Overhead shower: Cold showers

Health

Three simple reasons cold showers keep you healthy

By Juman Hijab

Reading time: minutes

Original date: May 1, 2024  

Updated: May 1, 2024

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Overhead shower: Cold showers

Cold showers: "Shower", me5otron, taken on Nov 14, 2008.  Flickr.com

Changes in your body when taking a cold shower

Does taking cold showers make you healthier? There is some evidence to suggest that this is so.

 

This article will give you three positive benefits for taking a cold shower first thing in the morning that will jolt you into full alertness (and possibly better health) before you have even taken that first sip of coffee.


What health benefits do cold showers have (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)? I will touch on three areas: 

  1. Increased alertness and energy
  2. Improved immune system. 
  3. Improved mood and less depression

Increased alertness and energy

Are some of you getting goosebumps just hearing me talk about cold showers? In preparing for this article, I started taking a cold shower every morning for the past 12 days. Let me tell you, taking showers is great for productivity. Nothing motivates you to get out of the shower faster than ice-cold water!


The first benefit from cold showers in the morning is increased alertness and energy. As your skin feels the cold temperatures, your blood vessels constrict so that the body conserves heat. Then, there is a rush of blood into those areas after completing the shower that energizes you! When I have the cold water running over my body, the feeling is deliciously cold, like a cool breeze. What is interesting is that after the first shock of the cold water, my skin starts to welcome the coldness. And by the time I am done, my skin is tingly and warm and I feel quite awake. 

Exposing yourself to cold water stimulates your stress-related hormones (for example, adrenaline, 6) and gives you a boost in energy levels. It is a refreshing feeling, like a dip in the cold ocean water without having to leave the house.

Improved immune system

Multiple studies have shown that voluntary exposure to cold (swimming in cold water, cold water immersion, or cold showers) activates the immune system in a positive manner. As I said above, activation of the sympathetic nervous system by acute exposure to cold water (6) leads to an increase in adrenaline levels. In volunteers, cold exposure (as well as other interventions such as meditation and specialized breathing techniques) increase  levels of anti-inflammatory molecules - which is a good thing. Furthermore, pro-inflammation molecules and flu-like symptoms were lower in subjects who experienced the interventions. These changes suggest that non-pharmacological maneuvers can influence the immune system in a positive manner.

In fact, an intriguing study showed that routinely showering (hot-to-cold) for at least 30 days resulted in a reduction in sick leave from work (2). What they say must be true: "cold showers can help reduce stress."  I guess any problem seems smaller when your main concern is surviving until the hot water comes back!

Cold Showers

Image of a person taking a shower, by DALL路E (May 1, 2024)

Improved mood and less depression

Did you know that some researchers believe that cold showers can help with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks? Cold showers seem to have a mild electroshock-type of therapy to one's sensory nervous system (5). It's as if you're training your brain to calm down when faced with a barrage of sensory stimuli: as you learn to deal with the onslaught of cold water on your body, you use that learning to deal with sensory overload from other situations. You basically breathe calmly through it and accept the temporary discomfort.


Essentially, cold immersion therapy is using its physiological effects in the body to rewire the brain. Blood levels of norepinephrine and dopamine concentrations increase by two-to-five fold while stress hormone levels (such as cortisol concentrations) decrease. Those hormonal changes in your blood are felt in your brain. In a small study in 2023,  subjects felt more alert, inspired and attentive after a single five-minute session in a 68-degree bath. Brain scans taken before and after cold water therapy revealed an increased connection between the regions of the brain controlling attention, emotion and self-regulation after cold water immersion (7).

Should we take a cold shower every morning?

 There are other benefits that have been noted with cold water exposure: 

  • Your skin could look younger as the coldness tends to tighten the pores in your skin, which reduces the appearance of acne and other skin blemishes. For your hair, the cold water may make the hair appear shinier and less frizzy
  • There is a boost in circulation after the initial constriction of the blood vessels. This also revs up your metabolism. Some studies suggest that that activates brown fat (which is a healthier type of fat), a type of fat tissue that generates heat and burns calories. This may have an effect on one's overall metabolic balance.
  • Reduced muscle soreness after an intense workout.

In addition, you have the certain knowledge that you are in the minority of the idiotic people who are waking up to a cold shower when you could just as easily enjoy a warm one!


What has been my experience with cold showers in the morning?


Why have I been subjecting myself to the miserableness of a cold shower every morning for the past 12 days? For a couple of reasons: 

  1. I had committed to doing it for the 12 days
  2. I wanted to see if I could acclimatize to the coldness after doing it for more than a week

What has been my experience so far in taking cold showers in the morning? While the cold water on one's body can be managed and have some pleasant aspects to it, it is not pleasant to have cold water shower down on one's scalp and face! The cold water causes an "ice cream" type headache, even after a few seconds of exposure. The cold water on my face hurt and I couldn't take it more than 1 minute; it's probably because skin is thinner on one face and thus more sensitive to cold. 


Would I recommend taking a cold shower every morning? I think there is a definite benefit, but it is not doable long term because of the effect of the cold water on one's face/scalp. Interestingly, most cold water immersion studies have the subject's head outside the cold water. Thus, I can see a combination warm water for washing one's hair/face and cold water for one's body. Doing that may have some health benefits. Moreover, it clearly gets you in a positive mood for the day. So, yes, I would recommend a daily cold shower limited to one's body.


One caveat: Avoid cold showers if you have.........


It is important to note that, while cold showers pose no health risk for most people, persons with the following conditions may want to think twice before attempting them:

  • People with heart disease: The shock of cold water increases your heart rate and may be problematic
  • People with a history of cold urticaria: the cold may induce hives
  • People with Raynaud's syndrome: The cold may cause skin changes the fingers and toes

References

  1. Briganti GL, Chesini G, Tarditi D, Serli D, Capodici A. Effects of cold water exposure on stress, cardiovascular, and psychological variables. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2023 Dec;239(4):e14056. doi: 10.1111/apha.14056. Epub 2023 Oct 16. PMID: 37840386.
  2. Buijze GA, Sierevelt IN, van der Heijden BC, Dijkgraaf MG, Frings-Dresen MH. The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 15;11(9):e0161749. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161749. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2018 Aug 2;13(8):e0201978. PMID: 27631616; PMCID: PMC5025014.
  3. Esperland D, de Weerd L, Mercer JB. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water - a continuing subject of debate. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2022 Dec;81(1):2111789. doi: 10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789. PMID: 36137565; PMCID: PMC9518606.
  4. Sangerma E. The Ultimate Guide to Cold Showers: What science has to say about it and 4 easy steps to get you started.
    Ascent Publication. May 6, 2020.
  5. Mooventhan A, Nivethitha L. Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. N Am J Med Sci. 2014 May;6(5):199-209. doi: 10.4103/1947-2714.132935. PMID: 24926444; PMCID: PMC4049052.
  6. Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, van den Wildenberg J, Sweep FC, van der Hoeven JG, Pickkers P. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 May 20;111(20):7379-84. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1322174111. Epub 2014 May 5. PMID: 24799686; PMCID: PMC4034215.
  7. Yankouskaya A, Williamson R, Stacey C, Totman JJ, Massey H. Short-Term Head-Out Whole-Body Cold-Water Immersion Facilitates Positive Affect and Increases Interaction between Large-Scale Brain Networks. Biology. 2023;12(2):211.

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