Can Cold Therapy Work for You and Benefit Your Health?
You probably heard that cold therapy and hot therapy can be good for easing aches and pains, but what about taking a cold shower or ice bath to help boost your health?
Should you switch to this chilly self-care routine in order to reap the benefits of cold therapy–like reducing sick days from work, sidestepping stress, reaping metabolism-boosting benefits, and more?1
While cold therapy isn’t a new practice–ancient Romans were into it–this therapy has been trending in recent years. You may have heard of your gym buddy switching to cold showers, or a family member trying whole body cryotherapy to decrease pain and improve their energy levels. Some of that has to do with the popularity of cold therapy advocate, Wim Hof (AKA ‘The Iceman’), suggesting cold showers as part of The Wim Hof Method. Not to mention that athletes and celebs sing the benefits of whole body cryotherapy to the masses. This leaves the rest of us wondering, can we reap the rewards of this at home?
Here, we’ll explore the benefits of cold therapy and alternating temperatures and how to make these treatments work to your advantage.
Before using any type of therapy, discuss these treatment options with your healthcare provider first.
Benefits of Using Cold Therapy
Cold therapy is usually your first line of treatment after an injury, like sprains. It can reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain by reducing nerve activity. Cold therapy is particularly good for pain caused by inflammation, like tendonitis or bursitis.
Types of cold therapy
Ice packs: You can make one at home using ice and water in a zip-top bag, use a commercially-produced ice pack, or apply something like frozen peas to the injured area for pain relief.3
Coolant sprays. These OTC sprays are sprayed on the affected area after an injury and are designed to help reduce pain quickly so an athlete can get back to their sport faster. 4
Ice massage.This can be done at home to help with inflammation and tendonitis injuries. This cold therapy involves rubbing ice or something frozen over the affected area in a circular motion. 5
Ice baths/Cold showers: These can help lower inflammation, reduce lactic acid build-up and improve overall recovery.6
How Cold Therapy Can Recenter Your Health
Ice Your Vagus Nerve to Chill Out: The vagus nerve runs down the line from the brain to the gut and is the main part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Many biochemicals and chemical messengers travel bi-directionally from the gut to the brain and back along this nervous system. The vagus nerve impacts your heart rate, immune system, digestion, and mood. 7 Applying cold to this area can slow down your heart rate and have immediate calming benefits as well as longer-term health benefits.6
In the past, vagus nerve stimulation was done manually, via implantabale stimulators in people with Epilepsy and depression issues who weren’t responding to medication. 8 Now, science is looking at non-invasive ways to stimulate the vagus nerve for various benefits.
Placing a cold compress on the back of your neck or on your chest for a few minutes (up to 15 minutes) may help calm anxiety and even help some people fall asleep faster. 9
The Effects of Vagus Nerve Stimulation
The vagus nerve acts as a communication cord transmitting information between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain–ultimately letting the brain know how the inner organs are doing along the “brain-gut axis.” When the gut microbiome is out of balance, it can lead to neurological impacts, such as a heightened response for anxiety. That’s why researchers are exploring vagus nerve stimulation as a way of treating gastrointestinal and psychiatric disorders, like inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While vagus nerve stimulation alone doesn’t solve these and other inflammatory health problems, exploring it as a treatment along with mindfulness techniques and nutritional approaches that promote balance in the gut could be beneficial integrative therapies for some. 10 Learn more about how your food choices impact your mood.
Other Benefits of Cold in Digestive Health
Cold exposure in the elements has been found to stimulate and activate brown adipose fat in the body, a type of fat that is linked to the generation of heat in the body and can increase calorie burning in the body. 11 This metabolically-active fat has been shown the be more efficient at burning calories, as evidenced in many populations that live in cold areas. The Inuit people (native to Greenland) have genetically adapted to the cold temperatures of their native environment as well as a diet that mostly consists of fatty fish. Research discovered that their gene variation also helps them build more brown fat, which helps generate heat.12
Stimulating brown fat naturally by using cold therapy can be an excellent way to boost your metabolism and result in a number of beneficial health outcomes–including increased insulin sensitivity and improved glucose metabolism.13
Benefits of Alternating Hot and Cold Therapies
Using hot therapy and cold therapy can be done by alternating using ice packs and heating pads or doing immersions in warm baths and cold baths. Cooler temps slow the velocity of the nerve transition while warm temps increase that velocity. It’s believed that contrast therapy can temporarily distract the brain with alternating temperatures.14
As you think about how to use these therapies in a personalized way, it’s important to consider how each may impact your homeostasis.
Temperature is an important factor that contributes to microbial growth—and extreme changes like hypothermia and hyperthermia have been shown to influence the diversity and stability of gut microbiota in animals.15 Now, scientists are thinking more about how that applies to humans and the exposure to temperature changes we face in our day-to-day lives–whether that’s climate or by using therapies.
There are amazing benefits to hot and cold therapy, but choosing which one, for how long, and for what reason is unique to your own personal needs. The most important thing is to find what works for you and your body, and support it in a number of ways that work to maintain your holistic health, from your immune system down to the minute complexities of your biochemistry.
1 Buijze, Geert A. (2016). [Effects of cold showers on health]. PLOS One.
2 [Ice packs & warm compresses for first aid]. (n.d.). John Hopkins Medicine, hopkinsmedicine.org
3 [Cold therapy for pain]. (n.d.). University of Rochester Medical Center, urmc.rochester.edu.
4 [Effect of cold spray on quadriceps muscles]. (2020). National Library of Medicine, clinicaltrials.gov.
5 [Information on ice massage therapy]. (n.d.). Institute for Functional Health, instituteforfunctionalhealth.com.
6 Jungmann, M. et al. (2018). [Trial on cold stimulation effects on cardiac-vagal activation] JMIR Formative Research, PubMed Central.
7 [Vegas nerve overview and information]. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org.
8 Howland, R.H. (2014). [Stimulation of vagus nerve]. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, link.springer.com.
9 O’Brien, E. (2022). [Tip for better sleep].Yoga Journal, yogajournal.com.
10 Breit, S. et al. (2018). [Vagus nerve and brain-gut axis in health disorders]. Frontiers in Pscyhology, frontiersin.org.
11 Cypess, A.M. et al. (2012). [Cold and human brown adipose tissue]. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pnas.org.
12 [Information on adaptation of Inuit genomes]. (2015). Nature, nature.com.
13 [Drug that activates brown fat in women]. (2020). NIH Research Matters, nih.gov.
14 Fehrs, L. (2009). [Use of contrast therapy in massage]. Institute for Integrative Healthcare, integrativehealthcare.com.
15 Huus, K. et al. (2021). [Information about body temperature and the microbiome]. mSystems, American Society for Microbiology, PubMed Central.