Coldwater immersion, also known as an ice bath, is a recovery regimen used by many professional athletes and celebrities. It’s usually done after a high-intensity workout where you submerge yourself in ice water for 10 to 15 minutes. It’s similar to taking a cold shower where it constricts blood vessels to reduce swelling and inflammation as well as stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve plays a role in the parasympathetic nervous system to help reduce stress-related symptoms. It’s no question that ice baths are beneficial, but how often you do it is what’s controversial.
Professional athletes regularly do this under supervision and from the orders of a doctor. For everyone else, however, ice baths aren’t necessary for weekly use, and can actually be dangerous for our health. When done too often and for too long, it can result in frostbite, hypothermia, and complications with heart disease. There’s also debate on whether or not ice baths can soothe sore muscles and improve performance. There hasn’t been enough research done to support these assumptions, but one study suggests that they don’t necessarily help you feel and perform better (Potier, 2013). There were no differences in performance after two groups were tested while some reported feeling intense pain from the bath. These results suggest that it’s important to know your body and to train it to slowly acclimate to colder temperatures.
While ice baths use wet cold, cryotherapy uses dry cold to reduce the skin’s temperature. This doesn’t immobilize muscles as much as an ice bath does which helps it be less painful while also having the same benefits. Cryotherapy is another form of cold therapy that requires you to visit a wellness center. It’s not something that can be done at home unlike an ice bath, but it has more advantages because it only takes 3 minutes (rather than 10-15) and is more effective because temperatures can drop down extremely lower than a regular ice bath. It also has mental health benefits and is found to reduce depression and anxiety. And this makes sense because we know that vagus nerve stimulation helps reduce stress.
Mental health professionals have also been found to recommend coldwater immersion therapy for their patients. Because it’s known to help with stress management and reduce depression and anxiety, it’s often used as a form of treatment. During cold showers and ice baths, our endorphins increase. These are the feel-good hormones in your brain that help with depression and anxiety while cortisol, the stress hormone, decreases. The vagus nerve is also being stimulated, and if done regularly, our bodies can become resilient to stress. Therapists also state that this type of therapy can help with mental fog, mental strain and other obstacles. It seems that there are many benefits in this method to help improve mental health.
When taking a bath, it’s important to follow these guidelines.