Cold showers! The benefits of lower stress and fewer sick days
Photography courtesy of Wim Hof
It’s 6am. Your alarm cuts through what feels like a two-hour nap and the only way you’ll move is by promising yourself a 40°C shower, followed by an espresso as you snuggle up in your robe…
Effective, yes, but not as beneficial as my start to the day – with the shower dial set on low. Cold showers might sound like inhumane torture, but this daily hack could revolutionise your life.
Cold showers have recently cropped up on the wellness radar, although they were a regular habit for the Greeks and Romans (who believed warm water was emasculating). Publicised by extreme athlete Wim Hof, these days we have science to scrutinise claims that they can improve our immune system, willpower and stress responses. It turns out there’s method to this madness.
Five benefits of a freezing flow
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey says cold showers wake him up more effectively than the caffeine in his coffee
The shower is considered fit for this purpose if the water temperature is below 21°C. Once you’re there, the icy jolt floods the brain with electrical impulses which stimulate an effect not unlike electroshock therapy. As a result, endorphins (the happy hormone) and nonadrenaline (which negates adrenaline) pair up to create an anti-depressive effect.
Resilience to stress
Chilly blasts of water help to lower stress overall by exposure to moderate, regular episodes of stress. In response, the nervous system adapts or 'hardens'. Consider it a controlled exercise in practising stress and, when dutifully repeated, it makes us better prepared when we come face to face with it IRL.
During a cold shower, our body works harder to maintain a steady temperature so speeds up its metabolic rate. This promotes weight loss (more on that later), and increases the number of the body's white blood cells - the cells responsible for protecting us against disease and infection. A 2018 study published by the Public Library of Science, found that people who took cold showers, lasting at least 30 seconds for one month, called in sick 29% less than those who didn’t.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey says cold showers wake him up more effectively than the caffeine in his coffee. Aside from the rousing qualities of ice-cold hitting our back, this increased alertness is also due to our taking longer, deeper breaths which reduce carbon dioxide levels and make it easier to concentrate.
Promotes weight loss
As well as firing up our metabolism, subzero showers also activate our brown or “good” fat, which keeps us warm by burning calories. It goes into overdrive when we’re faced with extreme cold, going like the clappers to keep our core temperature stable. A series of studies in 2009, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that exposure to cold increases brown fat 15 fold, which could result in a 4kg fat loss in one year.
We might not even be considering this without the frozen don himself, Wim Hof. Wim began experimenting with techniques to adapt in low-temperature environments in 2000 and subsequently developed the Wim Hof Method. Cold showers are key to the practice and Wim recommends a progressive build-up. Start with a regular shower, then blast the cold water in the final 30 seconds and, over time, your tolerance will skyrocket.
As someone who’s taken the icy plunge for a few years, I testify to its brilliance and think, if you persevere, addiction seems inevitable. Is it the closed pores? Smooth hair? Or emerging from the cubicle with the energy of Nicola Adams? All of the above and I don’t plan on stopping until the carers refuse to put me through it. My advice: Stick at it for 14 consecutive days and, chances are, you’ll never look back.