A couple of times, I've been getting the following questions:
“Aren't ice baths too stressful on the body? And if they are stressful, why are you recommending them? Isn't all stress bad?”
These are interesting questions, so let's talk about them!
Ice Baths and Your Body's Stress Response
It is absolutely true that getting into the ice bath activates a stress response in the body. This is an extreme situation, it's uncomfortable, and your body doesn't like it. You will get a release of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, which happens every time when the body thinks that you are in a stressful situation.
Also your blood pressure goes up, your muscles tense up, your digestion slows down, and your heart rate increases. All this is a beautifully designed stress response that is meant to mobilize you into action so that you can get away from a potentially harmful situation.
So, you get the same response when entering cold water. Your body doesn't know that you're not running away from a life threatening situation; it actually thinks that you are in danger and that's why it sends you a flood of stress hormones to save you.
But Isn't Stress Bad?
The next question is:
If we know that stress is bad, why are you recommending ice baths that cause stress?
The answer is that there's a difference between short and long term stress, and they are quite different from one another!
Short Term Stress
Short term stress response, like the one you get from taking an ice bath, is actually positive for you, if it's applied right.
If it is, it will give you the following benefits:
- Immediate mood and energy boost
- Decreased pain
- Lowering inflammation
- Increasing immune response
- Improving workout performance and recovery
- Speeding up the metabolism
- Hormone regulation
Long Term Stress
Different from short term stress, long term stress is not good for you. It is so important to manage our nervous system so that we don't stay in that stressed out state for too long, because here's what it will do:
- Makes us exhausted
- Throws off our hormonal balance
- Causes low mood, even anxiety and depression
- Lowers our immune system, making us more susceptible for illness
- Makes it a lot more difficult to get results from our diet and workouts, even if they are perfect, like HERE.
Long Term Stress and Your Body Composition
Long term stress has, no doubt, negative effect on your body composition.
When you're under prolonged stress, it becomes very difficult, if not completely impossible, to get the results you want, even if your diet and workouts are “perfect”. The reason is that when the body is too busy putting out all the fires when under chronic stress, it simply has no resources to put toward fat loss and muscle building.
You will also likely have issues with cortisol, blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity when under too much stress, which only encourages fat accumulation, especially around midsection.
Remember, your body needs to feel safe before it can let go of anything extra. It may not even perceive that the body fat you thought is extra is actually extra — because it needs it to protect itself.
Ice Bath, Metabolism and Brown Fat
Getting into an ice bath regularly may have a very positive effect on your body composition.
It increases the metabolic rate (the estimated number of calories burned during rest) because the body needs to work hard to maintain its temperature.
Getting into the cold regularly also encourages brown fat production. This is the type of fat that creates heat, and it burns energy. That way, it's very different from white fat which is something that most of us want to have less of. People with more brown fat tend to be leaner than those with less brown fat.
How Often Should I Do An Ice Bath?
So, if you get in the ice bath for a couple of minutes 3-4 days a week (Huberman Lab has shown 11 min/week is great), that's short duration, positive stress that is likely not going to harm you. It will more than likely help you deal with stress and also get you to your fitness goals faster.
That said — always listen to your body. If getting into the ice, or staying in there for a few minutes, doesn't feel right, don't do it. But don't get confused between discomfort (which is inevitable with ice baths) and something *actually* not feeling right. We don't recommend ice baths for those with pacemakers and for women who are pregnant and have not taken ice baths previously.
One more thing: There's no need to push your limits and attempt to break records in the ice. Just like with working out, minimum effective dose will do the trick. Quiet the Ego if it wants to get too loud in the tub!
Join the 5-Day Cold Water Challenge!
To get started with cold water exposure, join my 5-day Cold Water Challenge.
If you'd like to give ice baths a try (I highly recommend it!) but you have never done it before, then the best way to get your feet wet is my 5-Day Cold Water Challenge. In this challenge, we start with very small and simple cold water exposure (not even full body at first) and then add a little bit to it over the course of 5 days. By day 5, you will be ready to take your first ice bath.
I will also provide helpful guided meditations to make sure that you succeed!
You may also want to check out this video: How To Crush Your First Ice Bath.