Dominique Michelle Astorino
I’ve long heard about bros “biohacking” their way to 120 years old via daily cold showers and people jumping into Lake Tahoe in the middle of winter to boost, so there’s gotta be some truth to the idea that cold water exposure offers legitimate wellness benefits. I mean, these people can’t be torturing themselves for no reason, right?! RIGHT?!
This, of course, is exactly what I set out to discover in my week-long experiment. Did I hate every single second of it? Yes. Absolutely yes. But, I have to admit that starting each day standing under icy-cold water for 30 seconds did come with a few notable checks in the “pros” column. And if you’re less of a baby than I am (which is highly likely) they may be worth experiencing for yourself.
Cold shower benefits
According to Wim Hof—aka “The Ice Man,” who you may know as the guy who brought the concept of breathwork ice baths to the mainstream—cold showers are purportedly a panacea wellness treatment. Per his website, they offer “reduced stress levels, higher level of alertness, [a] more robust immune response, increased willpower, [and] weight loss.” But does the science back up these (very lofty) claims about cold shower benefits?
Well—kinda, sorta. Over the past few decades, there have been some notable discoveries about how cold showers affect our bodies and minds—namely that they increase energy, boost immunity, and improve mood—but there’s still some debate over whether we’ve seen definitive proof of these purported benefits. “Cold showers are not truly efficient in any of these areas,” exercise physiologist Zach Carter, CSCS, tells Cleveland Clinic. “You’re not getting enough for the discomfort they bring.”
However, a 2016 clinical trial out of the Netherlands that followed 3,000 people who took 30-, 60-, or 90-second cold showers every day for three months found that though the vast majority of participants reported “a variable degree of discomfort during cold exposure,” 91 percent said that they would continue taking cold showers after the experiment ended—and 64 percent actually did. Clearly, they found a good reason to keep coming back.
With that in mind, here’s the breakdown of each purported cold shower benefit.
4 cold shower benefits
1. They increase energy
Considering the immediate jolt you get from exposing yourself to cold water, it makes sense that cold showers have been linked to increased energy levels. Researchers in the Netherlands found that the most commonly reported positive impact of the experiment was an increase in people’s perceived energy levels that many participants likened to the effects of caffeine.
2. They boost immunity
That same study from the Netherlands found that participants’ self-reported sick days from work decreased by 29 percent over the course of the experiment. Though this seems promising, it doesn’t necessarily mean that cold showers can improve your immune system—it just means that there may be some correlation.
3. They improve mood
According to a 2008 article from Medical Hypotheses cold showers may also help improve your mood. “Due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect,” it says. But, again, this isn’t conclusive, causal data, and doesn’t mean that cold showers “fix” depression—it just means that they may have positive effects on people’s moods, and even the study authors themselves noted that more research is needed.
That said, because cold water activates your sympathetic nervous system (aka fight or flight) response, it can tell the brain to release noradrenaline and dopamine and cause you to feel some enlivening, anti-depressant effects. While this isn’t a stand-in for an actual anti-depressant, it can be helpful if you need a bit of a morning boost.
4. They make your skin and hair look smooth and shiny
“When cold water hits your skin, the body increases blood flow to maintain the core temperature to protect vital organs, while constricting circulation near the skin,” Michele Green, MD, an NYC-based cosmetic dermatologist, previously told Well+Good. Beyond that, she adds that cold water can relieve itchiness, decrease inflammation, and tighten pores, which can temporarily make skin look firmer and brighter.
What’s more, a quick a.m. polar plunge may also be the secret to shiny hair. Cold water closes the cuticle of your strands, smoothing out your mane and imparting a lovely shine and softness (though… some science disputes this concept as well). Cold water also closes your pores, which can give a ‘tightening’ or smoothing effect on your skin, though this is temporary.
What happened when took cold showers every day for a week
Alright, so now that you have the context—back to my personal experiment. As mentioned, I started my day with a 30-second cold shower at the end of my regular-temperature showers every day for a full week. Though I despised every minute of it and felt like Jack from the last scenes of the Titanic every time I turned the water to cold (what can I say? I’m a huge wimp), there were a few notable benefits.
For starters, the quick cold infusion at the start of my day really helped to wake me up. Usually, a warm shower at night is my bedtime cue, so the cold in the morning was invigorating. My hair was shiny (I typically always rinse my hair with cold water after I take a warm shower, so this wasn’t a surprise), and my skin was sliiiightly less dry, but that may also be in part because I just got a fancy new humidifier that I sleep next to.
Despite the fact that my daily cold shower routine may save me money at Starbucks in the long run (it really does feel like caffeine!), I personally don’t think it’s worth it to subject myself to this type of torture, even if it is for only 30 seconds a day. But that’s me! There are tons of people who experience elation from a frigid morning rinse, so if you can tolerate it, give it a shot. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our problems could be solved with cold water?