Evidence behind cold water showers

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Jun 24, 2022

It seems that everything old is new again and that's the case when it comes to subjecting yourself to cold water therapy. Cold water bathing has been around since we started our evolutionary process. So why are cold water showers undergoing a resurgence?

Imagine you're stark naked in your shower and with your hand poised... warm or cold? Where does instinct take you? Unless you're a cold immersion convert, you'll go warm every time, even in hot weather. Our body finds cold water a shock to the system and we instinctively avoid discomfort, but...

...for the majority of the last 200,000 years of evolution, cold water was reality - perhaps not a shower but certainly a dip or splash in a stream, ocean, lake, pond or puddle.

Modern life has softened us considerably. So, has all this softening deprived us of natural responses that boosted immunity, calmed our minds, stimulated our nervous system and ultimately aided in our survival?

It's this resurgence in evolutionary resilience training that's coming back in favour.

Before we brace for the cold water, where's the evidence behind this resurgence? Is a cold shower good for you?

Well, the evidence file for daily cold showers is skinny, but before dismissing this, it's important to ask yourself why? You could draw the conclusion that the evidence is thin because there's no proven benefits. While that might be right, the reality is likely different.

First, let's look at the list of scientifically plausible benefits for cold water therapy, also known as cold immersion therapy:

- Boosted Immunity (some evidence - ie. reduces absenteeism by 30% at work)

- Improved recovery from muscular injury (lots of evidence for cold therapy post exercise)

- Reducing symptoms of depression

- Improved circulation

- Speed up metabolism leading to possible weight loss

- Improved scalp condition (less drying out due to oil loss)

- Reduced stress levels

- Higher state of alertness

- Increased personal willpower and resilience

Now if a cold shower could achieve some of these things for you, would it worth trying? If it could achieve this for the majority of the population, there should be plenty of research already, right?

It makes sense that if simply adjusting the temperature of your shower or bath could improve lives, save lives, and reduce the cost of the pharmaceutical consumption globally, that would warrant the research. So why hasn't the research been done?

Likely, this is due to two key factors which impact this and many other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Firstly, scientists like to identify something very specific and control all the variables, we want to make sure it's the one thing that changes something, not something else.

That's hard to do in this situation. Most people who start and maintain cold showers do so to jolt themselves into action...which works. It's hard to slump down in a chair feeling flat after you've just subjected your body to the 'fight or flight' response.

That blast of 'holly shiiiiiiiit that's f'king cold' is likely to trigger a whole range of different emotions and thinking.

Are you more likely to move faster afterwards? Make healthier choices? Lift your mood generally? Feel more alive and more powerful and behave differently? Absolutely. Stick with it and you'll learn that nasal breathing into your belly results in less perceived pain and shock. You can manage and control the stress response and it can feel good as your body calms down.

So how do you do research to measure those things? In short, it's very difficult. It's impossible to isolate the cold shower itself to any changes in health in any meaningful way.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, strong and valid scientific research into health outcomes is expensive, very expensive. To prove or disprove the benefits of cold showers on overall health would take years and likely cost tens of millions of dollars and multiple studies to satisfy our health system's 'evidence based' framework.

There's a significant "elephant in the room" here when it comes to research into health treatments that are free. If no-one can profit from the treatment, who funds the research? Research very typically follows profit, or conversely companies only invest in research in order to profit from it.

That's a key reason why simple, free life-hacks like this are seldom prescribed, promoted or researched comprehensively. No-one profits from it even if you benefit.

Go through the list of plausible benefits again. Who would win and who would lose if there was research to support cold showers over any current alternatives to achieve those benefits?

Given the lack of evidence and the perceived discomfort of undertaking the treatment, I'm 100% confident that cold shower therapy will not become mainstream in developed countries... even if it was a wonder treatment. Why? There are too many vested interests, ensuring more 'convenient' and profitable remedies will be promoted (marketing, sales, distribution, incentives, inducements) first.

So when it comes to cold showers, morning dips in the pool, lake, river, ocean, dam, you might be best to do some research and give it a try yourself. Do your own personalised trial. Think about how you really feel afterwards. How does it impact your day overall.

Overcome your reaction to fight or flight and control your initial response. You'll learn the power of breathing through your nose into your belly when confronting stress. You'll be boosting your resilience to life's discomforts. You'll likely feel more energized and more alive during and after. You'll learn to appreciate the tingling in the scalp and the calming effect of cooler water. The feeling of overcoming a discomfort will likely build inner strength.

All of the above benefits are of course unproven but not unexpected.

The only proof that matters in this context is whether it makes a difference to you. When it comes to non-profitable therapies it's important to experiment - weight up the evidence, ask yourself whether it's plausible or not. Do some research and don't assume that because there's no evidence that something is not helpful.

Society is currently taking a closer look at how profit and power impacts our decision making. When it comes to your health, don't discount your evolutionary makeup in favour of a profitable choice.

Homo Sapiens (current humans) survived continuously and largely unchanged in our biological structure for 200,000 years. We're definitely surviving longer now due to science, medicine, water treatment, sewerage treatment and our understanding and treatment of disease.

It is however important we consider the relationship between science and profit. Funding the type of evidence needed to support non-pharmaceutical treatments for many of today's lifestyle diseases is unlikely. It's important to follow the ever questioning nature of scientists: do research, find what's plausible and conduct your own experiments, safely.

Wellteam is here to help you with those experiments. Our 6-week mind and body Launch Challenge has over 20 life-hack experiments for you to try in a supported program. Join our next cohort and have some fun over 6 weeks with a cohort of men out to live life fully.

Find what works for you. Take control. Optimise your life.

Wellteam's optimisation community is on the hunt for science based experiments to share with members to boost health, overall wellbeing and happiness.

When it comes to life. We're all in it together.

Define your life by action...not intention. Try a cold shower today.




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