The divide between day showerers and night showerers is as sharp as that of camp toilet paper right-side-out and camp wrong-side-out. But you’d think we’d all at least be able to agree that a shower is a habit best enjoyed warm… right?
The health world is hot for cold showers, and while it may not be as pleasant as a relaxing stream of warm water right before bed, cold showers may indeed offer health benefits.
Cold Showers Are Not Cryotherapy
First things first: While many people have looked at studies proving the benefits of cryotherapy and assigned these health benefits to cold showers, this is an overreach of epic proportions (kind of like, oh, I don’t know, claiming that red wine boasts all the anti-inflammatory benefits of resveratrol-rich blueberries).
Cryotherapy is a practice where participants are placed briefly into a chamber at -110 degrees Celsius (or, in layperson terms, really frickin' cold) to reap benefits ranging from reduced rheumatoid symptoms to improved mitochondrial health to increased brown fat production, (read more about increasing your brown fat here). But these benefits, writes Samantha Watson, Functional Movement Specialist and Nutritionist, are “unlikely to transfer to cold showers.”
“Cryotherapy, where you step into a cryo-chamber, typically lasts only 2-3 minutes because it is extremely cold and highly stressful,” she explains. “Thirty minutes under a freezing cold shower will still not get as cold as a cryo-chamber but will most likely make you ill.”
Cold water immersion, meanwhile (despite the British Journal of Sports Medicine claiming that the “scientific rationale is not clear” and that there are “no clear guidelines for its use”) is a popular recovery intervention after exercise whereby people are immersed in cold water for five minutes or so. We’re talking less than 15 degrees Celsius or 59 Fahrenheit.
In this context, CWI is associated with an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory minute volume, and metabolism – and, importantly, the journal writes, "Much of this evidence is derived from full body immersions.”
A cold shower just ain’t the same. But once you stop conflating the benefits of cryotherapy and CWI with a plain old cold shower, you may discover that there are still some benefits.
Benefits of Cold Showers
1. Boosted Metabolism
Given the evidence in favor of cold water immersion, it is plausible that cold showers could point to improved metabolism, according to Dr. Rashmi Byakodi of Best for Nutrition.
To reap the benefits of this metabolic boost, the shower should last at least five but no more than ten minutes and should be about 59 degrees Fahrenheit or less, in order to best replicate the conditions of CWI.
2. Reduced Depression
A cold shower could actually improve your mood.
The anti-depressive effect, according to Dr. Rob Brown, is "thought to be attributed to the high number of cold sensors in the skin delivering overwhelming signals via peripheral nerves to the brain."
Essentially, a cold shower can activate the sympathetic nervous system to increase the release of noradrenaline in the brain.
“It is a happy hormone that regulates your mood,” explains Byakodi. “Thus it supports better mental health by reducing symptoms of depression.”
To enjoy these mood-boosting benefits, showers should be taken at 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) for two to three minutes, following a five-minute gradual adaptation to reduce the shock factor (and any associated yelping).
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3. Improved Circulation
Cold showers can also improve circulation, according to Dr. David Samadi, the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island.
“When immersed or surrounded by cold water, the body’s main objective is to maintain its core temperature,” he explains, noting that cold water will direct your body to move blood to the essential organs, in order to keep them warm, while warm water leads the blood to come to the surface of the skin.
“To have the best of both worlds," he says, "alternate between hot and cold water while showering to improve circulation. When done regularly, cold showers can make the circulatory system more efficient.”
4. Better Immunity
Cold showers can also improve immunity, according to a 1993 study at Britain’s Thrombosis Research Institute. The study found an increase in the number of virus-fighting white blood cells in those taking daily cold showers as compared to those who showered in warm water.
“Cold showers will force the body to warm itself up during and after the shower, causing metabolic rate to increase and activating the immune system that causes the release of white blood cells in response,” explains Samadi. “Regular exposure to cold water causes oxidative stress which actually helps the body fight oxidative stress as it becomes more accustomed to the temperature.”
Indeed, one study found that just 30-90 seconds of cold showering led to a reduction in illness.
5. Improved Hair and Skin Health
Yep, cold showers have beauty benefits, too! Cold water closes the ends of hair cuticles, helping strengthen them and reduce dryness. This, explains Dr Chris Airey, MD, the Medical Director at Optimale, a telehealth clinic for men with low testosterone, as well as a practicing physician with the NHS, "contributes to healthier-looking hair.
Hot showers also dry out skin, so cold showers could improve skin health.
“A cold shower will help reduce inflammation, swelling and puffiness,” explains celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab.
Rubin adds that some people may find cold showers to soothe itchiness.
“Very hot showers can cause skin to become extra dry due to loss of oil on the skin’s surface," he says, "so turning down the temp might be one solution.”
What Temperature to Shower In?
While you’re never going to be able to get your shower down to cryotherapy levels, if you want to reap the benefits, it is a good idea to make it, well, really cold. For Airey, a temperature between 50°F and 59°F is ideal.
“For best results, the whole shower needs to be cold,” he says, though he adds that “You can still see some benefits from using cold water at the end.”
Dr. Robert Goldman, meanwhile, suggests a far more doable temperature of 68°F (20°C), noting that “a person can start with a hot shower and then switch to cold water at the ending of the shower. This could range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.”
If a fully cold shower seems insurmountable, Rubin suggests a “contrast shower.”
“You change the water to as hot as you can handle for a minute, then to as cold as you can handle for a minute," he says. "You can repeat this cycle three to five times, or even more if you’re up for it.”
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