You ever hear about how after an injury you’re supposed to use the age-old RICE protocol where you rest, ice, compress, and elevate the injured joint or muscle? What about cryotherapy being able to decrease inflammation and enhance anabolic hormones? There are a lot of benefits that can be gained just by exposing your body to harsh environmental conditions. Many of these benefits have been served as evolutionary adaptations that have remained in the human genome over the course of time. These adaptations can enhance health parameters if implemented correctly.
The Iceman Wim Hof is the usual go-to ice and cold expert. He has trekked Everest in only shorts and has created the Wim Hof method that teaches about how to implement cold as a way to enhance ones’ mind-body practices.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to muscle damage. Getting swole all the time naturally breaks down muscle fibers, triggers an inflammatory response, and then (in a nutshell) the body repairs the damage and increases the muscles strength. Short-term inflammation is a beneficial since it activates a cascade of hormonal and DNA responses that make muscles buffer and worse than before; however long-term inflammation is no bueno. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many chronic diseases and should be mitigated. Cold exposure is one way to decrease inflammation. In a study of two groups engaging in eccentric resistance exercise, the group that regularly had cryotherapy significantly enhanced anti-inflammatory cytokines and reduced muscle damage.
That’s a really fancy way of saying cold exposure reduced inflammation and pain associated with soreness. You don’t need to get a membership to a cryotherapy gym and freeze yourself to death to get similar benefits though; taking a cold shower, regularly drinking ice-water, or wearing an ice pack around the neck and shoulders can lead to similar benefits. It’s been recommended to wait at least an hour after resistance exercise before doing do an ice bath since too much cold can blunt the inflammatory response that leads to buffer muscles, however, a quick cold shower is all good in the hood.
Ice baths can be beneficial after endurance workouts since the extreme cold stress can lead to the creation of more mitochondria which can enhance energy production, produce more heat, burn extra calories and increase endurance performance.
Looks like fun right?
Brown Adipose Tissue
What the heck is that right? I thought that fat was just that forever evil god awful stuff that kept me from getting the six pack out of the fridge and from having those rad hourglass curves. Is there such a thing as fat that burns calories like muscles? Yes, there is! Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is muy bueno. Its job is to produce heat as a way to keep the body warm during cold exposure to complement shivering which is the body’s natural response to maintaining the right temperature. BAT is richly vascularized and full of mitochondria. These mitochondria activate in response to cold and they use calories to create heat. Studies in rodent models indicate that cold exposure leads to enhanced glucose tolerance, increased BAT activation, and increased energy expenditure compared to control2. The fancy science term for this whole phenomenon “cold-induced nonshivering thermogenesis”, but in layman’s’ terms; being cold stresses the body and its response are to generate heat to maintain an optimal core temperature, this process leads to adaptations that burn calories and makes you lean and mean. Cold showers are a good way to activate this response.
BAT is typically seen around the neck and traps. If cold showers are scary wearing an ice pack around the neck is thought to be a good way to activate BAT. The White adipose tissue is the typical fat we think of as being no bueno.
Energy & Sleep
It’s the ass crack of dawn and you have to make it to the studio for your early am pumping iron session. Of course, you have to do your hair and makeup so you look presentable at the gym. Certain mornings your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders (as the illustrious April W puts it) and you hop in the shower before it’s had a chance to warm up. Before you realize your grave mistake, you get a cold shock down your spine and you feel like you just had 3 shots of espresso. The cold shock you feel is the body’s’ response to this cold stress. The fight or flight part of your nervous system is activated, adrenaline is released, blood starts pumping, and there can be an increase in heart rate3. Your body detected a rapid decrease in temperature, perceived this as a stress to maintaining core temperature, and acted accordingly to make sure you’re prepped to run away to a warm spot if needed.
This can be a beneficial “biohack” if say you’re doing a certain cleanse where you’re not allowed to have coffee or you’re just dragging ass and want to wake up. There can be a further benefit to repeatedly manipulating the nervous system. If they body always maximally activated the sympathetic nervous system whenever you were exposed to cold, there could eventually be some adrenal issues down the line.
As a result, eventually, the body will shift into activating more of the parasympathetic or rest and digest system when exposed to cold3 (potentially to avoid adrenal fatigue). This can be immensely beneficial before bed if you’ve had a long day and your mind is restless. If you combined cold exposure with some deep breathing hippy dippy meditation crap before bed, the body will be shifted to a very parasympathetic state.
In basic terms, calming mind-body practices combined with brief cold exposure can make you restful. Use ice and extra cold temperatures in the morning to wake up and a cool shower in the evening to get you ready for bed.
You can find a shower bucket, fill it with ice, and take an ice cold shower in the morning to wake up, or if that sounds scary you could fill it up and pour it on your significant other while they’re showering if you need revenge.
Ziemann, Ewa, et al. “Whole-Body Cryostimulation as an Effective Method of Reducing Low-Grade Inflammation in Obese Men.” The Journal of Physiological Sciences, vol. 63, no. 5, July 2013, pp. 333–343., doi:10.1007/s12576-013-0269-4.
Ouellet, VÃ©ronique, et al. “Brown Adipose Tissue Oxidative Metabolism Contributes to Energy Expenditure during Acute Cold Exposure in Humans.” Journal of Clinical Investigation, vol. 122, no. 2, Jan. 2012, pp. 545–552., doi:10.1172/jci60433.
MÃ¤kinen, Tiina M., et al. “Autonomic Nervous Function During Whole-Body Cold Exposure Before and After Cold Acclimation.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, vol. 79, no. 9, Jan. 2008, pp. 875–882., doi:10.3357/asem.2235.2008.
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