Medically reviewed by Erin Pereira, PT, DPT
Every other day there is a new health trend popping up that claims to effortlessly improve your wellness. While many of these health trends may seem unfounded, others actually hold merit, such as cold plunge pools.
Sure, the idea of immersing yourself in a body of cold water doesn’t sound so appealing, but cold plunging has gained serious traction in the fitness and health community for its myriad of health benefits. Here is what you need to know about cold plunge pools.
What Are Cold Plunge Pools?
Also known as cold water immersion (CWI) or ice baths, cold plunge pools are small tubs filled with water that is between 55 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature. The theory is that, by immersing your body in cold water for a short period of time, you can set off some chain reactions that can carry significant health benefits for the body and mind, explains Jamie Bacharach, Dipl.Ac, a diplomate of acupuncture with Acupuncture Jerusalem.
People have been using CWI or cold plunge pools and cryotherapy for centuries—as far back as 3500 BC. The ancient Greeks utilized cold-water therapy for relaxation and socialization purposes and even Hippocrates used it as a medicinal practice. Roman physician Claudius Galen saw the benefits of cold plunging for the treatment of tertian fever (a form of malaria) as did physiologist James Currie in the late 1700s.
Types of Plunge Pools
There are several different types of cold plunging, each with its own unique set of advantages. Here is what you need to know about the different types of plunge pools.
Natural Bodies of Water
The most traditional type of cold plunging occurs in a natural body of water with lower temperatures such as lakes, rivers, or even oceans. Immersed by nature, Bacharach points out that this type of cold plunging is seen as the most therapeutic. However, this approach requires extra precautions—especially since there is a greater risk of drowning or encountering wildlife.
The simplest type of cold plunge pool is the ice bath, which is simply a large container filled with ice and water. Ice baths are affordable and easy to set up. Even your standard bathtub can serve as the location. This approach is popular among athletes, according to Bacharach, as they use ice baths for muscle recovery and rehabilitation.
These tanks are designed using stainless steel or fiberglass and are created specifically for cold plunging, Bacharach explains. The benefit of using an immersion tank is that they allow you to have more control over the experience—you set the tank to a specific temperature and adjust accordingly based on your preference. Many tanks also have timers you can set so you can keep track of the amount of time you spend immersed in the tank.
Physiological Effects of Cold Plunge Pools
There are many short-term effects of being immersed in a cold plunge pool. Here’s a look at some of the ways your functioning can be altered by the drastic change in temperature.
Impacts the Body’s Stress Response
For starters, the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the human body, gains a boost from cold-water plunging. This nerve runs down the midline of the body and interacts with all of the visceral organs that are in charge of digestion, breathing, inflammation, and more, explains Bill Daniels, CSCS, CPT, a certified personal trainer and founder of Beyond Fitness.
“When activated, the vagus nerve sets the parasympathetic tone in the body, which helps reduce stress,” he says. “The cold water can reduce inflammation, invoke a feeling of calmness, enhance mental clarity, and basically reduce anything else that stress causes.”
When your body is exposed to a drastic drop in temperatures, your blood vessels start to constrict, thus reducing blood flow throughout your body. This helps reduce inflammation and muscle soreness.
“When your muscles are injured, or just tired from being exercised, your body increases its blood flow to these areas, and this results in swelling and inflammation,” explains Bacharach. “By taking a cold plunge, you're restricting blood flow to these muscles, which leads to less inflammation [and] less pain.”
As you immerse yourself in the cold water, your body starts to release certain hormones, including the stress hormones noradrenaline and cortisol. Dopamine, known as the “feel good” hormone, also is released. These mood-elevating hormones affect us by changing the chemistry in our brains, explains Bacharach. It’s common to experience relief in stress and an improved mood.
Related: What Are Endorphins?
Recovery and Athletic Performance
Cold plunge pools have long been used to help athletes recover after exercise. The cold plunge causes the metabolic processes to slow down, which reduces the rate of the body’s physiological processes, Bacharach explains. This helps the muscles recover from the tiny microtears that occur during exercise, which are essential for muscle growth and development.
Another benefit to cold-water plunging post-fitness is that it can reduce swelling and inflammation that can build up after an intense game or exercise. The cold water also causes a reduction in pain levels meaning that you can go again sooner than if you didn’t take a cold plunge, Bacharach explains.
Mental Health Benefits
Drastic exposure to cold water affects our nervous system through the release of feel-good and mood-elevating hormones. In fact, one study found that concentrations of plasma noradrenaline and dopamine concentrations were increased by 530% and by 250%, respectively, when patients were exposed to cold waters. When this happens, it’s common for us to feel feelings of happiness and satisfaction, according to Bacharach.
“This physiological response can help us block out these chemical stressors by rewiring our brains with new, feel-good chemicals,” she says. “Mind power is a strong thing. But, essentially, it’s chemicals in our brain that make us feel the way we do.”
These feel-good hormones also help bring out mental clarity by clearing up distractions. In fact, research has shown that increased levels of dopamine can actually help motivate people to perform more complex and difficult tasks.
Immune System Enhancement
While regular exercise and eating a balanced diet are certainly the gold standards when it comes to maximizing your body’s immune system, there is some compelling evidence that cold plunging can boost the immune system. One study from the Netherlands found that people who took cold showers for 30, 60, or 90 seconds for a consecutive 90 days had a decrease in the number of sick days they took.
“White blood cells found in your body known as leukocytes, which play a large role in fighting off sickness and disease in the immune system, are stimulated during a cold plunge as part of your body’s flight or fight response,” explains Bacharach. “When these leukocytes are stimulated, they are better prepared to fight off illness, thus strengthening the immune system.”
There’s also the activity of your lymphatic system that contracts and forces fluid through your lymph nodes in response to cold temperatures. This can help detoxify the body, thus enhancing your immune system.
Safety and Precautions
If you are interested in trying cold plunge pools, it is important to take precautions. Here are some necessary safety tips and guidelines for safe cold water immersion.
As tempting as it might be to “rip the bandaid off” and jump right into the cold water to get the transition over with, starting slow is important. If you are new to cold water immersion, start with a short time in the cold water, such as 30 seconds. After a few weeks, your body will get used to taking the plunge.
“You can get a cold plunge every day, but usually just three or four times a week is enough to feel the benefits,” says Bacharach. “You should aim for at least one to three minutes of exposure to the cold water and once your body is more adapted you can stay in for as long as five to 10 minutes.”
Listen to Your Body
If you feel any pain or discomfort, get out of the water immediately. Bacharach warns against trying to stick it out for the sake of the experience. Always listen to your body over anything else.
Know Your Limitations
People who have cardiovascular diseases, respiratory issues, or circulatory disorders should avoid cold plunges because of the effect that it has on the blood vessels, warns Bacharach. Additionally, she recommends avoiding cold plunges during pregnancy as it may cause additional stress to the body.
Be Aware of the Risks of Hypothermia
Although rare, hypothermia is a serious condition that can be fatal. “If you experience any symptoms of hypothermia, such as shivering, confusion, or slurred speech, get out of the water immediately and seek medical attention,” adds Bacharach.
Cold plunge pools are an excellent way to improve your overall health and well-being. Cold water immersion also can help reduce the body's response to stress and cut down on inflammation and even muscle soreness, which can be particularly useful for athletes. Cold immersion also has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system and blood circulation and aids in the release of endorphins that influence mood and overall well-being.
It is, however, important to take necessary precautions, including easing into the cold plunge process and knowing if you’re particularly high risk. But with safety in mind, you can enjoy your cold plunge experience and gain several health benefits along the way.
Read the original article on Verywell Fitness.