Benefits Of Cold Showers For Weight Loss And Strength
The idea that cold temperatures help with weight loss is not unheard of. So naturally, the question is, does switching your shower knob from hot to cold actually help you lose more weight, or is this just a load of crap?
Thermogenesis, White Fat And Brown Fat
It’s true that as your temperature falls, your body expends more energy to compensate for the loss.
This is a survival mechanism. And so, therefore, yes, cold temperatures theoretically increase your metabolic rate as you enter a phase called “nonshivering thermogenesis.”
If you were to begin to shiver, even more, energy would be expended and thus more calories would be burned.
So, is this in itself is enough to label cold showers as an effective means to lose weight?
The Stoic philosopher Seneca swam through cold waters in order to test his discipline and there have been various cultures which have embraced the cold, but of course, this wasn’t necessarily to lose weight.
It wasn’t until 1985 when a controlled study had taken place which examined whether there really was a tangible effect on fat loss.
The 1985 study looked at fat burning in men who immersed themselves in cold water for two hours and compare them to a control group.
The results actually showed that those in the cold water burned more fat, explaining that their bodies were utilising stored glucose as a means to keep their bodies warm (1).
If your body is cold for long enough and you begin to shiver, your body actually begins to trigger the production of something called brown fat.
Contrary to common belief, fat is not ‘one thing’. We have different types of fat in the body, namely brown fat and white fat.
Brown fat acts much more like a muscle as opposed to what one imagines fat to be. Brown fat is metabolically active, just like muscle tissue is. That’s a good thing for fat loss. This means that brown fat utilises more calories.
If you examine the body composition of leaner people, you’ll find that they have more brown fat in proportion to white fat, white fat being more common in obese populations.
Research is showing us that cold temperatures may allow one to hold onto a greater proportion of brown fat as opposed to white fat (2).
What this means is that theoretically exposing yourself to the cold may allow your resting metabolic rate to increase due to these physiological changes. Whether this is a profound change is a different story.
Irisin The “Exercise Hormone”
Irisin is a hormone released during moderate aerobic exercise when your muscles are being activated and your cardiorespiratory system is being utilised.
When fat cells are exposed to cold the hormone irisin increases. This increase of irisin is important for fat burning to occur (3).
Cold showers and exercise are therefore quite similar in many ways. More irisin leads to a reduction in fat, a more efficient cardiovascular system and greater overall cardiovascular health.
Cold Showers, Muscle Hypertrophy And Recovery
If you’re an athlete and you workout regularly then taking an ice bath is something you may have heard of before as a means to increase your recovery rate.
The reason why it’s known as a means to alleviate pain from workouts is due to the soothing effects the cold has on inflammation. Additionally, cold showers may improve circulation, alleviate pain and draw out lactic acid from the muscles.
Although the cold does decrease inflammation, there are certain times when inflammation is fundamental to muscular hypertrophy. For example, 30-60 minutes after your workout is when you should want your muscles to be inflammed.
This time period is critical for protein synthesis and the cold may inhibit this process from occurring optimally (4).
Cold showers aren’t as effective as immersing yourself in cold baths as Russian Powerlifters used to do, but they still hold many of the same benefits.
Heat, Hormones And Saunas
There are also some studies which show that cold temperatures aid in increasing testosterone levels in the body (5).
Heat has a direct effect on our DNA and RNA, as well as protein synthesis.
Your testicles (if you have them) hang low so that they remain cool. Heat isn’t good for the health of your testicles and therefore your testosterone levels, hence why you’ll hear many say that you should never have a hot laptop on your lap.
Now, the question is, does this increase or preventative decrease equate to any tangible differences for muscle growth? I doubt it. However, optimising various variables in your life which have an effect on your testosterone levels can make a difference to your mood, strength and well-being if they are all improved.
