Take the Polar Plunge — How Cold Can Improve Your Health
by Catherine Morris | February 22, 2021, updated about 2 years ago
All over the Northern hemisphere, a very strange ritual takes place in the first few weeks of the New Year. Hundreds of hardy swimmers gather at various locations to take a dip in whatever wild body of water they can find. They plunge into the icy cold depths to raise money for charity, celebrate the new year, or test their endurance. As they emerge from the freezing water, they grin broadly through chattering teeth, energized, alive, and ready for anything.
For most of us, taking a dip in arctic waters is more punishment than pleasure, but perhaps it's time we got more comfortable with the cold. There's growing evidence that lower temperatures mean better health, and cold exposure is now being used as a therapeutic tool to reduce inflammation, spur weight loss, alleviate mental illness, and even treat cancer.
The second month of the year is coming to a close. How are your personal health resolutions coming along? If you find yourself plateauing, consider going for a walk in the snow. Exposure to cold temperatures revs up your metabolism and could help you shift those pounds. In simple terms, the colder you feel, the harder your body has to work to maintain your core temperature, and the more energy (or calories) you use.
Now known as 'thermal dieting', getting cold to shed weight seems an unlikely (not to mention unpleasant) fix, but it does trick the body into using more energy. Being in the cold encourages our bodies to create something called 'brown fat'. It sounds gross, but, trust me, this is the kind of fat you want. While normal 'white' fat stores energy, brown fat burns it. Brown fat is the body's furnace. Just as a stove uses wood to heat a house, the body's brown fat burns through calories to keep you toasty.
Generally speaking, adults don't have a lot of brown fat. For that, you have to look at babies and bears. Hibernating animals and newborns are vulnerable to dips in their core temperature, and therefore need a lot of brown fat to keep them warm. Babies can't shiver so their stores of brown fat are nature's way of giving them a helping hand. As we age however, we no longer need that survival mechanism and so our levels decline, and we make more white fat than brown.
This is where that cold walk can help—by reducing temperatures even just a small amount, we can train our stem cells to switch from making white fat cells, to the energy-burning brown kind. One study from the University of Nottingham found that this process was activated by dropping your internal temperature just 5 degrees, from 37 C to 32 C.
Of course, there are a few variables to consider before giving thermal dieting a go—our metabolism is a complex system that's influenced by a range of factors from our genetics to our age and lifestyle habits. Cold exposure is merely one piece of this unique puzzle and best used as part of a holistic weight loss plan that looks at long-term habits and sets sustainable goals.
Regularly getting cold won't transform your metabolic health overnight, but it can help over time...if done safely. No amount of weight loss is worth getting hypothermia!
In today's diet-obsessed world, there's a war on white fat. Tucked away in our abdomens, butts, and thighs (those so-called 'trouble zones'), this fat is stored until we need it, preparing us for scarcity and designed for our survival. Despite it performing a very necessary function, we spend millions trying to eradicate our adipose fat from our problem areas.
You probably haven't heard of cryolipolysis, but you might've heard of one of its many brand names. The procedure, a device for which was approved by the FDA in 2010 under the trademark 'Coolsculpting', freezes fat cells in specific areas as a form of non-invasive body contouring.
Does it work? Apparently so. Blasting adipose fat with cold breaks down the cells which are then absorbed and disposed of naturally by the body. In one study, patients noted a 25 percent reduction in fat six months after treatment.
Fat freezing is not entirely without side effects, nor is it suitable for overall weight loss. Used mainly to trim love handles and firm up thighs, cryolipolysis is generally seen as a way to lean up bothersome fat deposits rather than treat obesity. It's more cosmetics than care at this point, but with the technology evolving it may be used more widely in the future.
If the thought of blasting cold at your jiggly bits gives you the shivers, you might not want to read on.
In the 1970s, the Japanese pioneered whole body cryotherapy. The treatment sounds and looks like something out of a science fiction film—patients (usually wearing only their bathing suits) enter a chamber kept at sub-zero temperatures (typically somewhere between minus 110C and minus 140C) and shiver there for around 3 minutes.
