If you’re like most Americans, your daily routine includes a steaming hot shower. But you could be gaining remarkable health benefits of cold water therapy by turning the water dial to cold instead. The practice of cold morning showers is an extraordinary health revitalizer, embraced around the world for thousands of years.
One of the basic theories behind cold water therapy is that your body gains vitality and resilience through managed stress. In other words, by briefly and routinely exposing your body to certain stresses — like cold water, intermittent fasting, or high intensity exercise — you enhance your health dramatically.
Cold water therapy is simple and practically free — all you need is your own shower (or bath).
The History of Healing With Cold Water
The ancient Indian term for very cold showers is ishnan. This refers to the moment when your body achieves the temperature with which it can defend itself against the cold water. Ishnan kicks in when the cold water first hits your skin, causing your capillaries (small blood vessels near the skin’s surface) to open.
As the cold shower continues, your capillaries close again, sending blood rushing back to your organs and glands. This natural flushing process brings youthfulness to your body by stimulating renewed glandular activity.
Cold water therapy was publicized by the German priest Sebastian Kneipp in 1849. That winter, Kneipp was successfully battling tuberculosis (a condition that was then incurable). His method was cold water therapy, which he executed by plunging into the frigid Danube River several times each week. Kneipp’s 1886 book, My Water Cure, became an international bestseller.
Modern Science Confirms the Benefits of Cold Water
Modern science and numerous case histories support cold water therapy’s benefits for numerous health conditions, including frequent colds, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Cold water therapy can boost immune function, decrease inflammation and pain, and increase blood flow and metabolism. Researchers say it even shows promise for those with chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic heart failure, and some (non-lymphoid) types of cancers.
When practiced for at least 4 weeks, cold-water showers have been shown to:
• Increase metabolism. The effects of exposure to cold on metabolism are well documented.
• Enhance immunity. Cold water stimulates the release of substances vital to immune function, such as cytokines.
• Stabilize blood pressure and other bodily functions. Cold water triggers the autonomic nervous system in beneficial ways. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions such as heartbeat and breathing. This system responds to cold water by raising blood pressure, increasing heart rate, and constricting blood vessels — responses that strengthen with each cold exposure. Eventually, this process can stabilize blood pressure, improve circulation, and balance the sleep/wake cycle.
• In a recent German study, breast cancer patients who underwent 4 weeks of cold-water therapy showed significant gains in disease-fighting white blood cells.
• Reduce pain. Cold water causes the body to release endorphins (hormones with proven pain-fighting capacities).
• Improve mood. Not only does cold water stimulate the release of mood-boosting endorphins, it also activates sensory nerves leading to the brain. The result can be very uplifting, and can even prepare you emotionally to experience new challenges.
Many health problems are reduced or even eliminated over time through this simple home therapy.
How to Use Cold Water Therapy
Dr. Alexa Fleckenstein, M.D., is a board-certified internist who practices traditional and complementary medicine in the Boston area. She advises a gradual approach to beginning cold water therapy.
Dr. Fleckstein recommends that you begin with your usual warm shower, because the shock of stepping into a purely cold shower can have a too-strong effect on your blood pressure.
Once you’ve finished with your usual shower, you can step away from the water stream and turn off the hot water, while leaving the cold water running.
Only then do you gradually ease yourself into the cold stream, moving slowly from your feet to your hands and then your face. Then finally you can step your whole body under the cold stream.
“Let the cold water run over your scalp, face, the front of your body, then down your back,” says Dr. Fleckstein. “You can begin with a shower that lasts only a couple of seconds.”
Even after a full month, the entire process should last no more than 40 seconds, she advises. “Work up to whatever is comfortable for you. If you can’t tolerate the cold, keep the water cold but expose only your feet, hands, and face. Gradually increase the duration and area of exposure.”
If you do not feel warm and invigorated after the shower, Dr. Fleckstein says you should decrease the length of your next cold shower. “If you still don’t feel warm within minutes, forgo cold showers.
Instead, condition your body with cold sponge baths of the feet, hands, face — and then the rest of your body — after your warm shower,” she recommends.
Cold Water Massage Therapy
Gurudev Khar Khalsa — a Sat Nam Rasayan healer and Kundalini Yoga teacher in Los Angeles — recommends cold water massage therapy as a variation on plain cold showers.
“Simply massage the body with almond oil before taking a shower,” she says. “Shower in cold water until your body temperature rises and no longer feels cold, but toasty and warm. Make sure the bathroom is heated. Never get out of a cold shower into a cold room.”
Cold Water Cautions
Experts advise that cold water therapy is not for everyone. For example, the potential spike in blood pressure caused by cold water could be dangerous for those with uncontrolled high blood pressure. However, practitioners say the therapy can be safely used to reduce mildly high blood pressure (150/100 and below) or to raise low blood pressure.
If you have any questions about your blood pressure or haven’t had it checked recently, you should see your doctor for a blood pressure test before beginning a cold-water regimen.
Dr. Fleckstein cautions that for very thin or frail people, cold showers may be too difficult to tolerate, at least at first. An extra gradual approach may be necessary.
Cold water therapy is also to be avoided in cases of:
• Acute illness, such as severe back pain
• Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
• Raynaud’s disease
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