2). But before we look at the different health benefits of ice bathing, which exist, it is very important to look at the physiological process during ice bathing: In the beginning, a human body will adjust to the cold exposure differently to maintain a heat balance (2). Therefore, one body decreases for example the heat transfer from the core to the skin and other distal parts of the body (2). The vessels try in addition the same process, by contracting the skin vessels during an ice exposure and so, the blood is centralized in the core of the body to maintain the body temperature (5). If you get then out of the water, the vessels widen and there is an increased blood flow (1, 5). The heat balance can also be restored by reducing heat loss or increasing heat production (2). That is one reason why we are shivering.


After we have now looked at the different physiological changes of the body during ice bathing, let´s look at the different effects of moderate cold exposure on human health:


  • Cold exposures can be beneficial in reducing body adiposity due to reduction in skinfold thickness (2)

  • Increased blood flow to the muscles and the core of the body lead to a pleasant feeling which can stimulate the immune system (5)

  • Stress-mediated improvements in vascular function leading to better health of the peripheral circulation (repeated extreme temperature variations will be necessary) (2)

  • Brown fat is activated by the cold which lowers the body weight and may prevent body adiposity (2)

  • Adrenaline and endorphins are released during ice bathing which leads to euphoric happiness (1, 5)

  • Cold exposures help your central nervous system by aiding in sleep, and consequently, making you feel better from having less fatigue (4)

  • The decreasing of the local temperature after exercise helps to limit inflammatory response, decreasing the amount of inflammation and helping you recover faster (4)


Summarized, you see that ice bathing has a lot of health benefits. But it´s still important to consider that heat- and cold-stress-induced adaptations have an additive effect (2). So, it will be always the best choice to combine both. But of course, not every one of you has the possibility to go into a sauna before ice bathing. If you don´t have a sauna, an alternative can be sport before an ice bath. Sport may not have exactly the same effect as a sauna, but it also increases body temperature.


In the end, it is very important to notice that currently just a few studies available. So, there will be a lack of evidence. Research should therefore invest more in this topic in the future. Below (Table 1) you can find the various health aspects collected again.


Table 1. Benefits of cold-water swimming (Source: Knechtel et al., 2020)


In the end, it is very important to notice that regular ice bathing in cold water seems to have a positive effect on various systems such as the cardiovascular system, endocrine system, immune system, and psyche (3). But it also has some significant health risks for inexperienced and untrained swimmers. So, it is recommended that in order to fully benefit from the metabolic and thermogenic effects of cold-water swimming, a grade, and progressive acclimatization program is required and preferably done under supervisor (3).


On Friday, you will get a short instruction for ice bathing with the most important risk factors and some tips, especially for beginners.


I'll see you on Friday!


Literature

(1) Carstens, P. (2018, January 14). Wie gesund ist Eisbaden wirklich?. Retrieved from 17 April 2021, from https://www.geo.de/wissen/gesundheit/18108-rtkl-winterbaden-wie-gesund-ist-eisbaden-wirklich


(2) Heinonen, I., & Laukkanen, J. A. (2018). Effects of heat and cold on health, with special reference to Finnish sauna bathing. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology, 314(5), R629–R638. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00115.2017


(3) Knechtle, B., Waśkiewicz, Z., Sousa, C. V., Hill, L., & Nikolaidis, P. T. (2020). Cold Water Swimming—Benefits and Risks: A Narrative Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(23), 8984.


(4) Lindberg, S. (2019, April 9). Ice Bath Benefits: What the Research Says. Retrieved from 17 April 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/ice-bath-benefits


(5) NDR (2021, January 15). Winter- oder Eisbaden: Worauf muss ich achten?. Retrieved from 17 April 2021, from https://www.ndr.de/ratgeber/gesundheit/Winterbaden-oder-Eisbaden-Worauf-muss-man-achten,eisbaden238.html


Additional Literature

Hof, W., & de Jong, K. (2018). Nie wieder krank: Gesund, stark und leistungsfähig durch die Kraft der Kälte. Riva Verlag.


Hof, W. (2020). The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential. Sounds True.

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