So last Saturday, I spent the day at a workshop with Wim Hof – the ‘superhuman’, super friendly and incredibly inspiring ‘Ice Man’ from the Netherlands.
If you’re not familiar with Wim Hof, check out #36alive 100 on www.36alive.com, a blog I co founded this year with daily posts on living well and feeling alive. His method has been one of the most exciting things to make its way into the wellbeing world recently, and other than an effective way to feel really good and help cultivate a healthy body and mind, it could also be the answer to modern day epidemics like depression, anxiety, and autoimmune diseases. Whats more, it’s totally backed up by science, which is really something to get excited about.
The three components of the Wim Hof method are:
- Breathing exercises
- Cold exposure
Today, we’ll cover one of the most simple forms of cold exposure that you can begin practicing and benefitting from instantly; cold showers.
Whilst they might sound like something entirely uninviting, having a cold shower provides an abundance of benefits, including an increase in the release of endorphins (happy hormones), increased metabolism, a decrease in anxiety and stress, boosted circulation, reduced muscle fatigue, faster recovery after exercise, an increase in the percentage of the body’s brown fat, increased immunity, enhanced cognitive function, and simply providing a hugely refreshing way to start the day.
Many athletes use cold therapy to recover quicker from exercise and injuries, due to the blood flow increasing throughout the body. When we switch on the cold tap, blood vessels constrict and contract, encouraging a rush of blood and nutrients to the vital organs and when they relax again, more ‘fresh’ blood supply is pumped around the body. When it comes to exercise, it’s not just muscles that need working out, the ability for the blood vessels to contract and expand is hugely beneficial for heart health, circulation, and for preventing disease.
The deep breathing or gasp of breath taken upon feeling the initial shock of cold water hit the body is also another way to encourage increased circulation, as the heart pumps a little harder to warm up the body, and more oxygen is taken in and transported throughout the tissues.
If you’re the type of person who worries and ruminates (most of us?), you may or may not notice how easy it is to get caught up in a cycle of unhelpful or negative thinking. A couple of worrisome thoughts is ok, but when we latch on to them and think about them over and over again, they start to take up excess space in the mind, raising stress levels and actually decreasing the function of all the body’s systems. (Yes, even the immune system is susceptible to stress and worries).
Getting out of this cycle can prove difficult, which is why meditation has become so popular over the past few years: as the amount of stress in the world rises, the need to release this stress also rises, and right now there are more stress-busting solutions available than ever, simply because there’s so much stress prevalent in the world.
One way to take yourself out of cycles of rumination and anxiety, is to do something that safely shocks or surprises the body. Enter: the cold shower. You’ll notice that when we’re confronted with something slightly uncomfortable and surprising, there’s no space to focus on worries that don’t really matter (most of them), and the mind is instantly drawn to what is happening in the moment. Rumination pauses briefly, and we have the opportunity to reset the mind and step out of the cycle.
Cold exposure is also a fantastic way to encourage a release of the body’s natural mood boosters and pain killers; endorphins. Cold temperatures can be slightly painful, which means the body responds to this ‘pain’ by releasing pain killers. Once endorphins have been released into the system, it’s easier to continue releasing them throughout the rest of the day. Start your day with a cold shower, and notice the improvement in mood may well last into the afternoon!
The enhanced cognitive function works in a similar way: the cold temperature instantly focuses the mind, and when the head is placed underneath the cold water, this instantly gets fluid and blood moving around the brain. (If you’ve got a presentation, meeting, exam, or something that requires focus coming up – this could really provide a huge helping hand).
As cold water hits the skin, it encourages warm blood to flow towards the vital organs, thus promoting greater cardiac health and also helping to un-block arteries and lower blood pressure. As more nutrients are provided throughout the body, this can help cells fight off infection, and can help remove toxins from the systems more quickly.
Hot water tends to dry out the skin, whereas cold water tightens pores and prevents them from becoming congested. Repeated use of warm water on the skin can decrease the body’s naturally excreted oils, but using cold or even slightly cool water helps to maintain them. One more bonus? Shiny, strong and healthy hair is also easier to achieve by washing it in cold water rather than hot….
