It’s 7:30 a.m. on a wintry March morning. I’m standing in my apartment’s cramped bathroom wearing little more than a towel and a determined look on my face. The shower is running, as it generally does at this time of day, but with one all-too-glaring omission: warm, familiar tendrils of steam wafting up from the bathtub. My goal this morning is to jump into a cold shower. Full stop.
But after flicking my fingertips into the chilly water, any semblance of willpower I may have had instantly vaporizes, like a snowflake hitting the pavement. I grab the shower’s hot water handle and, like a coward, crank the thing to 11. I wade in as the mirror begins to fog. No lie: It feels great. Everything is goddamn great.
The origins of my failed experiment that morning can be traced to a New York magazine article I’d come across about a –264 degrees Fahrenheit cryotherapy machine for the city’s upper-crusties. Sit in the chamber for three minutes, let the nitrogen do its thing, and ta-da! Extreme cold therapy. Undergoing the treatment is said to help your body incinerate calories, jolt your immune system to life, and help trigger a flood of mood-boosting endorphins, similar to a runner’s high. Perfect for the winter blues, I thought.
But since I am not yet a multimillionaire with an apartment overlooking Central Park, I decided to look into more proletarian means to reap the same potential health benefits. And that’s how I fell into a severe Internet wormhole about the life-enhancing miracle that is the cold shower.
Cold water has all sorts of tangible health benefits, as long as you can stand it. Katharine Hepburn spent a lifetime preaching its advantages. Similarly, brave oceangoers who partake in polar bear plunges in the New Year claim it gives them a shot of adrenaline, leaving them renewed and fresh. (Although doctors warn that drastic temperature shocks can be bad for people with underlying heart conditions.) And Russian Orthodox Christians have been known to go cold-water swimming for religious purposes every January to purify their souls.
On the extreme end, pro athletes like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James use ice baths to reduce inflammation and soothe sore muscles after a workout. (And they certainly aren’t shy about sharing their experiences on social media.) As Ned Brophy-Williams, a sports scientist based in Australia who has authored several leading papers on cold water therapy, explains to me in an email, cold water immersion works by redirecting blood flow “from the peripheral to deep blood vessels, thereby limiting inflammation and swelling and improving venous return (the amount of blood returning to the heart).”
Essentially, improved venous return means that “metabolites and waste products built up during exercise can be efficiently removed by the body and nutrients quickly replenished to fatigued muscles.” In other words: It cleans you out. Although an ice bath is ideal, spending eight minutes under a cold shower—either interspersed with hot water, or experienced straight—is better than nothing, he says. There is even some clinical evidence that suggests cold water can stimulate healthy brown fat, which is found in the upper neck, shoulders, and chest, and can help burn away calorie-loaded fats called lipids, which pile onto your gut and waistline.
But since I don’t start my mornings with 1,000 made jumpshots and 600-pound leg presses, I was more concerned with whether a cold shower might help make me more productive, or at the very least put me in a better mood. A 2007 study published by a molecular biologist named Nikolai Shevchuk found evidence that cold showers can help treat depression symptoms, and, if used regularly, might even be more effective than prescription antidepressants. “The mechanism that can probably explain the immediate mood-lifting effect of immersion in cold water or cold shower is probably the stimulation of the dopaminergic transmission in the mesocorticolimbic and nigrostriatal pathway,” Shevchuk said in a 2008 podcast with Neuroscene. “These dopaminergic pathways are known to be involved in the regulation of emotions. There is a lot of research linking these brain areas to depression.”
In non-science-speak, what that basically means is cold water can flood the mood-regulating areas of your brain with happy, sparkly neurotransmitters; separate studies have shown winter swimmers to have “significant decrease[s] in tension and fatigue and an improvement in mood and memory.” One aspect that was of particular interest to me was his methodology. For his research—the sample size of which was statistically small, he admits—Shevchuk had participants start with a warm shower. (Not doing this was my first mistake.) Over the next five minutes, the water temperature was gradually lowered, until it reached 68 degrees Fahrenheit—which is “very cold to the touch and the skin,” he said. Participants stood under the cold stream for just two to three minutes. (That temperature is roughly analog to jumping into the Pacific Ocean during springtime in Orange County. It’s also worth mentioning that water colder than 61 degrees may cause hypothermia.)
Armed with new knowledge, I decided to give it a second chance. The next time I took a shower, I turned the handle to about the halfway mark—a little colder than normal—and hopped on in. Slowly, over the next few minutes, I lowered the temperature until it “shocked” my body. My breathing quickened. My heart started racing. And I did a little high-step dance to stay warm. But once I made a concentrated effort to slow my breathing, standing under the cold water became quite tolerable. It was like adjusting to an unheated swimming pool—totally doable, and certainly not the worst thing in the world.
When I toweled off, I immediately felt more alert. My heart was still racing, and I spent that morning experiencing a strange buzz that coffee no longer provided. (Yes, even Bulletproof Coffee.) There was a pep in my step, despite it being a slushy mess of a New York winter outside. I might have even smiled at a colleague!
Could my cold-shower high that morning have been wishful thinking? Absolutely. But perhaps the biggest endorsement I can give is the fact that I haven’t stopped showering this way since. And soon, I keep reminding myself, it will be summer.
Are there any cold-shower loyalists out there? We would love to hear about your experience. Tell us all about your chilly inspiration below!