For example, if you’re lacking vitamin D, you’re not sleeping enough, your cortisol levels are too high, you’re exposing yourself to heat and you’re gaining excessive fat, then all of these variables together may have an effect on your testosterone levels to the extent where it will impact your workouts and well-being.
The Benefits Of Heat Exposure
Heat isn’t all bad and there’s a lot of recent research going into the benefits of heat for the human body via sauna.
Saunas are symbolic of weight loss as they allow you to drop weight really quickly due to the water weight loss. Fighters do this to cut weight for weigh-ins as you probably know.
Growth hormone is a vital peptide hormone for the stimulation, growth, and regeneration of cells.
One study showed that two 20 minute saunas at 80°C (176°F) increased growth hormone levels twice over baseline (7).
Heat stress has also been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) more than exercise alone when used in conjunction with exercise. BDNF is extremely important for the growth of new brain cells and the survival of neurons in the brain (8).
There’s even evidence of increased longevity, increased muscle growth and enhanced endurance performance from saunas. Now, this may seem confusing as I just said heat could be potentially bad. It appears both extreme temperatures have profound physiological changes on the body, many of which are positive.
I recommend checking out this blog post by Dr Rhonda Patrick. This post goes into depth on the physiological changes and benefits of what Dr Patrick calls “hyperthermic conditioning”.
This is what I personally do in my own life: I’ll take my normal shower at a lukewarm temperature, I’ll turn the water to hotter temperatures towards the end and then switch it to an ice cold temperature for the remaining few minutes.
I’ll take my normal shower at a lukewarm temperature, I’ll turn the water to hotter temperatures towards the end and then switch it to an ice cold temperature for the remaining few minutes.
I think people call this method of switching from hot-cold the “Scottish shower”. I have no idea why it’s called that. Anyway, I’ve found this method to be extremely efficient and also sustainable. Believe it or not, it’s actually sort of fun.
Are Cold Showers Effective?
So yeah, cold showers may “work” by increasing irisin and allowing you to burn more calories and perhaps they also increase your testosterone slightly, but by no means are they a replacement for exercise.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate this:
Most economists are going to tell you that having various streams of income is a more intelligence plan than having one main source of income. Why? Because by having various sources of income you lessen the chance of losing all your money as you’re not fully reliant on one source.
Likewise, we should have different means of taking care of our health. Nutrition is your full-time job, exercise is your part-time job and then other “jobs” (such as supplementation and cold showers), are streams of passive income. They are not your full-time job.
Now, I know most of you reading this are reasonable enough to realise cold showers aren’t the be all end all of the good health, but I’m just putting it out there and I also liked the analogy.
My opinion is that regardless of any health benefits cold showers have, I think the most important reason why I advocate people to try this out is that it’s a form of voluntary discomfort.
The willpower required to voluntarily expose yourself to this discomfort is more than it may seem. Starting your day doing something you fundamentally don’t want to do at first is going to be hard, but it pays off.
Exposing yourself to a good stress (eustress) rather than bad stress (distress) on a regular basis, such as intermittent fasting, or cold showers, is not bad for the body.
In fact, these stressors are good in the sense that they are later compensated for by the physiological changes and the strengthened willpower you gain.
If you are able to stay disciplined and consistently expose yourself to a voluntary discomfort, like a cold shower, then this willpower will transfer over to other areas of your life, just like fasting helps many overcome other challenges in their productivity or with sugar cravings.
What I find particularly noticeable after cold showers are my state of mind and energy. I feel great. There’s even some promising research looking at the effects of cold exposure on depression.
Cold showers can be a great way to passively increase your metabolic rate slightly, challenge yourself and they are a great way to potentially alleviate some pain brought on by inflammation. Remember to avoid taking cold showers directly after your workouts.
Heat too also has its place and role to play in a healthy lifestyle. Together, both temperature extremes can be used strategically to enhance your health.
Remember, these techniques and hacks should supplement your priorities, namely nutrition and exercise, rather than replace them.
With that being said, go and try out a cold shower and report back to everyone on how it went.