White Fat Loss + Brown Fat Activation
Cold exposure encourages the body to change the type of fat it stores. We all have two types of fat: White fat and brown fat – however until relatively recently, researchers thought that brown fat was only found in infants, so not much thought was given to we might work with it in an adult body.
White fat stores calories, often congregates around the abdomen, back, neck and thighs, and when it is stored around the organs, otherwise known as ‘visceral fat’, this is when it becomes especially deadly. Brown fat is a far more useful and healthy type of fat, and the body starts to make this type of fat when it is exposed to cold temperatures.
Brown fat is the type of fat that we use to keep us warm, and the type our ancestors would’ve had much more of. This type of fat is full of mitochondria, and it burns energy efficiently and improves blood sugar metabolism. Interestingly, another way to increase the amount of brown fat the body contains, is to eat a high-carbohydrate, low fat diet – which is contrary to what many high-fat diet enthusiasts have come to believe. Eating apples with the peel on, thus keeping the ursolic acid intact, is also another way to increase brown fat activation. Essentially, the more brown fat you have, the more you’ll be able to burn off the excess white fat.
Find Comfort In Discomfort
It’s no secret humans spend way more time indoors today than is healthy. Originally, we would’ve spent much of our time out doors in nature, exposed to the varying weather and temperature extremes, whereas now we’ve grown accustomed to comfort and a constant artificial ambient temperature. We complain when it’s too hot or too cold, when the air conditioning doesn’t work, or when the heating won’t switch on. The thing is – being uncomfortable is incredibly strengthening for both the body and mind, and exposing ourselves to cold temperatures is a great way to build resilience and strength, as well as learning to help the body adapt to adverse situations, therefore making it a practice that can have powerful effects in everyday life.
+ Sauna Stress Relief
There’s a good reason there are showers next to the sauna at your local gym, and if you choose to use them, you’ll soon notice how beneficial the combination of hot and cold can be. If you’re looking to ‘detox’ this Spring, this could also be a very useful way to really clean and cleanse the body.
Sweat lodges, saunas and steam rooms have been used for thousands of years for both physical and ceremonial purposes. When we step into a sauna, blood vessels dilate and expand, allowing for free blood flow, and more blood spread across the whole body, especially throughout the extremities. When we subject ourselves to a cold shower, the blood rushes to the core of the body. Now, combine the two and you’ll begin to create a pump-like action, with the blood moving throughout the body, encouraging greater distribution of nutrients, the ability to unblock arteries, and enhanced healing from injuries.
You’ll notice that if you move from a sauna to a cold shower, the impact of the cold water upon the warm skin will start to turn the skin red, and the capillaries become more visible. This is a good thing, and means that blood is flowing to where it needs to go in the body, healing tired or sore muscle tissue, and encouraging healthy cell regeneration. Injuries can really benefit and heal in double time if this practice is applied after the initial inflammation has reduced. If you want to enhance your experience and benefits even more, try dry body brushing just before you start the process!
A few safety tips:
There is likely to be a health and safety notice outside your sauna. Make sure you read it, and never stay in the sauna for as long as is recommended, or for as long as is comfortable for you. If you begin to feel dizzy or uncomfortable, step out of the sauna immediately.
When you take a cold shower, ensure you’re only under the cold water for a couple of minutes maximum if you’re swapping between warm and cold. If you stay for too long and then try to warm up too quickly afterwards, the cold blood from the body’s extremities mixes with the warm blood at the core of the body, potentially causing ‘after drop’, or cold shock.
If you’re overcoming illness or injury, or you’re particularly sensitive, it’s a good idea to start slow. There’s no rush when it comes to using heat and cold in a beneficial way, and what suits some people won’t work for others. Start with small temperature changes, or opt for cool water instead of cold if you’re having difficulty at first.
Try it for yourself. Add a few cold showers to your week, combine with a sauna if you can, and see how you feel!