How does taking a dip in ice-cold water sound to you? Not tempting, of course, but neither do most wellness trends that experts swear by. This literal “toe-numbing: experience" is actually quite common in the sports world, as many athletes rely on it to relieve muscle soreness. Even celebrities like Harry Styles and Lady Gaga endorsed it on social media.
What is all the hype about ice baths, anyway? Can this practice really provide any health benefits? Let’s find out.
What is an Ice Bath, and How Does it Work?
Ice baths are quick dips into ice-cold water with temperatures between 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. While it may sound fancy, the practice simply involves adding three large ice bags to a bathtub filled with cold water and immersing your body in it. If you are only dipping a part of the body into this ice bath, like an elbow or wrist, you may even use a smaller tub. But why is everyone talking about ice baths, and where did the concept come from?
The concept of an ice bath came from the fitness world, where professionals often engage in intense training sessions. These training sessions cause small tears in the muscle fibers, leading to microtrauma. These muscles become triggered and work to repair the damage, leading to the buildup of lactic acid and other wastes. These waste materials are what cause muscle soreness and pain. For most people, the lactic acid buildup clears within 72 hours, but for many athletes, this is too long of a recovery period. To cut down this recovery time, they go for ice baths.
Immersing your body in ice-cold water triggers the stress response in the body and lowers its core temperature. As a response, the brain signals the body to restore the core temperature by increasing the blood flow. As the blood flow increases, it delivers nutrients and oxygen to the recovering muscles while flushing the toxin buildup more quickly, hence, speeding up the recovery and healing process.
Can Ice Baths Really Benefit You?
Do ice baths really benefit you? While there is no concrete evidence for it, experts do believe it to carry some advantages for health.
Ice bath increases energy
One of the most important and common benefits of an ice bath is its ability to regulate mood. Ice baths boost the synthesis of neurotransmitters called endorphins which, in turn, regulates energy, attention, and focus.
Ice bath regulates the central nervous system
While exposing yourself to cold water can put your body under stress, it can also help you manage it in the long run by regulating the nervous system. Following the shock that the body goes through after the initial shock, it eventually learns to adapt to the cold water, regains control of the fight-or-flight response, and starts managing stress in a better way.
In short, an ice bath can train your system to de-stress and relax, thereby improving your mood and balancing your brain health.
Ice bath can ease muscle soreness
Cold water makes the blood vessels narrow, forcing the blood from the extremities to rush towards the vital organs. As you step out of cold water, these blood vessels relax, directing blood back to the tissues and muscles in the extremities. This constriction and expansion of blood vessels significantly increase the blood flow, which, in turn, helps distribute nutrients and oxygen to every muscle of the body to relieve soreness and accelerate recovery.
Ice bath may Improve resilience
Immersing your body in cold water can give you an initial shock; however, the body adapts with time through a process called hormesis. As you continue to engage in the practice, it will gradually toughen your body. In the long run, it will also help you in other aspects, such as pain management, emotional regulation, greater connection, increased resilience, and overall well-being.
Ice bath strengthens the immune system
Putting yourself in ice-cold water can put you beyond your comfort zone but can also kickstart your slowed-down immune system and strengthen it. Research has also found that people who take cold showers regularly are up to 30 percent less vulnerable to getting sick.
Ice bath improves cardiovascular circulation
If you commonly engage in intense exercise, taking a dip in ice-cold water can take the burden off your heart. At the same time, remember that these baths may not improve hormonal recovery or physiological stress.
Ice bath reduces the risk of injury
People who routinely work out are at a high risk of injuring themselves. However, including an ice bath as a part of their recovery process can significantly reduce the risk by reducing the body temperature.
Ice bath can enhance mental health
Ice baths may seem physically uncomfortable but they do possess mental health benefits. The initial physical despair can resolve the moment you start concentrating and focusing on your breath. With time, you’ll get accustomed to the habit and may even make it an important part of your recovery regimen.
Ice bath improves discipline
The minute you convince yourself to take the plunge and get yourself soaked into ice-cold water, you’ll be making yourself tougher and stronger.
Ice baths may improve sleep
Many people who routinely indulge in ice baths vouch that it helps improve the quality of their sleep. Others also report that these baths also enhance their REM sleep. However, it is important to keep in mind that these benefits are anecdotal and yet to be proven by research. Until then, experts have another way to support this claim. They believe that taking an ice bath after an intense workout can lower the body's core temperature. This, in turn, exerts a calming effect on the body, making it less fatigued and more relaxed so that you can easily slip into a deep slumber.
Ice baths may enhance performance
An ice bath can encourage a well-balanced nervous system and, as a result, improve your workout performance by increasing reaction times. While there is no concrete evidence to prove these benefits, many athletes and sportspersons have already started including ice baths in their recovery routines to enhance their performance. Keep in mind that the exact benefits of an ice bath may vary depending on various factors, such as:
- Duration of immersion
- Temperature of water
- Your dietary habits
- Everyday rest and recovery routines
- Hydration levels
Ice bath burns fat
Plunging yourself into ice-cold water triggers your brown fat cell stores in the body. This fires up your metabolism and increases the insulin sensitivity to burn white fat rapidly. While this activity may help you lose fat, it won’t be much effective alone. Try pairing it with a healthy life and daily exercise with appropriate recovery and rest to reap the true weight loss benefits.
How Long Should You Be in an Ice Bath?
If you are trying an ice bath for the very first time, start low and go slow. First, don’t go in for more than five minutes. As you eventually become more comfortable, you may stay in for 10 to 15 minutes at a temperature of 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit in the upcoming sessions. However, keep in mind that staying in longer does not provide any additional benefits.
Most experts recommend starting at a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Celsius. For best results, it’s better to immerse your whole body into the ice bath, starting with the feet and calf and slowly moving towards the chest.
Can Ice Baths be Dangerous?
Ice baths are generally good for the body as long as you are doing it in the right way for the right amount of time. For someone who is healthy with no underlying health issues, it is not going to bring any harm. Try slowing down your breathing to relax and keep a friend or a loved one close as you try an ice bath for the first time, as it’ll help you get used to it quicker.
It is also important to remember that exposure to cold water can put you at risk of hypothermia or frostbite. If you stay in cold water for longer than suggested and start shivering, get out immediately. Also, check with your doctor before having an ice bath to make sure that it’s safe for you. Typically, doctors advise against trying these baths if you suffer from the following medical conditions:
- Heart disease
- Venous stasis
- High blood pressure
- Cold agglutinin disease
- Poor circulation
- Peripheral neuropathy
A doctor can also help assess your current health and confirm if you are dealing with an underlying medical issue. While ice baths can help ease pains and aches, they may not be the right choice if you are dealing with something more serious, like a ligament tear or a tendon. For such serious instances, it is important to seek more comprehensive medical care instead of simply numbing the pain.
Even though it may not seem tempting to expose yourself to freezing cold water on purpose, an ice bath can have scientifically proven benefits for health. The practice can be transformative for some people and may even become a part of their daily wellness routine. Whether you are a professional athlete or simply someone who gyms a lot, choosing ice baths can provide a tremendous payoff in terms of recovery and health optimization. Just make sure to carefully follow the guidelines to keep yourself from any unwarranted trouble.