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Ice Bath Benefits: More Than Just Recovery
Taking an ice bath may sound uncomfortable, but pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone may be just what you need to level up your fitness routine and improve overall health.
Elite athletes have taken ice baths for years to soothe sore, achy muscles and improve performance. But the benefits go far beyond that.
Repeated cold exposure can support a healthy immune system, support brain function, and promote fat burn.
This article will break down a dense report written by Dr. Rhonda Patrick to explore the scientific evidence behind ice bath benefits and how cold exposure can improve your overall health.
- Cold water appears to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which increases the availability of norepinephrine. This is what is linked to many of the suggested health benefits of an ice bath.
- An ice bath soothes sore muscles, improves athletic performance, and reduces inflammation. Ice baths may also help improve overall mood and promote a healthy cognitive function.
- Cold exposure activates brown fat, a type of fat that may help lower the risk of chronic disease and protect against obesity.
ICE BATH, COLD WATER IMMERSION, COLD THERAPY - WHAT ARE THEY?
An ice bath — also known as cold water immersion or cold therapy — involves plunging into an icy tub of water that’s 50 to 60°F for ten to fifteen minutes.
However, those new to cold water therapy often begin by staying in for about 3 or 4 minutes and working their way up.
Though an ice bath is considered a form of cryotherapy, it is not as rigid.
Cryotherapy is much more intense and involves exposing yourself to frigid air at temperatures as low as - 289°F. Sessions are typically much shorter and only last for a few minutes.
Pro Tip: If you decide to try an ice bath at home, 2-3 bags of ice added to a tub of cold water should be enough to allow it to reach optimal temperature.
HISTORY OF COLD WATER THERAPY
Although it’s just now becoming mainstream, people have been taking ice baths for thousands of years. In fact, the earliest written records of using cold therapy date back to 3500 B.C.E. (N.B.), when Egyptians used it to treat numerous ailments and injuries.
Ancient Greeks also used cold water therapy for socialization and relaxation. Moreover, in the fourth century, Hippocrates documented the use of cold for medicinal purposes and pain-relieving benefits.
During the 18th century, two physicians, John Floyer and James Currie, also utilized cold water to treat fever and other diseases.
Basically, we’ve known for centuries that putting cold water or ice on something makes it better.
Today, athletes commonly use ice baths as an effective recovery tool for relieving muscle aches and pains.
Newer research shows that cold water therapy can also positively affect our brain, body composition, metabolism, and exercise performance.
COLD WATER THERAPY AND NOREPINEPHRINE
According to Dr. Patrick, exposure to cold temperatures and exposure to ice-cold water generates a range of acute physiological responses, known as the cold shock response.
During this response, a norepinephrine is released from the sympathetic nervous system where it enters the bloodstream and parts of the brain.
So, what exactly is norepinephrine, and how can it benefit your overall health?
Norepinephrine is produced in the adrenal glands and central nervous system. It acts as both a neurotransmitter and hormone and helps activate the fight or flight response.
It also elevates a person’s heart rate, activates heat production, influences immune function, and causes vasoconstriction. Many believe that when your blood vessels constrict, it reduces blood flow to the area, which may help decrease swelling and inflammation.
Interestingly, norepinephrine is also involved in focus, attention, and overall mood.
Norepinephrine can also activate PGC-1 alpha (proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1-alpha), that’s important for energy metabolism, circadian rhythms, fat metabolism, weight loss, and blood pressure.
Low levels of norepinephrine can lead to decreased energy levels, poor concentration, depression, and reduced attention.
It appears that many of the benefits of ice baths and cold therapy are related to the release of norepinephrine.
COLD THERAPY BENEFITS
According to Dr. Patrick, repeated exposure to cold water places low dose stress on your body, which can help precondition the body against larger stressors in the future. It can also help improve a person’s metabolic health, brain function, and post-workout recovery.
Ice baths can influence metabolism by stimulating brown adipose tissue (BAT), also known as “brown fat.”
Brown fat was initially thought to only be present in infants to protect against heat loss. Recently, researchers have discovered that brown fat can also be present in adults, primarily after exposure to ice-cold water.
