Ice baths: Why you'll want to harness the benefits of cold water immersion
Cold plunges can benefit your metabolic, cognitive and hormonal health.
Written by
Dan Cable
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Last updated
March 19, 2024
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Ice baths are the practice of immersing yourself in cold water (<10deg) as a form of cold exposure to stimulate a ‘hormetic’ response — a natural principle where an organism gains favourable biological responses from a stressor when trained safely.

Ice baths became popularised by Wim Hoff who uses breathwork to prime the body to tolerate greater hormetic stress. At the same time, different areas of research on the benefits of cold therapy began emerging.

How long should you ice bath for?

Cold water therapy is pretty straightforward — simply submerge your body in ice water, aim for 2-3 minutes at a time and do a few cycles.

After roughly 5-10 minutes of cold water exposure, as your core body temperature lowers, your blood vessels start to vasodilate [1].

Evidence on the dose-response profile is still emerging, however, Dr Susanna Soberg recommends 11 minutes of cold exposure in total across a week [2].

What are the benefits of ice baths?

The benefits of cold exposure are particularly interesting for metabolic, cognitive and hormonal health.

  • Irisin is a hormone that was discovered by Bruce Spiegelman’s team at Harvard in 2012 and it is triggered by intense exercise (HIIT) and cold exposure. This hormone stimulates the conversion of white fat into BAT (brown adipose tissue), along with succinate, and supports improved metabolic health and fat loss [3][4]. Irisin may also have neuroprotective effects [5].
  • Cold exposure also triggers the release of adiponectin — a hormone discovered in the 1990s by Harvey Lodish at MIT — which improves insulin sensitivity and further supports metabolic health and fat loss [6].
  • There’s some research, though not conclusive, that cold exposure helps reduce chronic inflammation and lower cortisol levels, thereby also improving insulin sensitivity and overall cardiometabolic health [7][8]. However, it’s important to distinguish between chronic (bad) inflammation and the hormetic response from a training stimulus.
  • Cold exposure also triggers the release of dopamine and norepinephrin and the stimulation of neurogenesis via brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and cold-shock proteins, supporting improved cognitive performance [9][10].
  • And finally, there’s an old research paper that suggests cold exposure before training leads to a significant increase in testosterone [11]. Food for thought.

How to get started with cold water immersion

Tips for taking ice baths and how to tolerate longer sessions.

Morning cold showers 

It's not exactly hardcore but it’s the easiest way to get started, gain a dopamine kick, and start working your way up to an ice bath for the full range of benefits. Plus, you don't need to have your own ice bath to get started.

There’s something about the momentum and mental grit (’ top-down control’) you gain from starting the day this way — eat the frog!

Prime with a sauna first

Although there are limited studies on hot-cold combination therapy, you might find it easier to begin tolerating the ice bath after a sauna, which triggers vasopressin and activates the parasympathetic state (calm) in our nervous system [12].

Start small

Start with 60 seconds and do 2-3 rounds, progressively ramping up to 2-3 minutes over time.

Trick your senses 

There’s a higher density of cold-sensitive nerves in our fingers, toes, ears, and nose so try keeping your hands above the surface to improve your ability to tolerate cold exposure for longer.

Plunge your head under

Hack the mammalian dive reflex to activate the parasympathetic state in your central nervous system (CNS) to allow you to tolerate the cold longer; breathe through your diaphragm (belly vs. shallow chest breathing) to complement the calm in your CNS [13].

Waterline up to the neck

Cold exposure on your chest and your neck will help improve vagal nerve tone — the vagal nerve, often called the gut-brain axis, is the biggest cranial nerve in the body — to increase heart rate variability (HRV) and reduce resting heart rate, supporting improved tolerance [14].

Always end on the ice bath 

Raise your body temperature naturally and avoid a hot shower (or going back into the sauna) to maximise the benefits — the shiver is a key trigger for adiponectin and irisin.

When not to ice bath

Sustained cold exposure after hypertrophy or HIIT training is sub-optimal as this will blunt the pro-adaptation inflammation that is triggered by intense stimulus [15]. Prolonged cold immersion in the evening may overly activate your energy systems and inhibit sleep onset, so be guided by your body.

With this in mind, we recommend performing cold exposure on rest days, particularly in the morning, so you gain all the benefits of increased energy and focus. Stack with a Zone 1 active recovery session to get the best of both recovery protocols [16].

Remember you can do an ice bath at home, gain cold exposure by swimming in winter, or have cold showers, but the colder the better if you want more profound results. Interested in learning more about longer, stronger living?

Compound is a digital clinic for performance health, for men. Once the exclusive domain of billionaires and Hollywood stars, we're on a mission to make premium concierge care accessible to every man who wants more.

We are integrating diagnostics (bloodwork, scans, etc), treatment (medication, supplementation), performance programming, and support (coaching, accountability, care) — wrapped around a growth mindset.

Note: In principle, we should always aim to measure the effect of health interventions but in this instance, it is not currently practical to measure BAT.

The only way to reliably measure BAT remains via a PET scan, however, the ‘physiology of fat’, as we call it, is evolving rapidly and ultrasound may be a feasible alternative in the future [17]. There’s a strong correlation between visceral adipose tissue (VAT), which is a key focus in our diagnostics for Compound.

This post contains general information about health and wellness practices. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be treated as such. Please consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new health regimen. This information is provided without any representations or warranties, express or implied.

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