Burn Fat & Feel Better: Cold Therapy for Longevity
Deliberately exposing yourself to cold therapy may be at the bottom of your wellness list. That’s because the feeling of being cold, for most people, is uncomfortable and to be avoided at almost all costs.
But if you’re looking for a science backed therapy that has many proven health benefits, cold therapy should be a top priority.
In addition to dozens of modern studies, there is significant historical evidence suggesting that cold exposure is a natural and needed part of human health.
Do As Our Ancestors Did
Much of our health outlook today is aligned with the thought process that we should eat, act, and move like our ancestors did.
If we were to follow the prescriptions of evolutionary medicine, we would align our lifestyles with our ancestors. That may include eating and exercising similarly to past human trends, which our bodies have evolved to thrive on (think: functional fitness, Paleo diet, etc.).
However, our ancestors didn’t sit in climate-controlled caves, with air conditioning blasting in the summertime and central heat keeping them warm throughout the winter. There was a variability to their environment that we as modern human beings are both fortunate and unfortunate enough to not need to replicate.
The environmental comfort of our lives comes at a cost.
In a podcast with biomedical researcher and health educator Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Dr. Mark Mattson, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, asserts that cells that aren’t sufficiently stressed become complacent and, in turn, vulnerable to different stressors that lead to disease.
Overall, Mattson argues that behaviors which mildly stress our cells, such as fasting and exercise, promotes resilience and overall efficiency in our biology.
Another way to facilitate mild stress is through deliberate cold exposure, also known as cold therapy.
By incorporating deliberate cold exposure in our longevity toolkit, we become more physically and mentally resilient, ultimately fending off disease and preserving our longevity.
Benefits of Cold Therapy
There are an astounding number of benefits that cold therapy provides, and they can be split into three main categories: mental health, physical health, and performance.
Improved mood and decrease depression. In a study conducted with a group of young men, researchers observed a 2.5 times increase in the amount of dopamine released after a session of cold water immersion. Studies also routinely show that cold exposure increases the amount of beta-endorphins in the body.
Increased mental resilience. Studies have illustrated that when people are exposed to cold, norepinephrine and epinephrine are released in their subjects’ bodies. These chemicals are released in response to the body’s perception of stress, and rightfully so, as sitting in frigid waters makes us want to run (read: fight or flight). Dr. Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and well-known podcaster in the longevity space, says that the simple practice of willingly facing this stress and staying put is a practice that builds our willpower and mental resilience over time. Learning to maintain mental clarity and remain in a state of calm while our body is conversely in a state of stress builds our ability to withstand stress as a whole.
Increased energy and focus. The increase in dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine also increases a person’s energy and focus. One study had 33 healthy adults take a five-minute cold water bath and found that the positive mood the subjects experienced were due to increasing feelings of alertness, inspiration, attentiveness, activity, and pride.
A review was done on various studies on cold water immersion to compile similar conclusions across the studies. The review found that:
Improved cardiovascular health and lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Cold water immersion decreases the ratio of ApoB to ApoA1, the metric that assesses coronary heart disease. Cold water immersion also decreases homocysteine levels, which are related to dementia, heart disease, and stroke.
Improved immune system. Based on a study conducted on open water swimmers, researchers noticed at the end of a six-month training period, their immunoglobulin levels decreased. This is significant as high immunoglobulin levels are correlated with chronic disease, autoimmune disorders, and more. Additionally, cold water immersion is shown to increase T-cells, white blood cells, zinc concentration, and antioxidants.
Increases metabolism. The undeniable effect on metabolism is a major reason why many people voluntarily suffer through the physiological stress and pain of cold water exposure. Cold water immersion increases thermogenesis (read: calories burned) through shivering thermogenesis and non-shivering thermogenesis. Non-shivering thermogenesis refers to brown fat activation, which is a major point of discussion when it comes to cold water exposure and its effect on metabolism. Brown fat is actually a good thing – it regulates blood sugar and insulin levels, and it also helps the body burn calories.
Lowers risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is defined as “a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.” It includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. As mentioned, cold water immersion can activate brown fat, which inhibits tumor growth (brown fat absorbs glucose, which is the fuel for cancer cells), produces anti-inflammatory molecules, and promotes insulin sensitivity.
Alters gene expression. There are many different genes in our body that are switched “on” or “off,” due to a variety of factors, both genetic and environmental. Cold exposure can turn “on” certain genes that can improve the overall function of our bodies:
- Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which promotes the growth of new blood vessels
- PPARG Coactivator 1 Alpha (PPARGC1A), the master regulator of mitochondrial biogenesis
- Glutathione Peroxidase-1, which breaks down poisons and influences other antioxidants
- RNA-binding motif protein 3 (RBM3), which has neuroprotective effects
- Cold-inducible RNA-binding protein (CIRP), which can increase muscle mass and decrease inflammation
The improvement in physical performance is another major reason why people choose to do deliberate cold exposure.
