Updated: Jun 6, 2020
The production of heat, especially in a human or animal body.
These days, we are so protected from our environment that we never really need deal with the elements outside. Sure, getting out of bed on a cold winters morning may be hard, but how long until you’re rugged up in a hoodie, trackies and ugg boots? How many of us don’t even have to deal with the threat of creeping out of bed on a cold morning because we leave the heater on overnight? If you think about it, most of us get up in a warm bedroom, we drive to work in a car that has heating and cooling, and we get to work in an office that’s also temperature controlled. At no point did we ever have to deal with the environment outside except for our walk to and from the car!
Throughout most of history up until a few hundred years ago, heated water wasn’t even available for our showers. I'm not saying its a bad thing that we have the technology and ability to continually be warm. But is it the best thing for our bodies and could we implement some tactics that disrupts the balance in our body, challenging our ability to regulate its core temperature? 100%! Much like lifting weights improves our strength, putting your body through bouts of cold exposure results in its own specific adaptations.
The man, the myth, the legend, Wim Hof is famous for being ‘the Iceman.’ He believes we have much greater control over our autonomic nervous system than what most people believe. He holds 21 World Records and is now working with scientists and athletes alike, to help improve their knowledge and performance. Some of his achievements are listed on his website and can be seen below.
Running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot only wearing shorts
Swimming underneath ice for 66 meters
Hanging on one finger at an altitude of 2,000 meters
Climbing the highest mountains in the world while wearing shorts
Running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking
Standing in a container while covered in ice cubes for extended periods of time
The 3 pillars that Wim has built into his Method are breathing, focus and cold therapy. Future articles will be written on breathing and focus, today we will be discussing the latter – Cold Therapy.
More information can be found on Wim here: https://www.wimhofmethod.com/iceman-wim-hof
Brown adipose tissue & Fat Loss
Most people have heard of white adipose tissue or regular white fat. Regular fat stores energy as an ancestral adaptation to preventing hunger and starvation. This is why many people find it so tough to lose it from your body. However, the little-know brown adipose tissue or BAT for short, burns energy. Therefore, the more BAT the less fat. Sounds simple, right? But how does this occur?
BAT stimulates heat production by non-shivering thermogenesis. We all understand what shivering is. It’s a reaction to the cold that helps regulate our body temperature by shaking our muscles into producing heat (thermogenesis). BAT works in a similar way by generating heat due to the large number of mitochondria. Think of the mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell in control of energy production and therefore heat production. Brown fat has a higher prevalence of mitochondria and capillaries which work to distribute heat through the body.
We need to control our breathing during bouts of cold exposure and keep our focus on preventing our body from shivering to enhance the work of the brown fat. This sounds easy in effect but takes practice exposing yourself to the cold. People exposed to the cold more often, recorded having higher levels of BAT, which in turn resulted in higher metabolic rates or energy expenditure at rest. Moral of the story is more BAT = less FAT.
Protect against disease - Increase insulin sensitivity – Reduce risk of diabetes
While brown fat can help boost our metabolism and increase fat loss there are more benefits. The increased levels of brown fat have been shown to improve sensitivity to insulin. Cold therapy can help you burn more blood glucose as it is used to heat up the muscles. If we don’t exercise or get or get cold like this, then that glucose may be shuttled to liver and converted to fat.
Decreased inflammation – Enhanced Immune System - Hormone regulation
In response to the stress that the cold has on your body, antioxidants can be produced. Studies have shown that swimming in cold water can result in an increase in the antioxidant glutathione. Antioxidants can help you fight off disease and prevent free radicals and diseases from developing. It can also stimulate nor-epinephrine release which results in an increase in natural killer cell count = more efficient immune system.
Decreasing your core body temperature and keeping your environment cool during your sleep has been shown to improve your sleep quality. Allowing our core temperature to drop slightly lower than usual can encourage deeper sleep, aiding the recovery process. While the room doesn’t have to be freezing, opening a window or having a fan on during the night can improve your sleep quality.
My days start off with a cold shower or some sort of cold plunge. Every day, regardless of how I’m feeling or what I have planned for the day. There’s always a little voice telling me to resist and keep the shower warm. But I make sure to resist that urge and the rest of my day is better for it. I can be in a horrible mood before I turn the knob to cold. However, in doing so I walk out of the shower, fresh, alert, ready for a productive day. Turning that knob to cold every morning may be tough, but each time you do it you get a little bit better and keep moving the needle forward.
Methods for getting cold:
Cold & Contrast Showers
Probably the easiest way to get used to cold exposure is by implementing bouts of cold into your daily shower. I like to finish every shower I have with 1-2 minutes fully cold, focused on my breathing before getting out. This could be quite rough if you aren’t used to it. Start with contrast showers. Use 30 seconds in the middle of your shower to get cold before finishing on hot. Then slowly reduce the amount of hot water you finish with until you’re comfortable getting out after 1-2 minutes fully cold.
Ice baths – Beach/Pool Submersion
A little more intense is the use of ice baths, or in winter, swims in the beach/unheated pools. There’s no great way to ease your way into the ice bath scene so this should only be attempted after nailing the contrast and cold showers. This is much harder but a super effective way of exposing yourself to the cold. If you live near the beach, go have a swim. If you have a pool, have a dip. If you have neither, head down to your local petrol station and pick up a couple of bags of ice and fill the bath with cold water. Depending on the temperature of the water, you should aim for 5-20 minutes. There is also the hydro-static pressure of water which has other benefits depending on the depth of the water but that’s for another article.
I recommend: at least once a week spend 5-20 mins in an ice bath or at the beach.
If you’ve never heard of cryo before, there’s a new method for getting cold and it involves standing in a room or machine of electrically cool air or liquid nitrogen (partial body cryo) and being exposed to below 110 °C for 2-3 minutes. This is an effective, time efficient but costly method for getting cold but has huge benefits for improving recovery.
The more often you can do this the better but I realise its costly and may be more practical to just head down the beach.
Dangers and precautions
If you are pregnant, at risk of cardiovascular disease or the elderly, proceed with caution. Ease your way into it with warm showers and slowly reduce the temperature before you dive straight into the cold. There is a gasp reflex that most people experience during the initial response to cold and is responsible for many deaths per year (people falling in ice water and gasping results in drowning). Proceed with extreme caution.