Wondering about the health benefits of an ice bath? There's more to this practice than just braving the cold – learn why you should consider taking the plunge yourself.
Ice baths, otherwise known as cold water immersion, are a type of cryotherapy that involves immersing your body in very cold water (between 50-59°F) for between ten and fifteen minutes. This can be done by taking an extremely cold shower, filling the bathtub with ice, or jumping into an alpine lake — athletes sometimes take ice baths to relieve muscle pain or soreness.
Ice baths aren’t a new fad, they’ve been around for centuries. Evidence has been found that the ancient Greeks and Romans used to use cold water immersion for health benefits and relaxation, according to a 2022 research paper. So what are the health benefits of ice baths? And what safety precautions should be taken before deciding to take the plunge? We’ll tell you all you need to know.
Things to Consider Before an Ice Bath
Before you decide to take the plunge it’s worth considering whether an ice bath is right for you, take into account your current health condition and decide if you’re up to it. Check out these tips:
- Temperature: When making an ice bath at home it’s best to use a thermometer to check its temperature, it should be between 50–59°F. Fill the bathtub with cold water and gradually add ice, until the desired temperature is reached. The time spent in the ice bath should be between ten and fifteen minutes, any longer could be detrimental to your health.
- Body exposure: For best results the whole body should be submerged in water, but if this is difficult at first, start with the feet and legs and work your way up to the chest — the head does not need to be submerged.
- Timing: If you’re taking an ice bath to ease aching muscles after exercise it should be done as soon as possible after exercising has finished, if it is delayed the effects of the ice bath will be reduced.
- Frequency: For beginners, taking an ice bath two to three times a week is enough. However, professional athletes may take an ice bath more often, or even after every training session.
- Heart Problems: Ice baths constrict blood vessels and slow the flow of blood, this can increase the risk of cardiac arrest or stroke for those with high blood pressure or pre-existing cardiovascular disease.
- Diabetes: Those with type 1 and 2 diabetes should avoid ice baths as they are less able to maintain their core body temperature during extreme temperature changes.
Next, let’s focus on the health benefits of ice baths.
1. Ice Baths Aid the Central Nervous System
Ice baths can help the nervous system by regulating sleep and decreasing fatigue. They can also help to increase relaxation and overall well-being. Keep reading for more information on the health benefits of ice baths. Check out these other ways to beat afternoon fatigue.
2. Ice Baths Can Train the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is a type of cranial nerve in the body that regulates different bodily functions including breathing, heart rate and digestion. These functions are involuntary, meaning we can’t control them. By taking ice baths, you can train your vagus nerve, which can help you when faced with stressful situations, for example by deep breathing and trying to remain calm.
3. Ice Bath Health Benefits: Soothe Aching Muscles
One of the most popular reasons to take an ice bath is to relieve aching muscles, usually after a workout. Research has shown that immersing yourself in cold water below 59℉ can speed up the body’s recovery after exercise. Another study found that cold water immersion was more successful at easing muscle soreness than whole-body cryotherapy, which is when someone sits in a chamber filled with cold air (up to -200℉) for three minutes, this is an expensive kind of therapy that some professional athletes use.
4. Reduce the Effects of Heat and Humidity
If it is particularly hot and humid outside, taking an ice bath before a long period of exercise as a form of pre-cooling can reduce core body temperature which can lead to better performance in sports, performance decreases with hot conditions.
5. Limits the Body's Inflammatory Response
Ice baths can also assist those with chronic or acute pain in the body, this includes those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, foot and ankle sprains, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. A 2017 study found that taking a cold mist shower could relieve pain in patients with inflammatory arthritis, this could be an effective home treatment.
6. Ice Bath Health Benefits: Boost Your Mood
Ice baths are a way to increase the amount of dopamine in the body – this is the “happy” or “feel good” hormone. Research concluded that after being immersed in cold water (57.2℉) the dopamine levels in participants increased by 250%. A different study found that a twenty-minute ice bath taken four times a week increased the quality of life of participants with gout arthritis, participants commented on being less depressed, anxious and stressed.
7. Ice Baths for Non-Sport Related Injuries
Not only are ice baths good for easing muscle pain after strenuous exercise, but they can also soothe other injuries. It is believed that the cold reduces blood flow by constricting the blood vessels, this can assist in reducing the amount of fluid entering the blood and therefore reducing swelling and pain.
However, there is some conflicting information about them. A 2016 study looked at using cold therapy for whiplash and concluded that it was not worth using for grade 1 or 2 whiplash. On the other hand, a 2018 study concluded that ice and heat can assist in pain relief for neck pain such as whiplash. It is therefore worth consulting a doctor regarding the treatment of injuries.
8. Ice Bath Health Benefit: Cool Yourself Down
Another benefit of taking an ice bath after a workout is to lower the body’s core temperature, this is beneficial to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke. A 2015 study found that soaking in 50℉ for less than ten minutes can reduce your core body temperature after a workout, this reduces the likelihood of getting heat stroke or suffering from heat exhaustion.
9. Ice Baths Can Boost Immunity
Ice baths can be combined with meditation and deep breathing to boost your immune system. A 2014 study found that participants who did these three things had fewer bacterial infection symptoms than those who didn’t.
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