Are There Health Benefits to Cold Plunges?
One topic that has been hot (pun intended) in recent weeks (spreading on TikTok) is the use of cold plunges to trigger health benefits. There does seem to be some health benefit to cold plunges but the evidence is not as strong as it is for the use of saunas.
Plunging into cold water is not a new behavior but has become more popular in recent years. Cold plunges are being used as a non-pharmacologic means to treat joint pain and inflammation, but its health benefits may go beyond that.
Cold plunges are said to reduce muscle soreness, improve blood sugar control in diabetics, facilitate weight loss in those obese, improve stress management, improve sense of well-being, possibly improve depression, possibly improve immune function.
What is Cold Plunging?
Cold plunging is a type of cold water therapy that involves immersing oneself in cold water temperatures typically for some health benefit. Cold therapy is frequently used by athletes to enhance post-workout or post-competition recovery. The history of cold plunges date back to ancient Rome and possibly earlier.
One problem in evaluating the evidence on the use of cold plunges is that there is no standard temperature by which to compare studies. The temperature is largely the preference of the cold plunge user. Cold plunge users report using temperatures ranging from 38 to 60 degrees Fahreneit (3 to 15 degrees Celsius). The duration of a cold plunge varies too based on the temperature of the water, the health of the individual, and one’s tolerance of cold temperatures.
Cold Plunges Medical Evidence
Overall, the medical evidence on cold plunging is low level evidence but there is decent evidence that cold plunges reduce inflammation and muscle soreness. And, there is decent evidence that it can improve blood sugar control.
Some studies indicate that a temperature of 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15 degrees Celsius) is the optimal range to reduce muscle soreness. Cold therapy has been used for years to treat musculoskeletal problems and athletic injuries.
Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity
Acute and repeated cold exposure does improve blood sugar control by improving insulin sensitivity. The biggest benefit is seen when the cold exposure is sufficient enough to trigger shivering which activates the muscle clearing glucose from the blood much like exercise does.
Metabolic rate is increase with cold plunging to which can facilitate weight loss.
Anxiety and Depression
The evidence of the benefits of cold plunges on mental well-being, specifically depression and anxiety, is largely anecdotal. Some plungers clearly feel the cold exposure helps their moods.
Risks of Cold Plunging
The hazards of cold plunging is better documented than the health benefits so keep that in mind if you think you may want to plunge into cold water. Here are some risks associated with taking cold plunges.
- Risk of cold shock with cold water immersion below 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Risk of hypothermia.
- Loss of muscular control increasing risk of drowning.
Cold shock is characterized by involuntary responses rapid breathing, spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, reduced ability to hold one’s breath, and impaired cognitive function.
Hypothermia is a more severe form of cold shock and occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Abnormal heart rhythms may occur and in moderate to severe hypothermia there is a loss of shivering, altered consciousness, abnormal heart rhythms, and respiratory depression.
Cold Plunges Recommendations
First, if you have cardiac or pulmonary disease it is recommended that you avoid cold plunges. Older adults should use caution should they decide to take a cold plunge. Secondly, do not cold plunge alone. Thirdly, do not cold plunge if under the influence of alcohol or other recreational drugs.
Though, cold plunges may help blood sugar control, diabetics need to be vigilant if they have diabetic neuropathy which could prevent one’s ability to sense tissue damage from the cold water.
Beginners Cold Plunges
If you are new to cold plunges it is recommended that you ease into cold plunging very gradually. Start off with just 1 to 2 minutes in the cold water and work your way up to 10-15 minutes. Studies on cold plunging have focused more on the frequency of cold plunging rather than the duration of the plunges so you may want to keep that in mind.