The Science Behind Ice Baths: How Cold Therapy Enhances Recovery

The Science Behind Ice Baths: How Cold Therapy Enhances Recovery

The concept of taking the plunge into cold water voluntarily may seem strange, but ice baths are becoming an increasingly popular option due to their health benefits. In contrast with what you might have seen previously relating to ice baths, they can be adjusted and refined to suit your constitution and resilience to cold. Once you start using ice baths at home, your resistance to cold water will gradually increase. 

If you’re apprehensive about trying ice bath therapy, read on to discover how they work, why they’re beneficial and how to use them. 


The Physiology of Cold Exposure

To understand the benefits of ice baths, you need to understand what happens in your body when you expose it to extremely cold temperatures. If you’ve ever gone for a winter walk and noticed that your extremities, namely your hands and feet, get stiff, that happens because your body is trying to conserve heat. Most people notice an increase in heart rate while they’re in cold conditions, including ice baths. This is due to your circulatory system needing to work harder to keep you warm and sustain your body temperature. 

When your hands are exposed to the cold and warm blood flows through them, the cold gradually cools your blood down due to the external temperature. In turn, when your body has cooler blood flowing through it, it’ll be harder to maintain a steady and safe core temperature. Your body naturally reduces blood flow to your limbs when you’re in cold temperatures to help reduce this effect and maintain homeostasis. 

Once you’re in a warmer environment again, your body increases the level of blood flow back into your hands and feet, which can result in a tingly feeling. Ice baths achieve this same effect, initially dropping your body temperature, which then boosts blood flow after you get out. 


Vasoconstriction and Enhanced Circulation

The process that your body undergoes during cold exposure is referred to as vasoconstriction. It’s what happens when the cold triggers your parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to your body sending chemical signals to your muscles. These signals come in the form of hormones, typically norepinephrine and epinephrine, which then tell the muscle cells to contract. This results in the narrowing of the blood vessels, allowing less blood flow into a certain area of the body. The overall process helps thermoregulation in the body. 

Following the constriction of your blood vessels and once you’re no longer in the cold, your heart will work harder to increase blood flow to the areas that were constricting blood flow. You’ll notice a faster heart rate and a warming feeling in your limbs as the rate of blood flow steadily increases. As your body warms up and your blood is flowing more freely, this can also support your body’s ability to flush out toxins. 


Reducing Inflammation and Muscle Soreness

Along with improving blood flow, ice bath therapy can also help reduce swelling and inflammation. If you’ve just worked out, the muscles you’ve used will often feel more tender. This is because you create micro-tears in the muscle tissue, which ache until your body has repaired them. 

Ice baths help with recovery in two ways. First, the icy water cools the muscles down, reducing inflammation and swelling. Second, once you’re out of the ice bath, the increased blood flow will help move fresh, oxygenated blood through the muscles, as well as flush out lactic acid build-up, facilitating better recovery with less discomfort. 

If you’re about to do a major workout, you can also use your ice bath before you begin to help regulate your body temperature while you’re exercising. With a lower internal body temperature post-ice bath, you’ll take longer to get hot when you’re engaging in things like cardio, which can help to improve your performance. 


The Mental Aspect: Cold Therapy and Mental Toughness

If you’re interested in improving your mind-body connection but struggle with meditation, ice baths may be a good alternative. You need mental fortitude in order to withstand the icy temperatures. Typically, you’ll want to work your way up to sitting in your ice bath for 10 to 15 minutes and combining resilience physically with keeping your breathing steady mentally takes discipline. As you use your ice bath more often, over time, you’ll be able to drop the temperature lower and stay in for longer. The more often you do this, the more you’ll experience the benefits. 

Being in the cold water stimulates your vagus nerve, which links in with your parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is responsible for regulating internal functions like breathing, heart rate and digestion. As you step into the ice bath, your body instinctively takes a deep breath. You’ll likely have experienced this already if you’ve ever jumped into cold water like the sea or a pool. By stimulating this nerve with cold, you’ll notice the effects instantly. The vagus nerve will then start adjusting the systems within your body to adjust to the cold, calming your breathing rate to reduce body heat loss and also adjusting your heart rate. 

The effects you notice after your ice bath are often initially stimulating, making you feel more alert and energetic. Many people also experience the ice bath high, where your brain floods your body with endorphins to counteract the discomfort of the cold. 

When it comes to sleep, the initial shock and adjustment that your body goes through can also support a more healthy circadian rhythm, meaning you’ll fall asleep more easily and rest better. When you use an ice bath more regularly, you’ll also notice a more balanced mood and a better ability to handle stress. 


Guidelines and Precautions for Safe Cold Immersion

How you use your ice bath will depend on your body’s unique constitution. Our Energise Ice Bath can go as low as 0℃, while our Awaken Ice Bath offers a chilly 3℃. But when you’re starting out, we recommend using it at a more moderate temperature of around 15 degrees and trying to stay in for three to five minutes. As you build up a tolerance over time, you can increase the duration to 10 to 15 minutes and lower the temperature as you see fit. Rather than jumping in and immersing yourself fully straight away, start off more slowly and lower yourself in. 

Ice baths are an invigorating and unique way to support your body’s ability to regulate mood, improve muscle recovery and boost circulation. For more information, read our FAQs or contact us for help in choosing the best ice bath for your needs.