A Hot New Trend: The Bliss and Benefits of a Cold Plunge

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Read time: 6 minutes

Does anyone really look forward to a cold plunge? Sure, you may feel great after, but during? I remember when I took my first birthing class, over 16 years ago, and one of the exercises was to hold a handful of ice for as long as you could. This was to simulate the pain of childbirth. Similarly, an ice plunge is by no means comfortable. Imagine jumping into a slushie—then staying a while.

Woman Ready to Experience the Benefits of a Cold Plunge Stepping into Icy Lake with Bare Feet

A cold plunge is essentially the act of immersing yourself in cold-temperature water (typically 50°F or below). The duration of the plunge can also vary, but it is usually between 30 seconds and 3 minutes. The plunge triggers the enlivening release of stress hormones, such as noradrenaline and cortisol. It’s the cold shower effect, but exponentially more intense. Expect to be woken up.

What is a cold plunge?

Here’s where I confess no firsthand knowledge of an ice plunge. But this eloquent description, in an essay by Sarah Miller about cold swimming in California, captures the appeal.

“For the first minute in very cold water, your brain just goes on a vacation…You are nothing except a body experiencing itself. I laugh at this stage, I laugh like my guts are going to fall out of my body, then scream. It’s so cold, and yes, that is hard. But it doesn’t last that long, and you can feel the unpleasantness of the cold melding with the pleasantness of it until it is all pleasantness, until all you feel is bliss.”

As Miller notes, the body takes over, the mind goes quiet. That alone seems worth the price of admission.

In another article, Ida Lennestål, one of Maine’s so-called ice mermaids, recounts the experiences of cold water thusly: “These sessions are a direct experience of the body, anchoring me into the present moment. It has taught me to sit with the uncomfortable, both the hot and the cold, to breathe through it. To pay attention. It has taught me to listen to my body and hear what it needs. It’s a ritual. Sacred almost. And the bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.”

Ice and bliss are unusual bedfellows, but that seems to be the unexpected, recurring takeaway from a cold water session.

History of ice plunges

Cold plunges have been having a moment, thanks to wellness practitioners like Wim Hof, whose method pairs cold exposure with breathing and meditation, to help manage anxiety and stress.

TikTok is blowing up with cold plunge views in the millions. An impressive list of celebrities including Lizzo, Kendall Jenner, Lady Gaga, Madonna and Brooke Shields have posted about the practice on social media. While the science is inconclusive, anecdotally, many practitioners believe it helps with mental clarity, stress and depression.

While cold plunging seems like a recent trend, in fact the practice has ancient antecedents. Therapeutic hypothermia—the cooling of the body for therapeutic purposes—has been around, in one form or another, for over 5000 years.

According to Medical News Today, its first known mention was in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a medical treatise outlining treatments for various injuries and ailments, a text that may date back to around 3,500 B.C.E.

The Greek Hippocrates, born 460 B.C., and considered the father of modern medicine, build his medical theory around the idea that of “humors,” or particular liquids within the body, were responsible for a person’s health. Diseases occurred when these liquids were out of balance. For some of the treatments he proposed, cold played a significant factor.

Hippocrates advised snow and ice packing for open wounds to stop the bleeding. Fast forward to the 19th century, during which many people lauded the benefits of ice baths, both for hygiene and often for treating fevers.

The ice bath continued to evolve from that point until recent years when it became a staple of sports medicine.

Cold plunge benefits 

No studies have shown that the Wim Hof method or cold water immersion alone boosts mental health, but a growing body of research suggests that cold-water swimming can improve mood and well-being.

Here are several of the prominent benefits that a cold-water plunge can confer.

May boost mood

Research, especially studies based in Europe, have explored the psychological effects of cold-water swimming and seen encouraging results. According to a New York Times article, a 2020 study conducted in Britain found that 61 people who took a 10-week course to learn to swim in cold seawater experienced greater improvements in mood and well-being than 22 of their friends and family members who watched them from shore. This could also be the effect on exercise on mood, however, and little to do with the temperature of the water.

Other research suggests cold water swimming has been shown to increase norepinephrine (linked to alertness) and endorphin (a mood-booster).

May improve circulation

Cold exposure can cause blood vessels to constrict, which can increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues. This can help improve circulation and enhance overall health.

May reduce inflammation

Vasoconstriction, mentioned above, causes the narrowing of the blood vessels, which reduces blood flow to the extremities and redirects it to the vital organs. This response reduces inflammation by reducing the amount of blood flow to the inflamed or affected area, which reduces swelling and pain. For athletes, this also translates into reducing lactic acid build-up by making the blood vessels smaller.

May bolster the immune system

There’s some evidence that regular swimming in chilly water may reduce colds increase levels of certain white blood cells and other infection-fighting substances. Whether an occasional cold plunger triggers the same immune response is yet to be determined.

May speed athletic recovery

Athletes have been some of the first adopters of cold immersion therapies, which spur a quicker recovery from intense training and competition. Studies have found that cold water immersion can reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery following exercise.

May increase metabolism

Although a 2009 research review concluded that brief immersions (5 minutes) in water less than 59°F (15°C) did increase metabolism, which can help burn calories, there hasn’t been studies that link consistent icy plunges significant weight loss.

Cautions for a cold plunge 

The shock of cold water can immediately put your body in distress and trigger hypothermia. The American Heart Association says that cold plunging can cause a sudden, rapid increase in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. In rare cases, the cold shock can trigger a heart attack. Cold shock also may induce the gasp reflex, followed by hyperventilation. If your airway is underwater, this can lead to drowning. Adding to that risk is swimming in frigid water quickly leads to exhaustion.

Bottom line

Experimenting with icy plunges may support overall health and wellness. It’s wise, however, to talk with your doctor first. Follow these other best practices too: Have an observer with you, especially in open water, keep immersions brief and warm up when you get out, but avoid taking a hot shower right after, which can cause you to pass out.

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