She stayed in freezing water for six minutes. The temperature was around 4°C.
Recently, Indian actor Samantha Ruth Prabhu, who is on a hiatus from acting owing to her battle with myositis, decided to focus on her mental and physical well-being with a trip to Bali. She took the plunge literally, and immersed herself in freezing water for several minutes. Later, the actor shared a photo of herself on Instagram, which led to widespread awe among her fans.
Prabhu isn’t the only who has tried this. This practice of cold water immersion, has been going on for centuries. The Greek physician Hippocrates from ancient Greece (around 370 BC), had said that cold water lessened fatigue. Doctors in the eighteenth century were known to recommend cold baths to treat fever and rickets.
In more recent times, a Dutch athlete named Wim Hof earned the nickname ‘The Iceman’, as he broke several records related to ice-cold exposure. This included him running marathons above the Arctic Circle barefoot and only in shorts, swimming underneath ice for 66 meters and standing in a container while covered in ice cubes for extended periods of time. Building a ‘cold and hard’ nature, his training taught him how to control his breathing, heartrate and blood circulation to withstand extreme temperatures.
Well we aren’t saying you should immediately attempt anything so extreme just yet, but yes, an ice-cold bath, if done right, can actually work wonders for you.
Why an ice water bath is good for your physical well-being
Athletes who dive into ice-cold water after a training session know what they’re doing.
This form of ice water therapy is beneficial for muscle recovery. It’s a relief for sore muscles. Explaining the physiological effects of ice-water on the body, Kieran Sheridan, a sports physiotherapist, and co-founder of GulfPhysio.com, based in Sharjah says, “When you are exposed to ice-cold water, the blood vessels constrict, and reduce blood flow to muscles and tissues. This decreases inflammation, which is the body’s natural response to tissue damage caused by intense exercise,” he says. It also aids in alleviating post-exercise muscle soreness and is beneficial for recovery.
When we do intense workouts, our muscles undergo micro-tears and accumulate waste products like lactic acid. “Ice baths help flush out these waste products and reduces swelling in the muscles,” he says. After the initial shock of cold water wears off, it also functions as an analgesic, which temporarily numbs sensory nerve endings and provides pain relief.
When we do intense workouts, our muscles undergo micro-tears and accumulate waste products like lactic acid. Ice baths help flush out these waste products and reduces swelling in the muscles
The Hunting reaction
After the athlete leaves the cold bath, usually around the 10 to 15 minutes mark, the body triggers the Hunting Reaction, says Sheridan. Here, the blood vessels dilate and significantly increase blood flow to the extremities. This vasodilation increases the body temperature, and this phase is followed by vasoconstriction again, resulting in cooling of the extremities. “The improved circulation has positive effects on the heart’s health due to the fluctuating blood pressure for the rapid changes in vasoconstriction and vasodilation,” he adds.
Incorporating ice baths into pain management and injury prevention strategies can benefit athletes and people with physically demanding lifestyles, says Sheridan. “People can also undergo the Hunting Reaction by alternatively moving between hot and cold baths every few minutes to speed up their recovery process,” he says.
Does ice-cold water boost emotional well-being?
When you feel tired and fatigued, you tend to wash your face with cold water. It makes you feel more refreshed. Does it alter your mood or is it just a placebo?
“Studies do show that the benefits of ice bath therapy for the human body and mind health," explains Samar Al Salem, the founder of Samadhi Wellness in Dubai, which focuses on people replenishing their balance in an ice bath. “Ice baths can be used as a technique to stimulate the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which provides several positive mental and physical benefits. These can range from muscle recovery support, improved sleep quality and sleep quality itself,” she says.
However, research is still being done on whether it actually affects the mental well-being of a person. In 2018, a study in the UK, published in National Health and Medicine described a 24-year-old woman with depression and anxiety, practising swimming in cold water for four months. Following this, she did not require medication. Another similar study in the UK showed how a group of 61 people practised a 10-week course to bathe in cold ocean water, and experienced uplifted moods as compared to their friends who didn’t. After these encouraging results along with other promising studies, researchers and scientists have been working to look for stronger evidence about the effects of ice-cold water, although it is yet to be published.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons to believe why ice-cold water can boost a person’s emotional well-being. When you immerse yourself in cold water, there is a release of stress hormones like cortisol and noradrenaline. Owing to this, people feel far more “refreshed and awake” when they step into cold water. The cold water jolts your brain awake, gives you more clarity and provides more energy. Depending on the person, there is a release of endorphins or the “happiness hormones” are also released, which leads to a feeling of positivity.
Neeta Jhaveri, a medical practitioner at the Dubai-based clinic Wellth explains how one builds resilience in cold water. When you're exposed to cold temperatures, your body slowly adapts, and you gradually manage stress better. It manages to be comfortable in that uncomfortable state, she says. That's how you get the mental clarity. "Once your parasympathetic mode is activated, there is a release of endorphins, along with hormones. These endorphins are rather addictive," she says. When you at first take the cold plunge, you stop thinking at first, you begin to feel the sensations, and then you reach a meditative state, she adds. It's how you adapt yourself and build that resilience. "Everything in the body is interrelated. If you keep exposing your body to a stressor gradually, you build on your tolerance. It helps to manage your stress," she adds.
If you keep exposing your body to a stressor like cold baths gradually, you build on your tolerance. It helps to manage your stress and resilience.
Certain studies have also shown that there are release of chemicals in the brain like dopamine, which regulate mood as well. Moreover, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which can help the body to relax if it is stressed, says Jhaveri. This can help calm people down and reduce the problems of inflammation in the muscles.
What you need to keep in mind before immersing yourself in ice-cold water
A cold water dip or a bath is beneficial, but there are certain precautions that need to be taken.
For starters, don’t stay in ice-cold water for a long time. Immersing yourself in ice-cold water for a long period of time can be extremely harmful, if not life-threatening. One of the biggest risks is hypothermia, which is expected to set in around 30 minutes for a normal adult. However, there are other side effects that can take place long before that.
A person can experience an initial ‘shock’ after plunging into cold water, which can lead to arrhythmias and heart attacks. The risk of arrhythmias is further accelerated, when people put their faces underwater. This sends conflicting messages to the heart as different parts of the nervous system are activated. There is a chance of the ‘gasp reflex’ that can also be triggered, which is followed by hyperventilation. Hence, it is important to check with a doctor or experts before you jump into icy cold water. Do not jump in head first, so you can find your way out at least. Preferably, go with groups of people.
Sheridan warns, “For safety, the optimal water temperature is usually 10°C to 15°C and people shouldn't stay for longer than typically 10 to 15 minutes. Longer durations or lower temperatures may lead to adverse effects such as hypothermia. As everyone has different tolerance to cold water, one must first try this in the presence of a healthcare professional.” It’s best to be practised in moderation.