The idea was first developed by a rheumatologist who discovered that freezing a patient's skin released endorphins that relieved their pain, sensitivity and soreness. It's since gained traction as a treatment for muscle soreness and injury among athletes and, really, the idea isn't so far-fetched.
Last time you pulled a muscle, or got a bad bruise, you might've put an ice pack on the area to reduce the swelling and pain. That's because cold has an anti-inflammatory effect. It constricts the blood vessels, stopping them from rushing to the site of injury and triggering that inflammatory response.
Before you start constructing your own nitrogen-powered sub-zero cryotherapy pod in the garage for your next quarantine project, however, it's important to note that you can get similar anti-inflammatory effects from simply immersing yourself in cold water. So next time you sprain an ankle, or pull a ligament, a swift soak in an ice bath could help.
My father took a cold shower every day of his life, but readily acknowledged that he hated doing it. So one day I asked him why. His response was simple—“It makes me feel good”.
He wasn't alone in that. Many people feel refreshed and clear-headed after an icy wash, or a walk in the snow, and it's now clear that cold exposure has the potential to heal mental pain as much as physical.
Cryotherapy has been extensively researched since it first emerged in Japan four decades ago, with one particular study focusing on mental health. Patients with depression and anxiety were invited to visit a cryotherapy chamber for a 3 minute session, every day for 3 weeks. At the end of the trial, a third of the group said their anxiety had improved by 50 percent, and almost half the group said the same about their depression.
When your body temperature drops, it doesn't just make you feel cold, it affects your hormones, increasing your adrenaline and endorphins, among more. If you feel depressed, science says take a cold shower—the shock of the cold water releases adrenaline and basically lights up the brain's nerve endings, banishing that suffocating foggy feeling.
As we learn more about what cold can do for our brains, there are more avenues for science to explore. Researchers are even looking at cryotherapy for Alzheimer's disease and dementia, as well as brain injuries.
Cutting Edge Cancer Therapy
If you can freeze away fat cells, why not give more harmful cells an icy blast too?
That's exactly what medical researchers are doing—testing how cold can reduce and even eliminate cancerous tissue.
In 2018, the results of a four-year study into cryotherapy for breast cancer were published. Of the 180 patients who participated, only one saw a recurrence of their cancer, giving the cold treatment a 99.4 percent success rate. Not bad for a minimally-invasive procedure that takes less than an hour.
In the trial, a small probe was inserted into the patient's tumour. Liquid nitrogen was then pumped through the probe and around the mass, to encase it in an icy shell, freezing and killing the cancerous cells.
Similar treatments have been used for kidney and pancreatic cancers, but the freezing technique appears to work best on small tumours that are easily accessible and slow to develop.
Cold doesn't just kill some cancer cells, it can also help people cope with the side effects of conventional cancer treatment. In one trial, chemotherapy patients wore frozen gloves and socks for 90 minutes to combat nerve-damage, a common chemo side effect which causes numbness, pain and tingling in the extremities.
Getting Your Cold Therapy
As technology has advanced, the world's gotten a lot more comfortable—we go from heated houses to heated cars, we wear the latest warm winter clothing. In short, we do anything and everything to avoid feeling chilly.
If you're wondering what to add to your wellness routine in the second half of winter, it might be time to embrace some cold in 2021, while it’s so readily available. So switch up your morning routine and take cold showers a few times a week, wear fewer layers, and spend more time outdoors in the winter.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and you'll even find your tolerance for low temperatures increasing as your metabolism adapts. Given the right fuel and the right tools, our bodies are amazingly resilient and responsive so perhaps it’s time to (safely!) test yourself, and embrace the wintery weather.
If you want to learn more about kicking up your metabolism, starting a weight loss plan, or exercising outdoors to enjoy the cold weather, reach out to one of our Which Doctor practitioners today. We have a range of dieticians, nutritionists, and fitness coaches in our network who are ready to help you achieve your health goals.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.