I feel I’m in the perfect zone to write this, given not long ago, I returned from a very wet cycling trip. Cold feet. Cold hands. Just cold. I can barely dip a naked toe in the Mediterranean in mid-August, let alone submerge my whole body, yet my Facebook feed is full of friends enjoying (yes, enjoying!) all weather sea swims in sub-zero temperatures. It appears, after my research, that there really are wonderful health benefits. Depression is, it seems, very much linked to inflammation (the process by which the body’s immune system is weakened). Swimming in cold water (we’re talking British sea temperatures) reduces your inflammatory levels and the ensuing effects on anxiety and clinical depression were described as “phenomenal” in a research study undertaken by the Extreme Environments Laboratory at Portsmouth University.
Stress is a natural response which helps us to deal with certain situations – the heart pumps faster, we breathe quicker, blood vessels dilate and we’re ready for action. Getting into cold water is a stress to the body, but it’s a stress which the body will adapt to. So if your stress levels are consistently raised on a daily basis (which is a threat to overall health) then a daily freezing dip will mean your baseline stress response is reduced too.
Can a cold shower do the same thing? A Dutch study in 2016 found people who ended their morning ablutions with a 30 second cold shower reduced their work sick days by 29%. It’s a good first step but immersing your body in a cold river or the sea is well…colder…and therefore does the job better. Apparently, even immersing your whole face in a bowl of ice cold water does have benefits for our well-being. It stimulates the vagus nerve, linking the gut and the brain, and can help reduce inflammation, helping our whole body relax, (despite initial brain freeze!).
Ice baths are a well-known practise for reducing muscle inflammation but not very practical for most of us. I often watch the Joe Wicks (on Instagram obviously, not over the garden fence) submerge himself in his outdoor ice-bath for…what is he up to now?….4 minutes I think. A love/hate thing but he chats constantly about the mental and physical benefits. At the seaside, let’s face it, the social aspect of a dip in cold water outside with friends, however chilly, only serves to increase the mood-boosting effects, never mind send the smug-o-meter off the scale.
(Originally written for ‘Woman’ magazine May 2021).