Lifestyle Public Health

The Health Benefits and Risks of Cold Plunges

A man taking a swim in cold water.

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If a long soak in a steaming hot bath is your idea of tranquility, plunging into a tub of ice water may be the last thing on your mind. But for cold plunging practitioners, the health benefits of taking an icy dip far outweigh any discomfort they might feel. Our experts are here to weigh in on cold plunging and explain both the health benefits and potential risks.

What is Cold Plunging?

Cold plunging can also be called taking an ice bath, ice dipping, cold water immersion or cold therapy. It’s a type of cryotherapy, which means it’s a therapeutic practice that uses cold water, ice or air. Whatever you call it, it involves taking a very cold bath.

A cold plunge is vastly different than a long soak in hot water. Cold plunges are quick, short baths taken in water that’s no more than 60 degrees Fahrenheit — and can reach much lower temperatures.

Health Benefits of Cold Plunging

As long as you’re healthy with no underlying health conditions, cold plunging can provide several health benefits, but the most impressive impact seems to be on your overall mood and focus. In fact, studies have shown a significant increase in both dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and noradrenaline levels (associated with attention, memory and alertness).

Other health benefits of cold plunging include:

  • Better circulation
  • Decreased swelling
  • Improved mood and sleep
  • Improved recovery and performance for athletes
  • Increased metabolism
  • Less muscle soreness after working out
  • Lymphatic drainage improved
  • More energy
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Reduced pain
  • Regulated hormones
  • Strengthened immune system
  • Quicker injury recovery

How much cold plunging is enough to reap the benefits? Research shows that less is more with only 11 minutes a week of being fully submerged as the ideal number. Those 11 minutes can be broken up in any number of ways, such as every other day or every third day.

As an extra precaution, always talk to your physician before beginning any new physical activity or health practice to ensure it’s safe for you.

How Long Should You Cold Plunge?

The duration of the average cold plunge varies, but it’s usually best to start with 5 to 10 minutes in cool — not cold— water. Increase your bath’s length and gradually lower its temperature as you become more accustomed to the cold water.

If you’ve never cold plunged before, it's vital to start with short time periods of 1 to 2 minutes when you ease into cold (rather than cool) plunges. You can gradually increase as your body adapts. Once you start to shiver, that’s an indication that you’ve reached your limit. Listen to your body — there’s no need to push yourself too hard if you start to feel discomfort.

Health Risks of Cold Plunging

Although a regular cold plunge could be a fresh addition to your health routine, taking an ice bath does have some potential risks. If you get too cold too quickly, you could experience hypothermia or cold shock caused by rapid decreases in temperature. In some cases, you could even increase your risk of drowning.

Who Should Avoid Cold Plunging?

If you have the following conditions, do not cold plunge:

  • A fracture, ligament or tendon tear
  • Are pregnant
  • Diabetes
  • Have a low body temperature at baseline
  • Have a pacemaker
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor circulation
  • Reynaud’s syndrome

An ice bath is clearly not safe for everyone. In fact, the American Heart Association warns that shocking your body with cold water could do more harm than good, even at less-than-frigid temperatures.

The National Center for Cold Water Safety adds that sudden immersion in water under 60 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to death in less than a minute.

With so much at stake, it’s always best to talk to your health care provider. Your physician can help you determine whether a cold plunge will help or hinder your health.

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