Perhaps you’re familiar with the polar bear plunge, where individuals willingly jump, run, or dive into icy cold water.
Such events are typically done as fundraisers and aren’t a routine activity. However, some people participate in cold plunge therapy, a healing technique that can be helpful for a wide variety of conditions and ailments when done correctly and with guidance.
If you try it, you’ll be following in the footsteps of history, as people such as Hippocrates and Thomas Jefferson were advocates of cold water therapy.
What Is Cold Plunge Therapy?
Cold plunge therapy, also known as cold water immersion or cold water therapy, is the practice of immersing yourself in cold water for a short period of time for healing purposes. Based on research, it appears that the temperature of the water may be adjusted depending on your tolerance, what you hope to achieve, and your health status. (Yes, there can be health risks, which are covered later.) Common temperatures used in cold plunge therapy can range from the high 30s to 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
Benefits of Cold Plunge Therapy
One of the more popular uses for cold plunge therapy is for athletes to help to reduce muscle soreness, improve athletic performance, and boost energy. Among several new studies on this topic is one published in the Journal of Experimental Orthopaedics in which the authors found that cold water immersion was significantly better at helping athletes to recover from exercise-induced muscle damage than was the use of ice massage.
If you’re looking for an energy boost and an improvement in attention span and focus, cold water therapy may be for you. According to researcher Rhonda Patrick, making the plunge produces norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that helps control energy, focus, and attention. Her research has also shown that cold plunge therapy may have the ability to improve insulin sensitivity, enhance memory, prevent muscle atrophy, boost the growth of new brain cells, and improve longevity.
Levels of norepinephrine are also associated with mood and depression. Research has shown that norepinephrine plays a significant role in motivation, intellect, and cognition, and naturally boosting its levels can positively impact mood and depression. One study has shown that healthy individuals who immersed themselves in cold water (56 degrees F) for 20 minutes demonstrated a significant improvement in mood when compared with those who didn’t take the plunge.
Cold water therapy is also good for your immune system. The cold water causes the white blood cells to circulate more rapidly through your body. These infection-fighting cells also help produce other infection fighters, such as antibodies and T-cells.
Exposure to cold water can increase your resting metabolic rate, which may result in weight loss. However, this benefit has yet to be proven. Insulin sensitivity, however, may improve with cold water exposure. According to a 2021 review published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, several studies have shown that “both acute and repeated exposures to the cold can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce fasting glycemia” in people who have Type 2 diabetes.
Other potential benefits of taking the cold water plunge include improved sleep, better mood, increased blood flow, and reduced inflammation. Your resilience and mental toughness may improve as well.
Cautions About Cold Plunge Therapy
As noted in one review study of previous research, “When cold water swimming is practiced by experienced people with good health in a regular, graded and adjusted mode, it appears to bring health benefits.”
However, cold plunge therapy isn’t for everyone. The body experiences significant stress when entering cold water, which is why it’s strongly recommended that you consult your health care provider before engaging in this practice. It’s also recommended that you proceed slowly, entering the water gradually and allowing your body to adjust to the shock.
Side effects can be serious, even deadly. Hypothermia is the main effect, which is characterized by shivering, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, and exhaustion. Individuals who have known or unknown heart conditions are at risk of arrhythmia, respiratory distress, cardiac arrest, and sudden death.
If you don’t have a tub for doing a cold immersion, taking a cold shower can also have similar effects. You can start with warmer water, slowly adjust it to colder water, finish with two minutes of cold water, and work your way up to more time.
Cold plunge therapy isn’t for everyone, but it’s a natural healing option that can be especially helpful for athletes and anyone who experiences exercise recovery challenges or injury, as well as for those who may want to improve their immune function, sleep, and mood, insulin sensitivity, and more. Be sure to consult your physician before trying it.
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