What Are Ice Baths Good For?

Jul 7, 2022

What are ice baths?

An ice bath, or cold water immersion, is a form of cryotherapy that involves submerging the majority of your body — ideally up to your chest — in frigid water for a specific period of time. Generally people start with just a minute or two, but the goal is usually to work up to somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes in the water. As you might expect, the first few sessions are a bit of a shock to the system, but with repeated exposure your body will build a tolerance for the extreme temperatures, allowing you to stick it out longer and, theoretically, reap more benefits.

What is an ice bath good for?

Cold water immersion has always been popular in the sports and fitness community for its ability to help athletes recover after high intensity games, workouts, and competitions. With continuously emerging science providing additional evidence, and high profile advocates like Wim Hof touting its many benefits for everyday life, the practice has become more and more mainstream. Today many health-seekers and ‘biohackers’ have their own private ice baths at home — often a giant chest freezer, for easy temperature control — and take daily dips in the icy water.

So if you don’t identify as ‘an athlete’, does this even make sense for you? Most proponents would argue an emphatic yes — cold water immersion has a place in everyone’s lives. 

So here are 9 Benefits of Ice Baths, no athletic career required:

1. Speeds up metabolism

The body contains two types of fat cells: unhealthy ‘white’ fat and beneficial ‘brown’ fat, or brown adipose tissue, which are responsible for converting energy into heat through a process called thermogenesis. Ice baths generate more brown adipose tissue, and also trigger their energy to heat response, translating to an uptick in your metabolic function and a greater ability to prevent weight gain.

2. Reduces inflammation, swelling and sore muscles

Whether you are strength training or not, your muscles can always use a little love. Not only can cold therapy aid in comfort and recovery of stressed muscles by restricting your body’s immune response to your triggered muscle fibers (which is what causes inflammation) and slowing nerve reactions, but it can help flush out any built up or stagnant lactic acid in your body.

3. Improves quality of sleep

Cold therapy helps to regulate cortisol levels, which has been shown to reduce instances of sleep-related disorders. Its positive effect on your central nervous system — your body’s natural tranquilizer — can also translate to easier and deeper sleep, which will inherently reduce fatigue and improve your overall health.

4. Strengthens the immune system

Ice baths have the ability to initiate an adaptation response in the immune system called ‘controlled hypoxia,’ or activation of the stress hormone adrenaline. Challenging the body to function outside of its comfort zone in this way can have a direct positive effect on immune function.

5. Trains the body’s natural stress response

Cold water immersion speaks directly to your vagus nerve, which is linked to your parasympathetic nervous system. Stimulating and ‘training’ it through repeated cold therapy exposure can help you face future difficult situations with more presence and ease because your brain is being conditioned to perform under stress in a healthy and productive way.

6. Aids in the development of controlled breathing

The cold plunge will inevitably take your breath away, meaning that you’ll have to slow down and focus to find it again. As you develop these skills, you’ll tap into a greater sense of calm and relaxation that can stay with you even after the cold therapy session is over.

7. Stimulates the central nervous system

A quick and chilly jolt to your system will immediately increase alertness and mental clarity, allowing for a greater ability to focus and improved energy levels.

8. Improves mental health

Not only can cold water immersion help clear your mind and lift your mood, there are studies supporting its efficacy in treating things like concussion symptoms. Additionally, ice baths decrease the production of inflammatory cytokines, which are linked to anxiety and depression

9. Decreases the effect of heat and humidity on your body

An ice bath first thing in the morning can lower your core body temperature by a few degrees, leading to an improved tolerance for navigating a hot day.

The Colony San Diego's Ice Bath

How do ice baths work?

An ice bath changes the way blood and other fluids flow through your body. As you submerge yourself in the cold water, your blood vessels constrict. After you get out, and your body starts to warm, they dilate again. This process helps flush metabolic waste, especially when it comes to lymph — a clear liquid made up of white blood cells and fluid from your intestines. 

Unlike your blood, pumped consistently by your heart, your lymph has no internal mechanism to cycle it through your body. Cold therapy helps by compelling these potentially stagnant fluids to start moving. Additionally, increased blood flow due to cold exposure floods your cells with nutrients and oxygen, which is always a nice benefit. 

And from a mental standpoint, doing things that stimulate a stress response — and which will likely require you to overcome a certain degree of discomfort and uncertainty — can increase your overall resilience and prepare you to more confidently face challenges in the future.

The Colony San Diego's Ice Bath

How To Take An Ice Bath

Ready to try it at home? A few simple steps will set you on the (chilly, but worth it) path to success … 

Temperature

Anywhere between 50 and 59 degrees fahrenheit is an appropriate range for seeing benefits. Use a thermometer to help balance your ratio of ice to water.

Time In the Water 

10-15 minutes, ideally, but of course start with what you can handle and work your way up.

Body Exposure

While you can theoretically just ice your legs or arms — and that can be a great way to get started — submerging your entire body allows for more vessels to contract, flushing greater quantities of metabolic waste. Plus the act of pushing through the discomfort and coming out the other side is one of the top ways to tap into more of the mental and relaxation benefits.

Recommended Time of Day 

As of now, there’s no time period that is considered more effective than another. However, the sooner you take the plunge after an intense workout or physical activity, the more benefits you’ll see with regard to muscle recovery. 

Post Ice Bath Warm Up

Gradual warming is ideal, so don’t rush into a steaming shower immediately afterward. Instead, consider a hot beverage, a sweatshirt, a blanket, etc. Of course, if you find that you’re having trouble coming back up to temperature after you’ve given your body some time to regulate, that hot shower is always there for you.

The Colony San Diego's Ice Bath

General Ice Bath Safety

  • Don’t do your first few sessions alone! Have someone nearby to supervise in case you have trouble breathing, or experience numbness that makes it difficult for you to get out. 
  • Unless you’re training for something very specific, or under the supervision of a healthcare professional, it’s not recommended to spend more than 20 minutes submerged in an ice bath. Ideally you’re in there for 15 minutes at most. 
  • Know your body. If you are highly sensitive to cold or have cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, consult your doctor first.
  • Water colder than 54 degrees Fahrenheit can be risky, so be careful and check your thermometers. 
  • Pay attention to your personal cold threshold! We’re all different — explore your own comfort and growth zone, and remember you can always start by only submerging the lower half of your body. 
  • Consider wearing clothes to protect sensitive areas. 
  • Note that moving water is always colder, so if your ice bath has circulating jets that’s a consideration, as the thermometer might not be giving an entirely accurate reading. 
  • You should never take an ice bath before running, racing, or other intense workouts or activities. The body needs to be warm to perform adequately, and ice can actually decrease strength and delay reaction time.

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