Cold water. It's sure not everybody's cup of tea, that's for sure. But what is the point of this wellness practice that has swept the world?
Immersing yourself in cold water has some distinct health benefits, as a growing number of happy devotees can confirm. Cold water exposure can create a release of adrenaline in the body, that has been linked to significant health benefits and anti-inflammatory properties. This release of adrenaline is stimulated by the stress hormone, cortisol, which is released when the brain perceives threat or danger. Although we often consider cortisol and stress as negatively impacting our wellness - when controlled safely and treated correctly it can help to build our resilience to real-life stressors, allowing us to become stronger mentally and physically.
As anyone who has braved an icy dip will know, the stress reaction slowly fades as your body adjusts to the cold temperatures. There is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that building a regular practice of cold water immersion can help to gradually reduces the severity of the initial stress reaction when the water hits our skin, therefore allowing us to apply this reduction in the stress response in real-world stressful situations, not just on exposure to cold water.
In terms of physical health, regular exposure to cold water has been linked to an increase in immunity and a decrease in inflammation. This could be due to an increase in white blood cells during the initial stress response of cold water therapy - therefore providing a natural boost to your bodies defences and immune system.
Swimming in open water, especially sea water, can provide many of its own benefits. Salt water is awash with magnesium, calcium and potassium which are all good news for the skin. Sea water is also a mild antiseptic and may encourage damaged skin to heal or for skin conditions to fade.
Many report a 'post cold water high' which is due to a flood of dopamine - the body's feel good hormone. A working theory here is that the mind recognises a sense of strength and accomplishment and therefore rewards the body with a flood of dopamine. The process of forcing oneself to get into cold water helps us to boost our self-image and mental strength. Getting out of our comfort zone builds confidence and courage as well as giving us a strong sense of accomplishment. By becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable we can learn to increase our resilience and tolerance in other areas of life.
A few safety tips for a safe swim;
Why not try cold water for the first time in the shower. Start hot and for the last 15/30 seconds pop the tap onto cold. Start small and build to a regular practice!
If you're swimming in open water, the sea or somewhere unobserved always swim with a buddy.
January is not a great time to start cold water swimming as the water is at its coldest (in the UK!) - start around April and swim through the summer and autumn, ready for the icy dips in the winter!
Take a thermometer to measure your cold dips. Remember anything under 10 degrees can be classed as 'freezing' and carries a risk of cold water shock. Go carefully and listen to your body.
30 seconds per degree to begin with. 5 degrees = 2.5 minutes maximum!
Getting the head wet might result in brain-freeze. If you're not acclimatised wear a warm hat whilst you begin your practice.
Remember - open water carries many risks and unseen dangers! Respect the water and always be prepared.