Elena Gadekar (@egglena on Tiktok)
As a gym girlie who takes her training more seriously than her recovery, in 2023 I decided it was finally time to start prioritizing ways to level up my recovery. Since I’m a busy NYC gal, I needed something low-cost that would fit into my schedule. As a loyal follower of the Huberman podcast + an avid TikTok scroller, I began to see more and more chatter about deliberate cold exposure. Setting up an ice bath takes a lot of time and going to a facility for one is $$$. So what’s the next best thing?? A cold shower. I challenged myself to take a cold shower every day for 10 days and here’s my experience.
💌March 6th (1-minute)
OMGGG - that was the longest minute of my life. Took a lot of willpower to stay in. The best part was honestly wrapping myself up in a towel at the end and feeling the warmth (life) come back into me. All I can say is—I did it, so I can do it again. I’m proud of myself.
So why I am doing this? Let’s break it down:
Since cold exposure is a stressor, it causes a significant release of epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline and noradrenaline) into the body. Levels of these neurotransmitters remain elevated post-cold exposure and are responsible for feelings of increased energy and focus. Importantly, alongside epinephrine and norepinephrine, dopamine is co-released and is responsible for elevating mood and energy while also enhancing focus and attention. What’s special about this dopamine release? There is no corresponding increase in cortisol! When people do deliberate cold exposure and say, “they feel better afterward,” they’re probably referring to the lasting effect of increased dopamine. One study showed that in cold water immersion at 57ºC, dopamine levels increased by 250%! This is a great alternative to other potentially less safe substances (i.e. nicotine, other drugs, etc.), which elevate dopamine in the brain, but only in short spikes. Since cold exposure is a self-imposed stressor, you can utilize “top-down control” and practice stress management. This skill of resilience and grit can be transferred to other areas of your life and allows you to remain calm, cool, and collected in real-world situations. It’s like the gym for your brain hehe.
Deliberate cold exposure for a total of 11 minutes per week increases brown fat thermogenesis and core body temperature, which translates into increases in metabolism . How is brown fat different from other fat? The type of fat we typically think of when we think of fat is white fat. A white fat cell has a low metabolic output and is a storage center for energy, whereas a brown fat cell is metabolically active and acts as a “furnace” to increase core body temperature. Like neuroplasticity (where neural networks can grow and reorganize), fat cells can also experience plasticity, known as adipose tissue plasticity. Increases in norepinephrine levels can cause changes in gene expression whereby white fat cells transform into brown fat cells via cell signaling pathways.
Cold exposure can also enhance fitness performance and reduce inflammation and is a vital tool for improving muscular power, muscular soreness, and perceived recovery after training. Training leads to an inflammatory response in our body and cold exposure can be a powerful anti-inflammatory tool to combat that.
Best time of day?
The short answer is earlier in the day is best. Why? Our body’s temperature varies across a 24-hour cycle. Have you ever noticed that you can tolerate colder temperatures when you wake up? When I was little, I used to believe I collected warmth while sleeping and that it slowly disappeared and needed to “recharge” at night. 5-year-old Elena honestly, wasn’t too far off. Our body’s temperature is at its lowest two hours before we wake up. The temperature then rises and continues to rise into the early/late afternoon. However, our body temperature drops around late afternoon/evening, allowing us to fall asleep. Perhaps not intuitive—but when we expose our body to cold temperatures, our internal body temperature increases because of vasoconstriction and shivering. When we do cold exposure earlier in the day, the increase in body temperature can help with our wakefulness and alertness; however, if we wait too late into the evening, the rise in body temperature can disrupt sleep.
Temperature preference varies from person to person, depending on your cold tolerance and time of day. Generally speaking, water temperatures should range from 38 to 55 ºF. The idea is to make yourself feel uncomfortable without risking your health. #NoHypothermiaHere
The ideal amount of time is a total of 11 minutes per week. This time can be divided into however many sessions you want. If you begin to feel that 11 minutes is relatively easy, you can always play around with decreasing the temperature.
Before or after exercise?
Because I’m writing this for my gym girlies, I had to include this question. The short answer is that it depends on your gym goals. If your goals are strength or hypertrophy, you should wait at least 4-6 hours post-workout before doing a cold plunge (there is currently not enough research about cold showers). However, if you are working on endurance or something more skill-based, cold exposure should not inhibit progress.
Fasted or non-fasted?
In a fasted state, our baselines of epinephrine and norepinephrine are already elevated because our bodies are under stress. Any form of cold exposure at this time will have a more significant effect (another argument for cold exposure in the morning).
Warm water or body heat post-cold exposure?
To answer this question, you have to reflect on your goals. If your goal is more metabolism-focused, you’ll want to force yourself to reheat on your own (aka don’t turn the warm water in the shower back on). This is because brown fat thermogenesis is activated when cold exposure causes shivering.
Is there such a thing as an ideal protocol?
There is no such thing as an ideal protocol because everyone is different. Even looking at one person, many outside variables (including what else you’re dealing with that day, time of day, etc.) can affect what the “best” protocol is for that day. Real stressors are not controllable and usually don’t have a fixed ending. Therefore, if you’re looking to test your willpower, the goal is to stay in past the point of “I really want to get out right now” without risking your safety. The better you control your behavior, the better you’ll be able to tolerate unpredictable challenges life throws your way.
What breathing techniques can help?
Exposing yourself to cold can induce shortness of breath. In order to calm yourself, it’s best to double inhale through your nose and slowly exhale out of your mouth—utilizing deep breaths.
If you’re interested in trying deliberate cold exposure for the first time, I highly recommend it. There is no winner or loser here. It’s not a competition regarding how cold the water is or how long you stay in. Honor what your body is telling you and remember that each day will feel different :)
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