(ORDO NEWS) — Dutch “Iceman” Wim Hof has mastered the cold – but is his technique really for everyone?
Anyone who watches the BBC‘s “Freeze Fear with Wim Hof” may be beginning to wonder if there really is “strength in a cold shower” as extreme sportsman Hof claims. Hof, who holds the Guinness World Record for swimming under ice, claims that “a cold shower a day keeps the doctor away,” reducing stress and boosting energy levels.
He’s asking celebs on the show, including sports host Gabby Logan and singer Alfie Boe, to take 12C cold water showers every day, increasing their shower time from 15 seconds to two minutes. Observing the reaction of the participants under a cold shower shows that this is not a very pleasant experience, at least at first.
There are not many studies examining the health benefits of cold showers, so the literature is limited. The largest study of 3,000 people was conducted in the Netherlands and showed that people who took a daily cold shower (after a warm shower) of 30 seconds, 60 seconds or 90 seconds for one month were 29% less likely to take sick leave from work than those who took only warm showers. Interestingly, the duration of cold water intake did not affect the number of sick days.
The reason why cold showers can prevent the disease is still not clear. Some studies suggest that it boosts the immune system.
A Czech study found that immersion in cold water (14C for one hour) three times a week for six weeks gave a small boost to the immune system of “athletic young men”, the only group that was tested. However, further research is needed to fully understand the effects on the immune system.
In the BBC program, Hof suggests that cold water activates the cardiovascular system and therefore improves its functioning. He says: “We go to the gym to work out our muscles, but there are millions of tiny cardiovascular muscles inside our body – and we can train them just by taking a cold shower.”
When you take a cold shower, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. There is some evidence that cold water activates the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response (an automatic physiological response to an event that is perceived as dangerous, stressful, or frightening).
When it is activated, such as during a cold shower, levels of the hormone norepinephrine rise. This is what most likely causes the increase in heart rate and blood pressure seen with cold water immersion, and is therefore associated with the health improvements mentioned by Hof.
Cold water immersion has also been shown to improve circulation. Under the influence of cold water, the blood vessels of the skin narrow (become smaller), reducing blood flow.
When exposure to cold water stops, the body is forced to warm up, so there is an increase in blood flow as the blood vessels increase in size due to expansion. Some scientists believe that it can improve blood circulation. A study on cold water immersion after exercise found that after four weeks, there was improved blood flow to and from the muscles.
In the program, Hof recommends that participants increase their shower time each day. However, the only study that looked at duration is the Dutch study mentioned above. They found that the duration of the cold shower did not matter. Therefore, 15 seconds of a cold shower at 12C should be enough to experience the health benefits.
Taking a cold shower can be a bit of a shock. As mentioned above, it also stimulates the fight-flight response, which increases heart rate and blood pressure.
This can have negative consequences for people with heart disease, as it can trigger a heart attack or irregular heart rhythms. If someone has fatty deposits in their arteries, the sudden increase in heart rate can cause some of them to fall off and block the artery, leading to a heart attack.
In addition, according to Mike Tipton, an expert in human physiology at the University of Portsmouth, immersion in cold water may be associated with increased breathing and heart rate.
But there is also the “dive response” when diving in cold water, where the body automatically lowers your heart rate and you instinctively stop breathing (as opposed to the “flight-fight” response).
This conflict can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and potentially sudden death. However, this risk is higher with cold water immersion, such as open water swimming, than with cold showers.
Cold showers are also believed to be good for mental health. However, a Dutch study found no improvement in anxiety with cold showers.
However, it can reduce symptoms of depression. The supposed reason for this is that human skin has a large number of cold receptors, and a cold shower activates them and sends a huge amount of electrical impulses to the brain, which can have an antidepressant effect.
There have also been studies among older people that have shown that cold water applied to the face and neck causes temporary improvements in brain function, including improved memory and attention.
Thus, Hof’s claim that “a cold shower a day will save the doctor” has some scientific evidence behind it. However, the extent of the health benefits and the exact reasons for this remain to be seen. Caution should be exercised by those who already have heart disease.
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