Cold water therapy seems to be the rave these days- and for good reason! Myself and a majority of people I know are BIG fans of this simple practice BUT- is it the best option for EVERY person? Or are there some people that should use this practice with caution?
Well, as always, I am NOT a doctor / medical practitioner and this is not medical advice- please always advise your healthcare team FIRST before trying any new lifestyle changes; ESPECIALLY when we’re talking extreme activities such as cold water therapy. YES there are numerous benefits to cold water therapy and a variety of ways to slowly practice that can make it safe for everyone to warm up to but is it truly the right fit for YOU.
In this article we’ll compare Cold Exposure vs Hot Exposure to determine what their benefits and potential cautions could be. I’ll share my own experience as well as: diving a little deeper into the history & traditional uses around these practices, understanding who could benefit from either practice, when to use as well as lots of resources/articles to check out.
What is Cold Water Therapy / Cold Exposure?
Cold water therapy is the practice of using water that’s generally around 15°C or less to help manage health conditions or stimulate health benefits; also known as cold hydrotherapy. Cold exposure is the same similar practice, just with any cold exposure or pressure; cold air/temperatures, cold pack, ice bath, cold swim- essentially any form of cold immersion.
How to Practice:
Using an ice bath, ice bucket/bowl (to immerse only your face or hands into), ice cold shower, fresh cold river stream, the ocean or any large cold body of water ideally ranging between 10 – 15°C. Working your way from 30sec – up to a maximum of 15min, keep as much of your body immersed in the cold water water as possible. Using proper breathing exercises and meditative practices will help with endurance and stamina. Check out Whim Hofs Method Here.
Cold exposure is generally recommended and ideal for acute injuries – these are issues such as sprains, bruising, pulls, throbs, minor tears and reducing inflammation caused by injuries. How to Use: Apply cold exposure within 48 – 72hrs of injury. Use in 10 – 20min cycles until swelling has reduced. When in doubt, always use ICE/COLD for injuries.
This will be dependent on your biochemical makeup, however some benefits could be:
- Reduction in pain, muscle fatigue and soreness; reduces swelling through constricting bloods vessels – very important to consider when using cold exposure! See notes below in the caution section to understand why.
- May help to reduce or lower cortisol levels
- Helps to improve circulation and overall cardiovascular function
- Massively increases libido, fertility, self-esteem and energy
- Helps to increase metabolism and support more stable healthy emotions / moods while also potentially decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression
- May help to manage or reduce weight
- Massively improves concentration, focus, clarity, cognitive function, awareness and alertness; can be a great tool for managing or preventing cognitive symptoms and diseases such as ADD/ADHD, Dementia/Alzheimers, Memory Loss, Brain Fog/Fatigue, etc.
- GREAT at stimulating healthy mitochondria function. See article below on why mitochondria function is so essential for our health.
- Ayurvedically, water is considered very energetically and spiritually cleansing. When you can, take your practice into nature with no electronics and if you are in a secluded, comfortable area try with no bathing suit at all- very invigorating!
- VERY stimulating to the nervous system (yay!) but best to practice in the morning AFTER a warm shower so that your pores are closed and you have lots of energy for the day! However, it WILL help to improve quality sleep for these reasons!
This will be dependent on your biochemical makeup and what your end goal is with using cold exposure – everything should be used with intention and purpose! However some cautions could be:
- DO NOT USE post-exercise UNLESS you have injured yourself! WHY?! Because there are 2 types of inflammation – one that helps us grow & develop a healthy inflammatory response as well as strengthen our immune system. This generally happens when we exert energy, workout, move our muscles – which is good! And helps to strengthen / improve our muscles, joints etc. IF we use COLD exposure after a healthy inflammatory response, we will reverse the effects of that response and potentially cause harm. For example: if you are working out and then decide to jump in a cold bath what do you think will happen? Your blood vessels will constrict and your muscles will seize causing potential spasms, strains and massive impairment in your recovery- or potential harm. THIS is why it is SO important to understand WHY and WHEN to use these beautiful practices – again, everything with intention and purpose! If anything, enjoy your workout, then a sauna/steam/hot tub and end with a simple cold shower to close the pores.
- May effect muscle/joint pain, depending on your symptoms. Cold exposure has been thought to help with gout but not arthritis so it really depends on each person and how their body reacts.
- Remember, cold exposure is very constrictive (then contracting – not expanding) and constricts blood vessels so it will slow the blood flow (EVEN THOUGH it also simultaneously helps to strengthen the cell walls & support quality circulation / cardiovascular health). This means it is most ideal for acute pain/injury and preventative practices – NOT growth/expansion. Cold exposure is the perfect way to PREVENT disease but not necessarily TREAT.
- VERY stimulating to the nervous system (yay!) but best to practice in the morning instead of in the evening for these reasons. Ideally do not practice for longer than 20min at any given time.
What is Hot Water Therapy / Hot Exposure?
This one is probably just as straightforward as the last – it is the same practice just with hot water instead of cold! Fascinating! 😉
But in all seriousness, Hot Water Therapy or Exposure is used in a lot of stress and muscle tension reduction practices; some forms are bubble baths/hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms, hot pads, hot springs, hot yoga, hot stones massages, etc.
How to Practice
There are a variety of ways to practice Hot Water Therapy but one of the simplest ways is taking a steaming hot bath with epsom salts every other day for 15min – ideally with your entire body submerged except for your face and practiced in the evening or after a workout. You could also rotate between hot-cold exposure as well if there are no other medical concerns.