It improves recovery. Cold water immersion can decrease pain, inflammation, muscle soreness, and recovery time.
It increases exercise volume. Cold exposure can increase the volume of exercise an individual can do over time. A study measured work volume in subjects where they only cooled them via the palms of their hands. The researchers found that work volume in bench press and pull ups for the subjects increased anywhere from 40% to 144%.
That being said, if your main goal is hypertrophy or strength, Huberman advises to avoid cold water immersion in the four hours after a training session. So although the number of repetitions you can complete may increase from cold exposure, if you’re looking to gain muscle mass or strength, cold exposure should not be done immediately following a training session.
Common Cold Exposure Protocols
What’s the best way to approach deliberate cold exposure?
Types of Cold Exposure
There are various types of cold exposure. Although there are novel approaches, such as cryotherapy and ice underwear, the most common are cold water immersion, cold showers, and going outside in the cold with minimal clothing to get as close to shivering as possible.
The best option is cold water immersion, where you are in a tub or similar vessel, with your entire body submerged up to your neck.
The second best option is a cold shower, although this is a little less predictable as there are more variables involved.
Lastly, going outside in the cold is your third best option.
What Temperature Does It Need to Be?
According to Huberman, how cold you need to go really depends on your physiology and cold tolerance. His rule of thumb is you want to be in water that makes you want to get out of it immediately but is also at a temperature where you know you can stay in it safely. This temperature will also vary day-to-day and at different times of the day, due to your natural circadian rhythm and how your body temperature fluctuates throughout the day.
Remember that water that’s too cold can lead to cold shock and death, so you aren’t going to be a hero for toughing it out in arctic waters.
How Long Do I Need to Stay In?
For optimal results, aim for 11 minutes a week split among two to four sessions. Until you get to a more advanced level when that feels easy, this is a great start. When this becomes easy to the point where you no longer experience stress from being in cold water, you can gradually lower the temperature, extend the duration, or increase the frequency of your cold exposure sessions.
That said, Huberman discusses the fact that at a certain point, you’ll only be able to go so low in temperature or you’ll hit a limit in how long you’re staying in the water before it becomes prohibitive. Because one of the objectives with cold exposure is the mental resilience element, Huberman recommends focusing less on the time you spend in the water and instead, following a “Counting Walls” method.
Here’s what he means by that: when you’re exposed to the cold, your body experiences discomfort and the first impulse it has is to get out of the water immediately. When you stay in the water, you are overcoming that impulse. He refers to this as a wall. The longer you stay in the water, the more walls you will experience, as they will come over you in waves. Huberman recommends approaching your session by having a goal of a certain number of walls you’d like to overcome (e.g. three walls would include the first wall when you step inside the cold water, and the remaining two walls when you’re in the water).
What’s the Best Time of Day?
Regarding the best time of day, Huberman recommends doing deliberate cold exposure in the morning. This can obviously help to wake you up, and doing so at night may disrupt your sleep since your body will increase its temperature to offset the cold exposure (and a lower body temperature can help you fall asleep better).
How Can I Maximize My Session?
To maximize the benefits of cold exposure, you can experiment with the following:
- Do your session caffeinated
- Do your session fasted
- Alternate your session with heat therapy
- Get to the point of shivering
- Warm up naturally after cold exposure to maximize metabolic benefits versus hopping into a warm shower (the Søeberg Principle)
What Should I Do During Cold Therapy?
Although you typically see photos and videos of people in ice baths sitting perfectly still, it’s actually recommended to move around, if you can. When you stay still, there’s a thermal layer around your body that keeps you warmer, but if you can manage to move around, your body can experience more of the cold and maximize its effects.
During your session, focus on breathing slowly to manage your heart rate. Remain as mentally still as possible, so you can counteract the physiological effects of the stress the cold water is inducing.
Although experimenting with high and low temperatures makes for an effective stimulus, it also has hazards if you don’t do it correctly. As with any new protocol, you should consult a board-certified physician before starting deliberate cold exposure.
Don’t be afraid to progress, in time or temperature, slowly. There’s no such thing as a “weak” version. Colder is not necessarily better, as ideally you want to find the minimum stimulus you need to derive the maximum benefit from a protocol.
Additionally, as with any health or longevity habit, consistency is more important than doing it as extremely as you can one time. You want to ensure you approach cold exposure to where you do not hurt yourself and you find a way to make it a consistent habit for the future.
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