We all enjoy the comforts of modern life. There’s just no getting around the fact that modern transportation, electricity, and technology have made our existence better in many ways. However, if you’ve been reading this blog or stayed up-to-date on the research on nutrition and health, you know that the western lifestyle also comes with some “hidden” costs. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how the hyper-rewarding and super-sized nature of the modern life impact us. We’ve been able to create drugs, foods, gadgets, and other products that were not a part of human life just a couple of centuries or even decades ago. Why does this matter? Well, if there’s one thing that many of these modern devices, foods, and drugs have in common, it’s that they provide a stimulus that is super-sized compared to what we’re adapted to handle. Just think about all the people who essentially become addicted to junk food; and who can blame them? While lack of willpower certainly plays a role, the fact is that these foods contain a combination of ingredients that are not present in natural, whole food. Westernized foods are not really food, but rather products that are designed to be as rewarding and palatable as possible. These same mechanisms also apply to drugs, smoking, and other things people essentially become addicted to; they overwhelm our brain. At this point you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with showering. Well, what is it that all of these things, including hot showers, have in common? They provide instant satisfaction, but there is always a downside.
Do you prefer instant pleasure over long-term wellness?
Just think about the dopamine rush that occurs when you eat a delicious doughnut. The immediate pleasure is great, but the “sugar crash” shortly after, addictive symptoms, and long-term health consequences aren’t. It might sound far-fetched to compare junk food to hot water showers, but bear with me here…
While clearly not as extreme as food and drug “addiction”, many of the same principles apply to other areas of modern life, such as hot shower vs. cold shower, couch vs. exercise, and driving vs. walking. While the immediate pleasure you get from a hot shower is great, there is no doubt that the “long-term” benefits of a cold shower far outweigh that of a hot one. Hot showers dry out your skin and hair and sometimes make you feel even more groggy a couple of hours later, but a cold shower wakes you up, makes you more alert, provides long-term health benefits, and “toughen you up”.
This is not to say that you should never check your twitter feed, take a hot shower, or chill out in the couch. All I’m saying is that you have to find a balance. If you’re one of those people who always prefer the instant satisfaction over the long-term benefits, chances are your health and well-being will decline fairly rapidly.
That’s the thing about modern life, contrary to our ancient ancestors, we have so many possibilities. This is in many ways a great thing, but it can also be challenging in the sense that we can pick the “easy” route. If we want, we can be sedentary our entire lives, we can eat junk food every day, and we can spend every night surfing the web or watching TV. We have a choice.
So, the question really becomes? Do you want to be one of those people who always prioritize short-term satisfaction? Or do you want to be one of those people who prioritize long-term health, well-being, and happiness? The answer on paper seems simple, but in real life it often isn’t. If you choose the latter, there are many ways of achieving this. Dialing in your diet, exercise routine, and sleeping patterns is high on the list of things to do. I don’t think being obsessive about these things is the way to go, but establishing good routines is clearly important. Another change you can make is to switch from hot water showers to cold ones….
Acute stress vs. chronic stress
Over the last several years, I’ve probably only taken between 1-4 hot showers every month. That’s not to say that I don’t shower every day (no need to take the caveman thing out of proportions), but I use cold water. What started out as the occasional shower in mildly cold water has now turned into daily “ice-cold” showers. I typically jump in right away in fairly cold water and then finish by turning the temperature down to almost as cold as it gets for the last 30 seconds or so.
So, why do I stick with this “crazy” routine? Well, first of all, if we really think about, cold showers aren’t crazy at all. During most of our evolutionary history, cold water was all we used to wash our bodies; unless you were one of those few people who lived near a hot spring. Perfectly temperature regulated water is a novelty. This also comes back to what I’ve talked about a lot on this blog: the discordance between our genes and the modern environment. While the occasional bouts of acute stress our ancestors faced, such as fleeing from a dangerous animal and swimming in an ice-cold river, are generally considered a good thing (unless you end up as food or drown of course), the chronic stress so many of us experience in the modern world isn’t.
With a few exceptions, we’ve basically eliminated acute stress from our lives and replaced it with chronic stress in the form of demanding jobs, school, and complicated family lives.
It’s no doubt in my mind that adding back some acute stressors is a good idea.
Okay, let’s define what we’re really talking about here… Have you ever heard of hormesis? No. I didn’t think so, I hadn’t either, until I started reading up on the benefits of cold water therapy.
Hormesis is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses (1).
While hormesis is primarily used in toxicology, it also applies to other areas of health & fitness. Cold water showers, intermittent fasting, and exercise are good examples of this. While prolonged exposure to any of these things will negatively impact your health or even kill you, a controlled dose/exposure is linked to many beneficial effects. Just think about the improved heart health you get from moderate exercise on a regular basis versus the detrimental effects of “chronic cardio”, or the benefits a lot of people experience when they ditch breakfast and fast until noon versus the starvation that occurs if you don’t eat for weeks.
Well, the same principles apply to cold water showers.
Benefits of cold water showers
For me personally, I didn’t start to shower in cold water because of the long-term health benefits that are associated with cold water therapy. Rather, I started taking cold showers because they wake me up, give me more energy, and don’t dry out my skin. Also, they are great for the occasional headache. Perhaps the biggest upside with taking a cold water shower is that it’s so “easy” and convenient. Most of us have probably experienced the “brain fog” that accompanies long hours in front of the computer and noticed that the productivity slowly declines as you get fatigued and tired. What to do? A hard training session is definitely high up on the list of things that can get you back in the groove, but what if you’re already fatigued from your earlier workout that day, or what if you don’t have the time to go for a whole training session? A cold water shower is a great option. It only takes 5-15 minutes, and it leaves you feeling fresh and rejuvenated.
But what about the scientifically proven health benefits? Although there aren’t that many studies directly investigating the effects of normal cold water showering (e.g., 5 minutes every morning), there are promising data which show that cold water exposure could…
- Boost weight loss (2,3,4)
Brown fat, “the good fat”, is activated when we’re exposed to extreme cold in order to generate energy and keep our body warm.
- Relieve depressive symptoms (5)
“A lifestyle that lacks certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution, such as brief changes in body temperature (e.g. cold swim), and this lack of “thermal exercise” may cause inadequate functioning of the brain.”
- Speed up recovery after training (6)
- Strengthen immunity (7)
- Increase testosterone levels and fertility (7)
- “Harden” the body
E.g., by resulting in an increased tolerance to stress and cold (8,9,10). This comes back to what I discussed above in the section on hormesis.
Despite these impressive possible benefits of taking cold water showers, I think it’s important not to overestimate the effects. Good sleep, nutrition, and exercise are the things that lay the basis for a healthy life, and cold water showers are more like the icing on the cake. I also think it’s important to note that it has to be cold. You have to be uncomfortable!
Cold water showers toughen you up
I saved one of the most important benefit of taking cold water showers to the end: They teach you how to be uncomfortable. Check out this excellent TED Talk for a good description of what I’m talking about.
Bottom line: Do’t always choose the comfortable route.
What about you? Are you going to start showering in cold water? Or are you too fond of the comfortable hot water?