What do drinking chilled water, taking a cold shower, and polar bear plunges all have in common? They’re all examples of cold thermogenesis, or therapeutic cold exposure.
Immersing in freezing water may be uncomfortable, but exposing yourself to cold temperatures can boost metabolism and ward off disease. Cold exposure is also important for regulating body fat levels and can help promote healthy weight management.
In the same way that we get goosebumps or start to shiver when we’re chilly, thermogenesis is another bodily response to cold. Since it’s internal, however, many people don’t know the ways it benefits the body beyond keeping it warm. Here’s how cold thermogenesis works, plus what it can do for your long-term health.
What Is Cold Thermogenesis?
Thermogenesis is a way we produce heat to keep our bodies warm. Cold thermogenesis kicks this process into overdrive. When you’re exposed to colder environments, your body works harder to maintain homeostasis and regulate core temperature. It produces more energy to stay warm, burning calories to produce that heat. This in turn stimulates metabolism. Hormones involved in body temperature regulation also play a role in stimulating heat-related fat breakdown, including epinephrine, norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones.
White and Brown Fat
Cold thermogenesis influences metabolism because it stimulates brown adipose tissue (BAT), also known as brown fat. Adiponectin, or brown fat gets its color from high levels of iron.
The other type of fat in the body is white fat — the fat type people are most commonly familiar with. White fat helps insulate the organs, but too much can be unhealthy.
The body looks to brown fat to stay warm because it provides body heat without causing shivering. The side effect of this heat production is that it helps the body burn fat to promote fat loss. It also lowers the heart rate, burns calories, and promotes weight loss. The fat-burning power of brown fat makes it a potential treatment for obesity and metabolic diseases.
Benefits of Cold Thermogenesis
Cold exposure, also known as cryotherapy, is the act of intentionally exposing oneself to cold environments to promote health. In addition to stimulating metabolism and burning white fat, there are many cold thermogenesis health benefits.
Both short-term and long-term benefits abound. Cold thermogenesis benefits often become evident immediately after intentional cold exposure, and people tend to feel happier and more energized after immersion in cold water.
Here’s an overview of how cold thermogenesis benefits the mind and body in the long term.
The breakdown of brain synapses, or degeneration, is a normal side effect of aging. It causes cognitive decline, memory loss, and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, exposure to cold stimulates cold shock proteins, which in turn decrease degeneration. Dr. Rhonda Patrick describes cold thermogenesis as “the link between synapse regeneration,” and says, “cold exposure and cold shock proteins may pose as significant puzzle pieces into combatting cellular degeneration and aging.”
Exposing yourself to cold environments (like ice baths) on a regular basis may also boost immunity. Patrick explains that the cold increases white blood cell count as well as cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which help combat cancer cells.
Cold thermogenesis also boosts immune function by decreasing inflammation and allowing the body to heal more quickly. The immunity-boosting effects of cold thermogenesis can also be tied to its ability to stimulate norepinephrine release. This causes “an increase in natural killer cell count and activity, and a rise in circulating levels of interleukin 6, all of which can massively improve your immune system integrity,” according to Julie Shanebrook.
Cold therapy has also been shown to improve sleep, ability to fall asleep, and depth and quality of sleep. One study found that just three minutes of whole body cryotherapy improves objective and subjective sleep quality in healthy active people. This could be due to the fact that pain relief and parasympathetic nervous system activity increased during slow wave sleep (SWS).
Resiliency and Recovery
More athletes are turning to cold thermogenesis to promote recovery and reduce workout-related fatigue. This is because total body cold immersion results in the nervous system creating vasoconstriction, which narrows the arteries and blood vessels. This reduces blood flow to damaged muscles, in turn reducing inflammation and mitigating the onset of swelling and bruising.
“Whole-body cryotherapy offers a technological and scientific approach to addressing fatigue, delayed muscle recovery, as well as pain and inflammation caused by rigorous training and exercise,” says Willie Mueller at Cryozone.
Not everyone will benefit from cryotherapy, so it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting it. Cold showers and ice baths are some of the most common ways to stimulate cold thermogenesis. Dipping a body part, such as your head, into cold water can also spark metabolism if you’re not ready to immerse your whole body. Cold baths have been shown to offer more benefits after endurance training rather than strength training, but more research is needed.
Sleeping in a cold room is another way to induce cold thermogenesis, and it may be easier than dunking in an ice bath. One study showed that a month of exposure to cold temperatures during sleep increased brown fat in healthy men. It also improved insulin sensitivity, suggesting that a cold environment may support people with impaired glucose metabolism or pre-diabetes.
Ice Baths and the Wim Hof Method
Neurosurgeon and paleo expert Jack Kruse offers a few tips for starting a cold thermogenesis routine at home. Before starting, he suggests drinking 16-32 ounces of water and eating a high-fat or high-protein meal. Next get a bucket of water that’s 50-55 degrees and dunk your face in, holding for as long as you can. He says to continue for a few weeks until you can hold for longer.
Another method is to take an ice bath in cold water with 20lbs of ice on your chest. Wear socks, gloves, a t-shirt and a hat to keep the body warm until it adjusts. Then you can take the outer protection off. Stay for 45 minutes. In both instances, it’s important that you don’t allow your skin temperature to fall below 50-55 degrees.
These methods follow the Wim Hof method, as Dave Asprey of Upgrade explains. The Wim Hof method works to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is connected to the rest of the nervous system. In turn, exposing even just your face to cold water can give you these benefits while increasing tolerance to cold environments.
Additional Wim Hof research has shown cryotherapy to improve concentration, willpower, and sleep while reducing depression and autoimmune symptoms. These benefits can play a vital role in a person’s mental health. “The method helps you to increase mental resilience, which allows you to better deal with daily stressors. It also increase your focus, concentration and willpower, which are all very important factors for good mental health,” says Wim Hof.
Cold Thermogenesis and Long-Term Health
Cold thermogenesis is a popular health trend aimed at supporting long-term wellbeing through exposure to cold. Immersing either the whole body or certain body parts in cold environments stimulates the burning of white fat, the increase of brown fat, and a boost in metabolism.
Cryotherapy methods have also been shown to improve muscle recovery, boost immunity, and improve brain health. Cold thermogenesis can help you understand sleep and recovery, and have a lasting impact on your ability to lead a happy, disease-free life.