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When the boiler breaks, the last thing you want to do is step into the shower.
But did you know that icy water is advantageous to your health?
Turning the taps to freezing cold and taking what’s sometimes called a “Scottish Shower” offers amazing benefits to your body and skin—and it may even help with weight loss.
Bathing in cold water dates back at least to the Spartans. These ancient Greek warriors believed hot water bathing was for the weak and unmanly. Bone-chilling baths, on the other hand, not only toughened the body but prepared it for gruelling military manoeuvres and combat.
The Finns and other Scandinavians have historically been known for sweaty saunas followed by a swim in an icy lake or stream, or even a naked roll in snow. The practice of “avantouinti” or “ice hole swimming” is still enjoyed throughout Scandinavia.
The Russians, too, traditionally favour frequent dips in ice-cold rivers—not just for good health, but for spiritual cleansing as well.
Across the pond, certain Native American tribes are known for the “sweat lodge,” a low-ceilinged dome-shaped hut designed for their own version of the sauna as part of ceremonial offerings to the spirit world. Among the Choctaw tribe, participants rushed from the lodge to plunge into cold water.
And in Japan, followers of the native Shinto religion still travel to sacred icy waterfalls before sunrise, where they stand beneath the cold cascade as part of a holy ritual called “Misogi.”
So what are the health benefits of cold showers?
Cardiologists have long known that efficient blood circulation is essential for cardiovascular health. Cold water makes your heart rate increase, releasing a rush of blood throughout your body. This blood-rush boost to your circulation encourages your heart to pump more effectively and your arteries to carry blood more efficiently, augmenting your overall heart health, lowering high blood pressure, and clearing blocked arteries.
The improved circulation carries over even after you exit the shower, improving the flow of blood to tissues and organs throughout your day.
Good blood circulation also speeds recovery time from illnesses, injuries, and surgical procedures.
Deep breathing occurs because of the shock of cold water because your body wants to take in more oxygen to keep warm. When your oxygen intake increases, that extra H2O traveling through your body increases energy levels. This is why cold showers are an invigorating way to start the day.
Deep breathing also releases endorphins—those natural painkillers and cheering-up hormones created naturally in your body. Plus, the upward and downward movement of the diaphragm during deep breathing not only enriches oxygenation, it helps detox your body.
Katherine Hepburn, who made four films with British-born actor Cary Grant, was one of the most celebrated of all classic movie stars. Like many Hollywood actresses of her day, she was known for beautiful hair and skin. It’s no coincidence that Hepburn was a devoted fan of icy baths and cold showers. She lived to be 96 was still acting in major roles in her late 80s, receiving a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination at age 87.
Hepburn was proof that cold water is one of the easiest and most natural ways to improve the look of your hair and skin. Hot water dries skin and hair, but cold water tightens and seals hair strands and pores, not only preventing pores from becoming clogged, but making it harder for the dirt to get in.
According to American dermatologist Jessica Krant, washing with ice-cold water protects your skin from being stripped of its healthy natural oils. For hair care, cold showers add strength and shininess to the hair, flattening hair follicles and increasing their ability to resist pulling by combs, brushes, and other grooming tools.
A 2009 study analysed more than 360 participants and found those who took cold baths or showers with temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees Celsius or colder experienced less delayed muscle soreness after workout sessions than those who didn’t.
Cold showers can alleviate pain after your exercise sessions, thanks to the soothing effects of cold temperatures on inflammation. In addition, cold showers draw lactic acid from the muscles. Your body produces it during intense exercise, causing muscle fatigue and delayed soreness.
However, it’s important to wait 30 to 60 minutes after your workout before plunging into the cold. The period immediately following exercise is important for the muscle-building protein synthesis process, and cold water may inhibit this.
The icy water of a cold shower toughens you up, increasing your resistance to disease.
A study published at Oxford University showed that exposure to cold temperatures dramatically decreases uric acid levels. Uric acid provokes pain—it’s the active ingredient in gout—and it interferes with immunity. Its presence may increase risk factors for hypertension and cardiovascular disease, it is related to type 2 diabetes, and it causes stones and other kidney conditions.
In a 1993 study by England’s Thrombosis Research Institute, subjects who underwent cold showers daily experienced an increase in white blood cells (which help combat infections). Scientists believe this happens because as your body tries to warm you up, your immune system is stimulated.
Not only does the toughening up of cold showers increase your tolerance to disease, it helps minimise how your body reacts to stress and anxiety-causing events.
Cold showers relieve stress and anxiety symptoms because cold temperatures cause electrical impulses to be sent from the skin’s nerve endings to the brain. The process boosts your mood, reducing stress and anxiety.
For depression, researchers believe that slight lowering of temperatures in the brain has neuroprotective and therapeutic effects that relieve the inflammation that is part of depressive illness. Exposure to cold also activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes the release of norepinephrine, a natural antidepressant, as well as natural endorphins that contribute to your overall sense of well-being.
Participants in a 2008 study underwent one- or two-minute cold showers with water temperatures of 3 degrees, followed by a five-minute gradual warm-up. This cold hydrotherapy was found to decrease stress hormones. Another study showed that cold water helps the balance of feel-good serotonin levels, reducing anxiety and depression.
For those seeking to lose fat and extra pounds, cold showers can help.
As your temperature falls when you’re exposed to cold water, your body expends energy to compensate for the loss. Cold showers, therefore, are great for slightly increasing your metabolic rate, which of course causes your body to burn more calories.
A 1985 study examined whether cold showers can affect fat loss. The results showed that subjects plunged into icy water for two hours burned more fat than a control group, because the cold-exposed bodies used stored-up glucose to keep warm.
In addition, when you’re exposed to cold temperatures a fat-burning hormone called “irisin” is stimulated, leading to fat reduction—as well as to a more efficient cardiovascular system and greater overall health.
Finally, the results of a 2009 study suggest that regular exposure to extreme cold temperatures could help an individual lose up to nine pounds a year, based on cold exposure alone.
The website Art of Manliness refers to a type of cold shower called the “James Bond shower.”
But before we get into that, you should be aware that cold baths and showers, and extreme cold in general, should be avoided by those with certain health conditions because of the shock of cold exposure to the body’s system. These conditions include pregnancy, recent birth, heart disease, high blood pressure, and fever. Check with your doctor before you “take the plunge” and add cold showers to your regime.
Now, back to the “James Bond shower”:
In James-Bond creator Ian Fleming’s books, Bond is described as having a distinctive bathing ritual. He begins with a normal hot shower, and at the end turns the water to icy cold for the final few minutes. (This procedure is also referred to as a “Scottish shower,” and Fleming wrote that Bond was of Scottish ancestry.)
You may wish to replicate Bond’s bathing technique using hot water for washing your body and your hair. After rinsing off, turn the tap to the coldest water your body can stand. Try to go a bit colder each time until you’re finally able to tolerate icy coldness.
You might not gain the charm, courage, or skills of Agent 007, but you’re likely to experience many if not all the health benefits we’ve mentioned above!