While nothing beats the feeling of a warm bubble bath, there are actually several benefits of submerging yourself in a cold body of water. Also known as a cold plunge, experts say that the icy practice provides a host of advantages for the mind and body, such as a faster post-workout recovery, better night's sleep, and boosted immunity.
Considering taking the plunge? We tapped Dr. Jonathan Leary, CEO and Founder of Remedy Place, Dr. Dominic King, a sports medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Craig Koniver of Koniver Wellness to break down everything you need to know about ice baths.
What is a cold plunge?
"A cold plunge is a therapeutic practice where individuals immerse themselves in cold water for a short period, usually ranging from a few seconds to a certain amount of minutes, depending on the water temperature and experience level of the individual," says Dr. Leary, who offers an ice bath service at his Remedy Place locations.
According to Dr. Koniver, there are many different kinds of cold plunges. It can be a shower, dip in the ocean or lake, bath filled with ice, or custom made-cold plunge devices that can often be found at wellness centers, luxury spas, and fitness centers.
What are the benefits of a cold plunge?
By decreasing your body's temperature, the practice of taking a cold plunge has numerous health advantages. "When you submerge your body in cold water, the result is a constriction of your blood vessels, mainly those blood vessels in your legs and your arms and away from your core where most of your heat is held," explains Dr. King. "When blood vessels are constricted, blood doesn't flow as quickly to those areas and in turn, may reduce inflammation temporarily."
Dr. Leary also says constricted blood vessels can have a positive impact on the cardiovascular system, boosting heart health and circulation, while Dr. Koniver notes that a "cold plunge is a form of contrast therapy, [which] is a stressor to one’s physiology and biochemistry. As a stressor, it forces the body to adapt to a new environment."
The effects are aplenty, but here are the top 15 benefits of a cold plunge:
Reduced Muscle Soreness: Immersing your body in cold water has anti-inflammatory effects. "The constriction and subsequent dilation of blood vessels can help reduce inflammation in muscles and joints, making it a popular recovery method among athletes," explains Dr. Leary
Faster Recovery: Dr. King say taking an ice bath can "expedite the recovery process" by reducing inflammation and enhancing blood circulation, which can help repair damaged tissues more quickly. Dr. Leary notes that because of these benefits, many athletes and fitness enthusiasts use cold plunges as a form of recovery.
Improved Muscle Repair: "Cold exposure may stimulate the release of proteins and growth factors that aid in muscle repair and growth," says Dr. King.
Enhanced Circulation: Cold temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict and then dilate once you exit the ice bath, potentially improving overall blood circulation.
Decreased Swelling: By constricting blood vessels, Dr. King says cold therapy can limit the accumulation of excess fluid in tissues.
Pain Relief: "Cold water exposure can stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers," explains Dr. Leary. "This can lead to temporary pain relief and a sense of well-being."
Increased Metabolism: Dr. King says the body's metabolic rate can temporarily increase in response to cold exposure, which helps maintain a stable core temperature.
Boosted Immune System: There is some research that suggests a cold plunge can stimulate the production of white blood cells, which plays a vital role in immune response.
Improved Mood: According to Dr. King, cold exposure is believed to trigger the release of endorphins and other mood-boosting neurotransmitters.
Enhanced Mental Resilience: "Cold plunges can have a stimulating effect on the nervous system," explains Dr. Leary. "The shock of the cold water triggers the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, which can improve mood and reduce stress."
Hormonal Balance: Dr. King says a cold plunge could have potential benefits on hormones related to stress and mood.
Increased Oxygen Uptake: A cold plunge can help with deeper breathing, which Dr. King says may have a positive effect on overall respiratory function.
Better Sleep: Cold therapy is often associated with improved sleep quality since it can help with stress reduction and promote relaxation.
Improved Skin Health: Dr. King and Dr. Leary say a cold plunge can tighten pores and improve blood flow to the skin.
Aid in Weight Loss: Both doctors also say exposure to cold temperatures can activate brown fat activity, a type of fat that generates heat by burning calories. "This can contribute to weight management and metabolic health," adds Dr. Leary.
**Dr. King notes that while ice baths can offer several benefits, they may not be suitable for everyone. Consult a healthcare professional before incorporating ice baths into your routine. Those with medical conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy are among the people who should avoid cold plunges. Pregnant women, elderly individuals, and people with circulations disorders should avoid, too.
What's the best temperature for a cold plunge?
According to Dr. Koniver and Dr. King, the ideal cold plunge temperature is between 50 to 60 degrees F.
How long should you stay in a cold plunge?
The duration of a cold plunge can vary based on an individual's tolerance and experience level. "Generally, it's recommended to start with shorter durations and gradually increase your time as your body becomes accustomed to the cold water," says Dr. Leary. Per Dr. Koniver, it is common for people to start by submerging for 15-30 seconds and then over time, increase the submerged time to 3-15 minutes.
To help ease yourself into the routine, Dr. King recommends warming up your body through light exercise or movement before entering the cold water since that can make the exposure more tolerable. He also said deep, controlled breathing techniques can help manage the body's response to cold. Just remember to stay hydrated before and after since ice baths can lead to dehydration!
Dr. Leary also notes it's important to listen to your body throughout the process. "Cold exposure should not cause extreme discomfort, pain, or prolonged shivering," he says. "If you start to shiver uncontrollably or feel any adverse effects, it's a sign that your body might be getting too cold, and you should exit the cold plunge."
How often should you do a cold plunge?
Dr. King says start with a frequency that suits your body's response: "For beginners, 2-3 times per week might be sufficient. As you adapt, you can increase the frequency if desired. As I tell my patients, 'If you are going to go low... go slow.'"
Can you cold plunge every day?
You can cold plunge every day, but prioritizing recovery between sessions is crucial for your health. "Cold exposure is a stressor, and your body needs time to recover and adapt," notes Dr. Leary. "If you're feeling fatigued, sore, or if your sleep quality is affected, it might be a sign that you need to reduce the frequency or duration of your cold plunges."
Meet the experts
Dominic King, DO, FAOASM, FAMIA, sports medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic
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