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If you’re looking to decrease inflammation, improve your mood, increase metabolism, boost your immune system and recover better from your workouts, then cold therapy may be your secret weapon.
Exposure to cold is a hormetic stress on the body. Hormesis refers to the adaptation that makes us stronger when we’re exposed to environmental stressors. Cold therapy has been used for centuries to treat disease. The use of cold goes back centuries to 2500 BCE when the Egyptians used cold to treat inflammation and injuries. And it’s definitely having a moment right now.
You can give cold therapy a try and take advantage of its potential whole-body benefits.
Cold therapy comes in many forms
Cold therapy can be done in a number of ways. You don’t have to try a “polar plunge” in order to practice this kind of therapy – though short spells in super cold water will offer the same benefits. It’s possible to try cold therapy right at home.
All you need for cold therapy is brief exposure to cold temperatures. The following are some examples of different methods:
- Ice bath: Soaking in a tub filled with cold water and ice is a cold therapy method that’s popular with athletes, who are known to submerge in an ice bath after a tough workout.
- Cold shower or pool: A short stint in cold water – between 50 and 59F in temperature – is a great way to start including cold therapy into your daily routine.
- Cryotherapy: Just three minutes in a cryotherapy chamber causes rapid reduction in tissue and core body temperature, as well as blood vessel constriction. Once out of the chamber, blood vessels dilate, allowing for anti-inflammatory proteins to flood to the injured areas.
- Ice packs: This cold therapy is primarily used to treat localized pain and inflammation after an injury or to deal with muscle soreness. However, you can also use ice packs when you aren’t in pain.
- Exposure to cold external temperatures: Taking a walk outside on a cold day in minimal clothing can have an effect that’s similar to a cold shower.
- Topical cooling agents: Icy Hot, Tiger Balm, BioFreeze – the active ingredients in products like these, menthol and methyl salicylate, are known as counterirritants. They help to alleviate pain by causing the skin to feel cool and then warm.
No matter which approach you like best, it’s essential to build up your cold exposure gradually. Start by turning down the water temperature at the end of your shower for a few seconds, gradually increasing the time you spend in the cold water over the course of a few weeks. When you’re comfortable with that, you might be ready for a plunge into a cold pool or lake – but not for more than just a couple of minutes.
How cold therapy benefits your health and wellness
No matter which method of cold therapy you try, the icy temperature can potentially give your health and wellness a boost. And it takes just a few minutes of cold exposure to start reaping the benefits. When you practice cold therapy regularly, you may notice even more significant effects.
Let’s look at some of the health benefits of regular cold therapy:
If you’re feeling sore, achy or in pain, cold therapy can help lessen inflammation. Exposure to cold causes blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow to injured areas, which helps reduce swelling and inflammation.
Improved metabolism and weight loss
Shiveringly cold temperatures might just help you rev up your metabolism. Brown fat cells, when exposed to cold, can generate heat by burning fat. Brown fat cells are mostly located around the neck and shoulders. This increased calorie burning may even help with weight loss.
Better mood and mental clarity
While cold therapy might not feel immediately pleasurable to your skin, it can actually give your mood a boost. Cold helps with mood by the stimulating dopamine production in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure.
You might’ve heard that taking a bath before bed helps you relax – but a cold shower could be even better for sound sleep. Taking a cold shower right before bed helps to lower your core body temperature, which makes falling asleep easier. It’s also recommended to lower the temperature in your bedroom to 65 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Enhanced recovery from exercise
It might sound counterintuitive, but newer research suggests that cold therapy can improve recovery from exercise when practiced a few hours after your workout rather than right away. The inflammation that’s caused by your workout is actually a good thing – that’s how your muscles become stronger and more resilient. So, time your ice bath or other cold therapy for a while after your workout, and you could recover more easily.
When not to use cold therapy
Cold therapy isn’t always a good idea. For some individuals and certain health conditions, it can potentially do more harm than good. If you find yourself in any of the following situations, it’s better to skip cold therapy:
- Living with sensory disorders, including diabetes, that prevent you from feeling certain sensations
- Stiff muscles or joints
- Poor circulation or any conditions that cause poor circulation
- Living with cardiovascular or heart disease (you should consult your doctor first)
- If cold therapy hasn’t helped an injury or swelling within 48 hours, call your doctor.
Additionally, it’s important to note that if you’re not careful, cold therapy applied for too long or too directly can result in skin, tissue, or nerve damage. If you aren’t sure if it’s is a good idea for your health, consult your doctor before giving cold a try.
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