Hot Water Therapy or Exposure is best used for Chronic symptoms or injuries – these are issues such as knots, lingering muscle pain, chronic tension or soreness that have lasted longer than 6 weeks. DO NOT add heat to an acute injury as you will be adding more inflammation onto inflammation. How to Use: Apply cold exposure within 48 – 72hrs of injury and ONLY consider using hot exposure after waiting 48-72hrs. Use for 20 – 30min every hour, ideally rotating between hot-cold exposure.
We KNOW how relaxing and goood our body feels after having a little RNR but again, every body is different! Here are a few potential benefits:
- Improves circulation, cardiovascular health and increases blood flow which helps to provide more oxygen and nutrients throughout the body (EXPANSIVE not contractive or constrictive)
- Helps to reduce muscle fatigue / soreness
- Helps to improve recovery time after energy exertion
- Helps to improve quality sleep and will help you to fall asleep
- May help with certain cognitive functions and optimal brain health
- May help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression
- Helps support detoxification system and is a great way to move & remove toxins throughout the body
- NOT good for acute injuries – depending on what the injury is. ALWAYS wait 48-72hrs before considering heat therapy
- Ideally do not use if you have high inflammation throughout the body or inflammatory diseases that may exacerbate the issues / symptoms.
- DO NOT USE if there are signs of swelling or bruising – ALWAYS use cold (when in doubt, use ice).
- Ideally not the best option for people with poor circulation – opting for cold water therapy could actually help improve circulation which could better prepare you for hot AND cold therapy options.
HISTORY / TRADITIONAL USES
For centuries, both hot and cold therapy practices have been used in various cultures all around the world. In fact, Hydrotherapy dates back to Ancient Greece and were used by the Ancient Chinese, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations. Ayurvedically, water is considered energetically and spiritually cleansing, making it a precious resource that is well utilized in bathing rituals and purification. One way I like to cleanse, purify and practice some of the teaching found in Ayurveda is by partaking in regular Self-Massages and Castor Oil Baths.
Nanaaswiias also shared with me how Cold Water Therapy was (and is) considered to be a spiritual bath, traditionally used to purify & strengthen the spirit. It’s said to “shock” the spirit back into the body (which from her experience, finds this to be true!).
Mindy MacAulay (yup, my momma bear!) ALSO swears by this practice when it comes to her cognitive function and immune health. She has personally been practicing Cold Water Therapy for over 5 years in Cowichan Lake to support her Triathlon Training but has upped her game a few years ago by setting up a freezer unit specifically for her to practice her cold water plunges in. If you’re REALLY interested to hear someones hands-on experience and perspective, JOIN US LIVE on Wednesday, June 1 at 11am PST on Instagram for a SPECIAL Mom + Me Wellness Wednesday episode. We’ll be discussing how to balance: Family, Career and Health.
Warriors, Shamans, Athletes and Bad@ss Moms everywhere all swear by it- so it’s GOTTA be good for you, right?!
The Misogi Challenge is a purifying ritual originally invented by the Japanese. It usually involves making the pilgrimage to an icy waterfall, symbolizing a sense of intense purification.
However the Western way of looking at Misogi is best described by Jesse Itzler:
“The notion around the Misogi is, you do something so hard 1 time a year, that has an impact on the other 364 days of the year.”
Or, as Marcus Elliot puts it:
“Take on challenges that radically expand your sense of what’s possible. There are just two rules: you have a 50% chance of success at best, and it doesn’t kill you…
Does it make your jaw drop? That’s a good litmus test for whether something can be a misogi or not.”
Essentially: “Put one big thing on the calendar that scares you, that you never thought you could do, and go out and do it.”
This could be Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual, Environmental, Social… what is something that makes you go “HOLY FUCK – YES” or shocks your soul to the CORE- but in a thrilling, passionate, fiery way? Go put that on your “Misogi” list (or bucket list) and start tackling them!
A few big “WOWs” on my list that I HAVE accomplished and WOULD like to accomplish are:
- Travel to a foreign country SOLO and scale waterfalls (check!)
- Surf in Canada in the middle of winter, with no hood, while it is SNOWING (check!)
- Dip into the Cowichan River at least 1 x a month for each month throughout the entire year (check!)
- Summit each Olympic Mountain Peak (1 down, 9 more to go! LOL)
- Jump out of a plane – ideally on another continent and landing onto a beautiful sandy beach 😉
- Complete a Triathlon
My Notes / Experiences
WHY do I personally RAVE about BUBBLE BATHS, CASTOR OIL BATHS and COLD WATER THERAPY?!
Because these are some of my favourite forms of energetically and spiritually cleansing and purifying my body. It gets me in-touch with my body, slows me down and generally connects me more so with nature as I prefer to do these practices in rivers, lakes and oceans when possible.
Not only do I use this as a staple in my self-care practices, but I firmly believe that committing myself to stepping outside of my comfort zone more regularly has had a massive positive impact on my self-esteem and confidence levels, especially as someone that regularly struggled with High Functioning Anxiety / Depression and Imposter Syndrome for so many years as well as terrible Acne that prevented me from even leaving the house.
If you were like me and are struggling with: circulation, cognitive issues, skin issues, low self-esteem/self-worth or are simply looking for a free and easy preventative practice to support your immune health (as well as overall metabolic health), I highly suggest talking to your health team to see if Hot and / or Cold Therapy Practices could be right for you!
Here are a few of my other favourite articles that you may also like:
Additional Notes / Resources
- Cold Water Swimming—Benefits and Risks: A Narrative Review
- The effects of exercise and cold exposure on mitochondrial biogenesis in skeletal muscle and white adipose tissue
- Mitochondria—Fundamental to Life and Health
Heidi MacAulay, R.H.N.
“Eat more plants. Do more yoga. Read more books.”
Learn more about me, my credentials or how to work with me here!