The James Bond shower, the Scottish shower…call it what you may
It was a frigid winter night — and by night I mean like 4 PM b/c that’s when the sun sets nowadays — I was in Ohio visiting my cousins for winter break. I had just returned from the gym, and was eager to take a steaming hot shower after braving the heartless Cleveland tundra. Seriously, it was like 11 degrees all week. Anyway, I turned the tap to the hottest setting and waited a few minutes for the water to heat up. But lo and behold, it was still cold! Holy f*ck, was this really happening?! I was gross from the gym in dire need of a shower, and we had no hot water in the house. It took me a few minutes to come to terms with this new, even colder reality. But it had to happen. I took a cold shower. And it sucked.
I thought I could get away with taking only one cold shower. But we didn’t have hot water for two days, so I ended up taking…FOUR…cold showers.
And the process went as follows…
Backtracking a little, I can’t take full credit for this post (at least not the title), since I was inspired by another article (link below). But apparently, James Bond does this thing where he gets into a hot shower and gradually makes it cold. He then endures the cold for a few minutes, and clearly this primes him to kick ass.
Taking a cold shower sounds like torture because it is torture. But this one might be torture worth enduring because it comes with a slew of benefits for your health with a little added bonus for guys ;) You don’t need to wake up in the morning and hop into cold water. You can acclimate to the cold water, and that’s not cheating. Step into hot or warm water, and gradually make the water colder. At first, you might not last under the cold water for very long, and that’s okay. Maybe you only last 15 seconds the first day. 20 seconds on day two. Thirty seconds on day three. The goal is last under the cold water for about five minutes. One of the hardest things about the cold shower is breathing. When you try it, you’ll find yourself almost hyperventilating from the shock. This won’t last for the entirety of the shower, but it’s something that happens initially, and you’ll need to actively control your breathing.
As with all other things, cold showers won’t produce a dramatic effect overnight. In fact, you may not actively notice anything, but rest assured, changes are occurring. So without further ado, let’s delve into some of the reasons you might consider this seemingly insane activity:
- Cold showers improve circulation: Improving circulation is something that can be achieved by alternating hot and cold water in the same shower. When your skin is exposed to hot water for some time, the blood vessels [in the skin] dilate and blood gets shunted to the skin, along with your extremities. When you bathe in cold water, the blood vessels in your skin constrict, and blood moves to your core (i.e. liver, intestines, etc.). Your body detects the unfavorable environment, and prioritizes the core over the extremities. There’s an interesting YouTube video about shunt vessels, which link arteries directly to veins, thereby allowing blood to bypass capillaries in certain areas. Shunt vessels form the basis for the ability of blood to reach the skin’s surface. To learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLfWKA02Zz0
- Cold showers have been shown to relieve depression: Everyone knows what and where the brain is…roughly. Between the brain and spinal cord is the brainstem, which includes the midbrain, medulla oblongata, and pons. There is a nucleus in the pons, called the locus coeruleus (LC) — this is the brain’s blue spot. Locus coeruleus literally means “blue spot.” The LC is the primary site of norepinephrine (NE) synthesis in the brain. The LC determines how much NE to produce and when to produce it. What does norepinephrine do? NE is the hormone that mobilizes your body for action. It then makes sense that NE levels are low during sleep and higher during wakefulness…and highest when you’re facing danger, like a bear…or anatomy exam (fight-or-flight response). If the role of NE is to maximize your state of arousal, it makes sense then that low levels of NE are associated with fatigue, laziness, and general disinterest in life. Although serotonin is popularly believed to be the main player in depression, norepinephrine has come to the fore in Dr. Joseph Schildkraut’s catecholamine theory, which suggests that a lack of NE may be at the root of depression. So what the hell do cold showers have to do with any of this? Well, one study reported, “a single cold water immersion increased sympathetic nervous system activity, as evidenced by a four-fold increase (P < 0.05) in plasma noradrenaline concentration.” Another study reported that, “exposure to cold is known to …increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline…” Therefore, it makes sense that cold showers have been proposed as part of a treatment regimen for depression. But even if you’re not depressed and you just feel a bit down, maybe taking cold showers is exactly what you need to lift your spirit! :)
- Cold showers can help you deal with stress better: The rationale for this is twofold. First of all, taking a cold shower is something your body hates. Big surprise. But repeatedly putting your body through something it hates can condition it to better deal with stress in the future. Your body has to cope with the cold shower everyday, so it’s better equipped to handle unfavorable situations that may arise (hopefully not). We can also approach this from a hormonal point of view, but more research is required on this front. Decreased cortisol levels have been reported as a result of warm-to-cold showers presumably because the affinity of the serotonin receptor increases. The serotonin receptor transports serotonin from the synaptic cleft to the presynaptic neuron; the transport of serotonin by its transporter terminates its action, and so the serotonin receptor is a target of several antidepressant drugs. It’s unclear to me how this mechanism influences cortisol and ultimately reduces stress, so I’ll write about this in a separate post.
