Cold shocks to the body can improve our immune system and longevity. VURJEET MADAN/ THE VARSITY
Understanding the hype and help associated with cold therapy
Every time I have the urge to improve my habits, finetune my routine, and just be better, I think of the trick productivity gurus and millionaires have been suggesting for years — taking a cold shower as soon as you wake up — and like clockwork, a particularly chilling shiver goes through my cold-fearing body. Yet, for once in my life, purely for the sake of it, I gave this cold shock life hack a try. While it was certainly not a thing I enjoyed — even after three mugs of tea and sitting in front of the room heater for two whole hours, my body gave the occasional shiver — it did show me a thing or two of value.
Once, on a trip to a hill station with lots of snow-capped mountains, a few friends of mine made the wonderfully insightful decision to step out into the freezing cold after having taken a hot bath to experience the simultaneous hot-and-cold shock. I was horrified to hear this, and also slightly impressed at their tenacity — until they caught a very severe fever and cold. While recounting this experience to me, however, they said that it was painful yet rewarding and that they would do this again if, of course, their mothers would allow them to.
But it’s not just me or my slightly stupid friends; there is hard evidence to back up the benefits of temperature shocks to the human body.
When the entire body is cooled for a brief period, to a temperature much lower than that of the room and the body, the process is known as ‘cold therapy’ or even ‘therapeutic hypothermia.’ Exposure to cold is a ‘hormetic stress’ on the body, where the body’s adaptation to adverse conditions makes it stronger. At the molecular level, when exposed to significant dips in mercury, the ‘cold-shock proteins’ of the human body get activated and send a signal to the brain to protect against excessive stresses. Inducing such a mechanism lets the body’s protective instinct take over and relieve us of some of our pertinent miseries.
The use and application of cold treatment has been around among humans for time immemorial, and it dates to about 3500 BCE, when it was mentioned in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, one of the first medical textbooks of its time. According to the papyrus, the human body has four ‘humours,’ termed ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ ‘wet,’ and ‘dry.’ The cause of any illness or disease is an imbalance in these bodily humours, and to treat such an imbalance, the opposite of the affected element had to be used.
William Cullen, an 18th-century Scottish physician, was one of the first people to prompt the utility of ‘cold bathing,’ as he affirmed that cold could be a sedative as well as a stimulant for blood flow in the body. From ancient Greek philosophers like Hippocrates to Chinese surgeons like Hua To, people from all over the world would rely on a variety of cold treatments to cure various ailments, and it has thus become a well repeated life hack.
So, what are the benefits of cold showers that make them the key to success?
Cold shock therapy can reduce migraines by cooling the blood going through the intracranial arteries near the back of the neck. It also reduces pain and inflammation of irritated nerves — thus, being a lifesaver in terms of sports injuries. Cold therapy is also a primary tactic for fat burning as it can increase brown fat tissue activity, which in turn will increase calorie expenditure and increase metabolism by 80 per cent. Finally, it is considered extremely effective for mood and sleep improvement, as regular cold treatments can have regulatory effects on sleep, which benefit patients suffering from depression and generalized anxiety.
Thus, when we look at the plethora of benefits one can reap from cold treatment, we evidently notice the positive, long-term impacts it can and will have on a person’s development and longevity — and it’s as easy as taking a cold shower or bath every day. Although tough, it is often said passage through fire is the genesis of steel, and if it takes ice to make our nerves like steel, so be it — here’s to taking a cold shower every morning!