For at least 95% of our time on Earth, Humanity has lived in close connection to nature, experiencing the cues and changes of the natural world. Electricity was only harnessed around 150-years ago and since then, mechanical transportation, refrigeration of food with access to nonlocal, nonseasonal varieties, artificial lighting, thermostat air-conditioning and other creature comforts have provided us with an “endless summer”. This might sound awesome but it has also made us fragile and disconnected us from perhaps the greatest source of our health and power – the rhythms of nature.
Modern living has given us many benefits but they haven’t come without a cost and some negative consequences. Living in tune with the seasons and with the light and dark cycles of the day, circadian rhythm, has been shown to be crucial in performing our best, preventing dis-ease and healing. In fact, the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2017 went the researchers who spent 30-years fleshing this out.
There are many things to consider when trying to get back to natural rhythms and their benefits, in this article, I’m only going to focus on one, my favourite, being cold. I discuss more here and provide support in this area of health for those ready to reach their full potential with nature-based practices.
Trading Comfort for Cold to Unleash Your Potential
Outside of the warm cozy box most of us live in is a world where the temperature can’t be controlled with a knob, where it can be too hot or too cold and if we had been living a mere 100 or so years ago, we’d have to do something requiring effort to change that. In fact, for most of human existence on this planet, we’ve evolved in an environment that was somewhat uncomfortable. However, these days it’s basically an endless summer – we have warmth and fruit twelve months a year.
Perpetual comfort leads to fragility. Some even say it leads to our bodies creating aches and pains. Regardless, I’m looking for resilience and maybe you are too. That’s why I’ve embarked on a 365-day cold thermogenesis/therapy challenge. Say what?
Simply put, cold thermogenesis is the act of your body generating internal heat to compensate for the cold stress you are experiencing which leads to a whole bunch of different physiological reactions as well.
Good Stress, Bad Stress, Just Enough Stress
Stress can be bad depending on the type and the quantity. Looking at your allostatic load is a reference to the combined effect of all the different stresses, types, intensities and duration, on your well-being. We don’t want our allostatic load to be too great.
On the other hand, we don’t want to be without any stress. A tree that never gets the stress of wind on its trunk never grows strong and is highly susceptible to snapping when the first windy day arrives. We are like trees – in many ways, which I’ll get into another time. We want some stress. The kind of stress that is beneficial is called a hormetic stressor. It is the right amount of the right kind of stress to make us more resilient.
Hormesis can improve our body, brain, immune system and even, perhaps, our spiritual well-being. Examples of hormetic stressors are exercise, fasting, problem solving, exposure to germs, feeling a little too hot or a little too cold, and others. This takes us back to my seemingly crazy challenge of getting cold daily for a whole year.
Warning: Not For Everyone
For some people, this is not a good idea. There are contraindications, the main one being a preexisting heart condition, and there are the considerations of the other stressors in your life. For me, I’ve been practicing cold thermogenesis (CT) for about three years. I’ve built up my tolerance to temperature and time of exposure. I understand the warning signs and the factors that making it harder, easier and safer. It should be obvious that anytime you play with cold and aren’t diligent, you risk getting hypothermia or frostbite.
In the end, it’s up to you to make the decision and/or to consult your physician about this as an approach. I will say even if it’s not for you, we all can benefit from getting a little more uncomfortable here and there, shifting away from the “endless summer” lifestyle which has led to rises many diseases of excess like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases and more as well as significant environmental destruction. Bonus, you’ll also save money on heating and clothing.
The Benefits of CT
Before I give away my secrets and tips let me clarify some of the benefits so you don’t think I’m crazy for spending a year being cold. Cold thermogenesis, or cold therapy as it’s generically called, is the act of using cold exposure to improving your health and resilience. By being a little cold many good things happen. We used to get this effect naturally but since we are living in an “endless summer”, it has slipped away to obscurity as many people suffer from dis-eases of excess.
Cold therapy aids in:
- hormone balancing (insulin, leptin, testosterone, adiponectin, irisin)
- neurotransmitter production and brain function (norepinephrine, dopamine & BDNF)
- reducing inflammation
- vascular toning
- deuterium depletion
- mental alertness
- mood elevation through vagus nerve stimulation
- body composition
- better sleep
- boosted immunity
- increased strength
- increase pain tolerance
- improve libido
Just a Little Science
There’s more but that’s probably an enticing enough list. To get these benefits, you have to feel the cold. To get some of them, you need to get cold enough for long enough to shiver for a while and/or stimulate the white adipose tissue (WAT), white fat often found around the midsection and regarded as dangerous, to convert to brown adipose tissue (BAT) and/or create new BAT. Brown adipose tissue is a great source of energy for heat and has a much greater concentration of mitochondria in it. This is really good for a lot of things, including extending your lifespan.
All mammals have BAT and human babies also carry significant amounts of it but as most of us age, we lose it. Having more BAT is strongly linked to being leaner and even connected to telomere lengthening, an indication of increased longevity.
That BAT will give you accessible fuel for many body functions and supports glutathione production which is regarded as the master antioxidant, preventing you from getting sick or helping you get well faster.
There’s plenty of studies on the benefits of cold exposure, brown fat and the results of the hormone and neurotransmitter associated with cold therapy. If that’s your bag, check out the links in the list of benefits or contact me for more.
