Why Cambridge students should be having cold showers

Here’s what I’ve learnt from freezing myself every morning for the last two years, just hear me out…

I know you’re probably shivering just reading the title of this article, apprehensive at the thought of abandoning your warm and cosy showers. But its been over two years since I’ve started my day with anything other than icy-cold water, and I’m here to make the case that you should too. So grab a mug of hot coffee, get a blanket… you’re going to need it!

Wim Hof – Image credits: The Adventure core and the Creative Commons Licence

Today’s society is obsessed with comfort: Most of us live in heated homes, cover ourselves with clothes, and dress up warm if it’s cold outside. Our bodies, however, have evolved to handle much more intense conditions than we put ourselves through. This has been demonstrated by countless extraordinary humans, most notably perhaps being Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete who has completed feats like climbing Mount Everest to an altitude of 23,600 ft in nothing but shorts. Deliberately exposing ourselves to these harsher conditions, particularly the cold, can stimulate primal responses within our bodies, resulting in a number of profound benefits to our mental and physical well being.

Mental Health Benefits

If you ask Cambridge students what would improve their experience during term-time, they’ll probably tell you they’d like to be happier, less stressed, and more productive. What if I told you that cold showers can improve all of these things?
A significant boost in energy, alertness, productivity, and focus
When you first step into a cold shower, your body will tense up, your breathing will intensify, and you will feel a strong stress response being activated within your body. This is because exposure to cold water has been found to trigger a huge and immediate increase in adrenaline and noradrenaline levels, which are both hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. A study has found that stimulating this response in the morning can result in a lasting increase in productivity, creativity, and energy throughout the day, as well as a sustained decrease in stress levels. I usually wake up at eight am feeling groggy and unmotivated, but after forcing myself into a cold shower gives me big boost in energy and alertness that makes me want to get up and do something with my day!
Long-term stress management
When we encounter different stressful situations throughout the day, our mind plays a role in deciding whether to interpret the level of stress we feel as overwhelming or tolerable. Purposefully exposing ourselves every morning to this stress response stimulated by cold showers will, over time, raise the ceiling of this threshold, teaching the mind to become comfortable in states of higher stress.
Anti-depressive effects
You may have heard that cold exposure therapy has also been found to effectively relief symptoms of depression. One reason for this is that our skin contains a highly-dense array of cold receptors which, in comfortable modern-life, are almost never triggered the way they were in our ancestors. Cold water will activate these receptors all at once, sending a jolt of electrical impulses to our brain, potentially stimulating a strong anti-depressive response.

Additionally, exposure to cold water has been found to stimulate a slow but continuous rise in dopamine, to as high as two and a half times our baseline level – that’s comparable to the increase triggered by cocaine! Usually when an activity triggers a very large increase in dopamine (e.g. sex, drugs, video games etc.), following the relatively short-lived peak, our dopamine levels will crash to below our baseline – making us feel unmotivated and less happy. Cold showers, however, can lead to a sustained rise in dopamine of up to three hours, which then slowly decreases back to our baseline without crashing below it. This high dopamine state will bring a significant increase in: Motivation, energy, focus, alertness, and happiness. This response may reduce in intensity as you become more tolerant to the cold; however, you will still experience all of the benefits that I mentioned above.
Better self-discipline
I actually really enjoy the feeling of cold water once I get into it and relax, but making myself transition from a warm and cosy bed to a freezing and hostile shower is not easy, and requires some mental effort (I’ll give some tips on how to do this later on). Admittedly there have been a couple of days where I just thought “nope.”, and cranked the dial to the hottest setting, but over time I have learnt to sacrifice pleasure in the short-term in order to benefit my well being in the long run, which is a mindset I can now apply to other aspects of life.

Physical Benefits

If I still haven’t convinced you… there are also a number of significant physical benefits which can result from cold showers, which are just as (if not more) important as the impacts to our mental health. There are too many to talk about in one go, so I’ve narrowed it down to a few which I consider the most important.
Improved circulation & cardiovascular health
Our circulatory system contains millions of tiny muscles, which expand or contract in order to help blood flow efficiently around the body. When these muscles are left un-stimulated, they become weaker, and the heart has to compensate by pumping more than it should; this is not so much of an issue for younger people, but over time it can lead to cardiovascular problems in older adults.

Stepping into a cold shower will initially cause the arterioles in our extremities to constrict, and those in our deeper tissues to dilate, promoting the flow of oxygenated blood to our vital organs. As our bodies start to warm up again, this process will reverse, allowing blood to flow back to our extremities. This alternation of contraction and relaxation will strengthen these circulatory muscles over time, resulting in improved flow of oxygen and nutrients to our cells, and more efficient pumping of the heart. Since starting cold showers, my resting heart rate has lowered by about 20 bpm!
Stronger immune system
Another huge benefit cold showers bring is a stronger immune system. Research has found that the stress response triggered by cold showers will activate the innate immune system (which protects us against all antigens), stimulating the recruitment of immune cells, in order to prime the body to fight against infection. Additionally, cold water forces your lymph vessels to contract, promoting the flow of fluid in your body, which aids the removal of toxins. Since starting cold showers, I rarely get ill any more.
Increased metabolism
Taking cold showers has massively increased my metabolism, to the point where I can comfortably go through all of winter in a t-shirt! One theory for this is that exposure to cold increases brown fat activity in order to generate heat – a 2009 study supports this, finding that brown fat activity can multiply up to 15 times in subjects exposed to extreme cold temperatures. Similarly, a study by the New England Journal of Medicine has found that morning cold showers can burn up to 500 calories a day.

How to actually start having cold showers

If you’ve made it this far you’re probably thinking “wow, you’ve convinced me, but how on earth do I bring myself to actually start taking these?”. It depends how well you can initially cope with the cold water. When I first started, I just turned the cold tap all the way and forced myself to stick it out for as long as I could. But if this is too difficult then the best thing to do is start off by ending your regular showers with 30 seconds of cold water, and add an extra 10 seconds each day, until you don’t need to start with warm water anymore. The water has to be cold enough to activate the stress response I talked about, so ideally turn the tap down as far as you can tolerate.

If you struggle to cope with the cold water, I recommend three strategies:
    1. Distract yourself – using any means necessary (singing, listening to music, reciting your favourite Tab article etc.)
    2. Energise yourself – get yourself pumped up and charge into the friction of the cold like a warrior (please don’t literally charge, you might slip)
    3. Embrace the cold! – take controlled deep breaths, relax yourself, and focus on how the cold is making you feel

Note: If you have a heart condition please speak to a doctor before exposing yourself to water cold enough to shock you.

Hopefully I managed to persuade you! Just give it a try, cold showers are pretty cool…

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Feature image credits: Archie Mackintosh