One 2014 study exposed six men to 50°F water for 2 hours a day for a total of 20 days. Researchers found that brown fat volume increased by 45%. Cold-induced total brown fat oxidative metabolism more than doubled. These findings suggest that ice baths may increase the number of calories your body burns each day (energy expenditure) and improve metabolic health.
Brown fat also breaks down fat molecules and glucose (blood sugar) to generate heat and help maintain your body temperature.
In one 2013 study in 51 healthy male subjects exposed to warm or cold temperatures for two hours, researchers found cold-activated brown fat in 27 subjects. Researchers found acute cold exposure at 66°F for 2 hours increased energy expenditure by as much as 252 calories in the brown fat-positive participants.
Additionally, researchers found that the cold group lost an average of 1.7 pounds in body fat mass.
As mentioned earlier, low levels of norepinephrine can negatively impact your mood, energy levels, focus, and cognition.
Cold water exposure from an ice bath or cold shower may help raise these levels, thus improving overall brain function and mood.
For example, one case report suggested that taking cold showers that are 68ºF for two to three minutes followed by a five-minute adaptation period may relieve symptoms of depression when performed once or twice each day.
Another 2018 case report found that swimming in cold water weekly immediately improved mood and gradually improved symptoms of depression in a young woman.
Ice baths may also lower inflammation and protect against major contributors to brain aging by activating the cold-shock protein called RBM3.
However, additional human studies are needed to fully understand the potential for RBM3 to protect against brain aging.
Many studies have investigated the potential benefits of cold water exposure on post-workout recovery.
According to Dr. Patrick, norepinephrine may reduce inflammation and be responsible for some of the pain-alleviating effects of cold exposure because inflammation leads to pain and sore muscles.
However, when considering whether to take a plunge in an ice bath to aid in recovery, two things should be considered:
- The type of activity performed
- The timing of cold exposure and exercise
It appears taking an ice bath immediately following endurance exercises such as distance running or cycling can support muscle recovery and enhance performance.
However, ice baths immediately following resistance training may actually disrupt muscle adaptation.
Adaptation is beneficial for building muscle strength and power because, when muscles are stressed, they adapt and improve their function.
For example, one 2016 study on healthy athletes found that brief cold water immersion sessions following exercise decreased their upstream signaling and activation of ribosomal biogenesis. This suggests that cold water therapy immediately following resistance training may lessen protein synthesis and muscle mass gain.
However, other studies show no difference. Dr. Patrick says, for now, those who regularly strength-train should use caution when timing exposure to extreme cold immediately following exercise.
Waiting at least an hour after resistance exercise may enhance recovery. In one study that examined the effect of cryotherapy one hour after squat jumps and leg curls, participants' performance measures improved up to 72 hours after the therapy. Pain levels at rest and during the next session were also improved.
A 2016 study of jiu-jitsu athletes found that following a workout with cold water immersion may help reduce lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) levels, which can lead to decreased muscle soreness.
It can also help lessen inflammation and muscle damage after exercise, which can improve recovery.
COLD WATER QUICK FACTS
HOW COLD SHOULD YOUR ICE BATH BE?
Water temperatures should be around 50-60 Fahrenheit (approximately 10-15 degrees Celsius).
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN ICE BATH?
Beginners often start out spending just a few minutes in an ice bath and gradually work their way up. The total time spent in an ice bath should be between ten and fifteen minutes.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU ICE BATH?
There is no strong research highlighting how often you should take ice baths. Just one session can provide benefits and help promote recovery. We recommend taking an ice bath after intense training sessions that have you feeling really worn down.
According to the American Council on Exercise, acute ice bath sessions are beneficial to promote quicker recovery, but chronic use should be reconsidered to avoid lessening of training adaptations.
Ice bath benefits stretch far beyond improving muscle soreness following an intense workout. Taking ice baths can help activate brown fat, which may promote overall health and help you maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, they can help improve mood, performance, and recovery.
The best way to figure out if an ice bath can benefit you is to try it. Although it doesn’t exactly sound fun, those who regularly take ice baths say that getting past the first two minutes is the most challenging part.