Athletes, actors, and everyday people are increasingly turning to cold plunges for their physical benefits, but did you know that frosty waters can also promote mental wellbeing? Here’s how.
Ice Baths and Mental Health
The mental health benefits of ice baths largely stem from their hormone-regulating properties. Exposing your body to cold causes a spike in neurotransmitters, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system, producing a whole cascade of effects in the brain.
One of the most common is a feeling of elevated energy, focus, and alertness. In extreme environments this can be a useful tool to find shelter and food, but for most of us it means greater concentration at work, increased reflexes during sport, and a general lust for life.
The response is so potent that scientists have proposed it as an adjunctive treatment for depression. In 2007, researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine theorised that “… due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, [cold exposure] is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect”. This hypothesis is supported by practical human testing, which has found that “…cold hydrotherapy can relieve depressive symptoms rather effectively”.
Anecdotal examples of its efficacy are plentiful. In April 2023 a clinically depressed man of ten years claimed to have ‘cured’ himself of the disorder through daily ice baths. In fact, he found the practice so relieving that he’s stopped taking anti-anxiety medication altogether. It’s important to note that remarkable results such as these are highly individual, and the man’s actions shouldn’t be emulated by others living with depression without prior discussion with their health care professional.
Further research is needed to fully understand the hormone-regulating mechanisms of frequent cold water immersion, but these clinical and ‘real world’ results show great promise.
Along with the production of feel-good hormones, there are strong indications that ice baths may have a positive impact on the structure of the brian itself.
In 2022 the Department of Psychology at Bournemouth University led a ground-breaking study into the physical influence of cold on the brain. They employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify topological clusters of networks coupled with behavioural changes after a five minute cold-water immersion. Perceived changes in positive affect were associated with feeling more active, alert, attentive, proud, and inspired, whilst changes in negative affect reflected reductions in distress and nervousness.
In concluding their study, the researchers stated the following: “Our findings suggest that short-term head-out immersion in cold water is associated with a facilitated positive affect and reduced negative affect. These changes in affective states are linked to changes in connectivity between large-scale brain networks.”
With such strong evidence of the brain-strengthening power of cold water, it’s little wonder that it’s shown potential in preventing long-term degenerative diseases like dementia.
Doctors have long known that, in certain circumstances, cooling people down can protect their brains. People with head injuries or cardiac issues, for example, are often cooled during surgery for this very reason. Until recently it’s not been understood why exactly this provides protection.
Cambridge University researchers have seemingly uncovered the answer – a “cold-shock” protein called RBM3. Found in all mammals, but most abundantly amongst those who regularly brave the cold, the protein has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes.
It’s an exciting discovery, and one that only lends more merit to the notion that ice baths can boost and protect your mental health.
Elevate Your Mental Health With iCool
The mental benefits of ice baths are many, but incorporating them into your routine is often easier said than done. Filling your acrylic bathtub with bags of ice every day is far from optimal, and trying to simulate the experience with a cold shower leads to inconsistent results. Fortunately, there is a quality, Australian-made solution you can get your hands on.
iCoolsport offers a range of ice baths for varying needs. In fact, iCool invented modern ice baths and we are the largest global supplier. From the single-person IceOne bath to solutions big enough for the whole family, we cover all bases.
Of course you’ll need a way to cool the water. Our iCool Compact Chill is suitable for baths of up to 500L, and can maintain a constant water temperature of as little as five degrees. With easy to use one touch start and wifi remote controls, it makes taking regular ice baths a cinch, and allows you to increase your cold tolerance gradually and consistently.