For most of us, the idea of being immersed in cold water for any length of time is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Yet cold therapy is not only a feature of wellness that spans the centuries, it’s also being having a renaissance over the last 18 months. So, from plunge pools to Wim Hof – what’s the deal?
Plunge pools and ice fountains have long remained a part of the thermal suite and spa experience, and there have always been the hardy advocates of a cold shower. However, in many ways, Wim Hof can be credited with the rebranding of in-Vogue cold therapy. The Dutch journalist and motivational speaker, also known as The Iceman, has become well known for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures, and advocates cold therapy for mental and physical health.
He has been quoted as saying:
“There is still every reason for healthy people to take cold showers, or swim outside in cold water. It gives you the feeling that you are alive.”
While you may think he’s merely eccentric, science does back up his hypothesis. Wayne State University’s School of Medicine and his coauthors put Hof into an MRI machine while exposing him to cold water and found he is able to “use his mind to artificially induce a stress response in his body that helps him resist the effects of cold”. Paediatrician, Otto Musik, said:
“By accident or by luck he found a hack into the physiological system”. This ‘hack’, “allows Hof to feel euphoric while in a freezing cold environment that would be unpleasant in normal circumstances.”
They found that he is actually able to access a part of his brain that releases opioids and cannabinoids into the body – hence the feeling of euphoria.
While the feeling of euphoria might explain the popularity of cold therapy in a time where mental health is such a prevalent topic, there are also other health benefits of incorporating the extreme cold into the wellbeing experience. The Romans were advocates of bathing rituals that included temperature changes and these are now very much the basis of the contemporary thermal suite. They incorporated a frigidarium (a large cold pool), which was used after the hot baths to close pores post cleanse. We continue to operate on the same theories today.
In addition, controlled cold exposure is linked to:
Depending on the goal, this explains the variety of cold therapy options available, whether it’s a plunge pool after a sauna, an ice bath after a workout, open water swimming, cold showers, or even cryotherapy, which many celebrities and sports professionals swear by.
This year, Forbes highlighted cold therapy as one of the key wellness trends. They said:
“More and more experts are discussing the benefits of cold exposure and cold showers, which are cheap and available to nearly everyone. This trend will no doubt balloon in 2021 and make its way to most people’s social media feeds and maybe even their daily wellness practice. Start slow and give it go.”
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