- Cold showers promote healthy skin and hair: As great as a hot shower feels, it actually dries out your skin by stripping it of its natural oils. This typically doesn’t happen with cold water (at least not to the same extent). Dry skin is more prone to acne and wrinkles, truly the bane of our existence. There’s a caveat here — you need hot water to open your pores so that dirt and other impurities can be removed from your skin. Your pores then need to be sealed so that bacteria cannot re-enter, and this is what cold water does. So perhaps the best approach is to start your shower with warm water for a few minutes and gradually move to cold water for an additional five minutes (ideally). Cold water also constricts blood vessels in your face so that less blood reaches the skin — the result is reduced redness and swelling in the case of eye bags, for example. Finally, cold water seals the cuticles around your hair follicles, thereby preventing dirt and other impurities from accumulating in your scalp. Not only does this result in healthier-looking hair, but it also prevents hair loss to some extent.
- Cold showers boost the immune system: You hop into a cold shower, and your body responds by trying to warm itself — in the process it releases more white blood cells. One study found that, “cold exposure induced a leukocytosis and granulocytosis, an increase in natural killer cell count and activity, and a rise in circulating levels of interleukin-6.” Coupling the fact that your body produces more white blood cells with increased circulation, it makes sense that cold showers heighten our immunity.
- Cold showers increase testosterone: This one is pretty controversial, but there are several studies that associate cold showers with elevated testosterone levels. One study demonstrated upwards of 17% higher testosterone levels in individuals who took cold showers. Furthermore, the cold temperature — bear with me here — allows your testicles to remain at a temperature that is more conducive to testosterone production. This is something that is hindered slightly by hot temperatures, in which your testicles drop. Another study noted that the “highest percentage of normal sperm morphology” occurred during winter months due to colder temperatures, as compared to the spring or summer. Yet another study revealed that sperm count in rats exposed to heat decreased by 28.9%. Yes, the study was done with rats, but apparently our testicles are not so different than those of rats, so I’ll entertain these results.
- Cold showers increase energy & vitality: This is less science based than it is based on testimonies. I have read countless blogs online, in which people report feeling more energetic and peppy after a cold shower in the morning. Some have even reported that they no longer need coffee, but this is a claim I will [probably] never make. I will always need coffee.
- Cold showers reduce muscle soreness & fatigue from exercise: One study demonstrated that “cold water baths proved to be much more effective in helping sore muscles 1–4 days after exercise.” A proposed mechanism of action is that cold water, as you now know, causes blood vessels to constrict, and this may help flush lactic acid out of muscle tissue. Furthermore, the cold temperature reduces swelling and inflammation, and also prevents tissue breakdown. Finally, the cold can numb any sore areas to temporarily reduce discomfort following intense exercise. This is another area that needs more research, not just on my end, but in general.
- Cold showers speed up fat loss: The basic idea here is that your body wants to maintain a normal body temperature, and so it will expend energy (i.e. burn calories) to do so when exposed to cold. Everyone has two kinds of fat: white adipose tissue (WAT) and brown adipose tissue (BAT). Together, these make up the adipose (fat) organ. While brown fat is especially abundant in newborns, there is still some present in adults. Compared to white fat, brown fat contains a greater number of mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell!), and functions primarily in thermoregulation of the body. Ordinary fat cells (white adipose tissue) store fat, and when these fat levels get too high, you become obese and in some cases get diabetes. Brown fat cells, on the other hand, burn energy to generate heat to protect the body against cold. These are more metabolically active cells than their white counterparts. When you’re cold, you shiver, and this induces ‘browning’ of white adipose tissue, a process that increases the proportion of mitochondria in your fat cells and releases heat. You are converting fat-storing cells to energy-burning cells that have more mitochondria, and thus greater aerobic capacity. We now know that the browning of WAT is regulated by a gene, called FLCN (you can read more about this in the references). The impact of cold on fat loss in general has been relatively well documented. Irisin is a myokine (cytokine released by muscle cells in response to muscular contractions) that has been proposed to be involved in the conversion of white to brown fat. One study found shivering from cold exposure was associated with elevated levels of irisin, suggesting that the cold stimulus (*cold shower*) may promote fat burning.
So let’s work together to change that definition of a hot shower…
You probably hate me for that. I hate me for that. But it’s somewhat true.
A glimpse of this brilliant cold shower FAQ:
You have every right to be sick of me by now. That was a long post, but a topic worth exploring given all the internet hype. Whether or not you choose to incorporate cold showers into your routine is up to you. The health benefits may not be dramatic, but combined with other changes in your life, you will surely notice a difference. And that’s really all I have, so thanks for reading, and stay warm! But not too warm…