That being said, there’s a lot more research to be done to figure out the exact mechanisms and ideal duration, temperature and protocol for maximum benefits.
Different advocates of cold therapy have different approaches and I’ve tried many of them. Through this experience and my own self-experimentation, I’ve whittled it down to what I think is the most simple but still effective. I don’t proclaim to be on the level of Wim Hof, his breathing methods have many benefits beyond cold tolerance, but I have found more than breathing it is mindset that enables me to go to the next level.
To this point, I have maintained a fairly regular practice with my aim at a daily CT for a minimum of 5-minutes for all of 2018.
I practice various types of CT from shirtless or t-shirted shiver walks in below freezing temperatures to cold showers to my favourite type, cold water immersion – rivers, lakes and ocean. I also practice sustained mild CT with my home heating rarely on so I am functioning and sleeping in 14 degrees Celsius/57.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Intuitively, with some science backing, I believe the ocean offers the best benefits followed by other natural bodies of water. That being said, the farther away from a warm up place like a car, home or hospital (yikes), the more caution is warranted.
My stats thus far:
Coldest water temperature: 0C/32F for 5 minutes in a river with a hole cut through the ice (see photo here)
Coldest air temperature: -30C/-22F for 10 minutes (see photo here)
Longest cold water immersion: 10C/50F for one hour
Longest shiver walk (shirtless with hat and gloves): -10C/14F for 50 minutes
Longest consecutive days in a row: 31 (aiming to break that and as I write this I’m on 17)
This is a really quick summary of moving from hating the cold to getting (more) comfortable being uncomfortable somewhere along the CT spectrum. This is a gentle process of cold adaption – the ultimate goal.
Turn down the heat and wear fewer clothes. As you embrace the feeling of being a little chilly, your body improves its ability to handle it. Soon you won’t notice.
Try dunking your face in the coldest tap water you can handle. Try holding it there for as long as you can or until you need to breath. Repeat until it’s easier.
Experiment with turning down the shower temperature until you’re able to handle cold showers. You can cycle hot and cold while making this transition if that is easier.
Fill a tub with the coldest tap water you can get out. Sit in it with your hands and feet outside of the water and wearing a hat. If this is too hard, keep your torso above the water too.
Once this is manageable and you can submerge your torso, add ice – try one of those bags you can get from a convenience store or that amount. I believe it’s around three pounds.
No problem or at least, tolerable, move to two or three bags.
With immersion, start with one minute and build on that. The first 30 seconds is usually the hardest. If you can breathe or focus through it, you might be able to tolerate it more.
Some people might need to use neoprene booties or wool socks and gloves if they submerge their extremities. These are usually the most painful and sensitive parts to cold. Don’t be too macho (foolish) and push past true pain.
While it might not be any colder, the act of practicing CT in natural bodies of water is the highest level in my opinion.
Being outside in cold air can certainly be a challenge, especially with windchill, but cold water immersion takes much more body heat away faster through conduction and being in nature makes it more therapeutic and more complicated at the same time.
To reap the full rewards you need to be submerged past your collarbone and shoulder blades. When your neck is getting cold (and wet), you are activating the brown fat. Dunking your head can feel awesome but is not really necessary for the majority of the benefits. It can also make it harder to tolerate adequate duration. Wear a winter hat and stay in longer for better results.
Cryotherapy, done in a chamber with cold gas, definitely offers some of the benefits but is much more costly and has been shown through various studies to not be as effective or as comprehensive as cold water immersion. It’s more convenient though. Still, I’d like to point out that too much convenience is what got us into this mess in the first place.
After the Cold
Most likely you’ll need some help warming up after an advanced CT session. People use hot showers, saunas, campfires or a blast of car or home heat. That’s fine and dandy but to get the best bang for the cold buck, try to warm up through shivering and innate mechanisms. Obviously, don’t be miserable doing it but it’s something to aim for.
Can’t handle it? Tried it but some days are way harder than others?
Consider these things…
- Exercise a few hours prior to CT might leave you with very little reserves to tackle the cold.
- An empty stomach can make it harder to generate your own heat
- Protein and healthy fat prior to CT can make it easier
- Having adequate amounts of DHA and other omega-3s in your diet can make it easier
- Counterintuitively, drink 8-16oz of cold water prior to CT can make it easier too
The Higher State of Cold
There’s something magical about the practice of cold thermogenesis. Something that goes beyond the science and the physical benefits. If you are having a bad day or struggling with depression, it is truly a needle mover. A quick 5-minute session whisks away the cobwebs, the blues and the monkey mind like nothing I’ve experienced before. I’m not the only one, these reports abound.
Besides the after effects, the time you spend in the cold is like a zen state. Thoughts often disappear. You aren’t mulling over the past or anxious about the future. Your focus is on the cold. This often starts as a focus on the pain but that is just a disguise. Cold is not pain. It is your doorway to Now. It’s a quick opportunity to feel connected to something beyond yourself and the day to day – no ingesting needed.
When I go for a solo, nighttime cold immersion in the Pacific ocean with the stars above me and no human or manmade structure in sight, I transcend and the cold becomes timeless.
The cold is a great teacher. If you have received, or do receive, any lessons from her, let me know. I’d love to hear about your experiences.