Cellular Health and Reduced Inflammation: Longevity Benefits of Cold Showers
My newest longevity habit is a cold shower – I do it immediately after my run, three times a week.
I’m able to do 30 seconds so far, with plans to hit 1 minute by the end of the month.
While I don’t expect that cold showers will directly affect my longevity, there are multiple health benefits. They include immune response, triggering antioxidant pathways, reducing inflammation and even mental sharpness.
Research into the longevity effects of cold showers took some untangling.
Papers cover cryotherapy, icy water immersion and longer duration icy showers. Animal studies involve rodents, fruit flies and even worms. It is a challenge to robustly isolate cold exposure in people.
On this page I’ll explain my newest longevity habit – then summarise the science showing how health and longevity benefit from cold showers.
My New Longevity Habit: Cold Showers After Running
For most people, the term ‘taking a cold shower’ means calming down from an overexcited state.
The only time prior to my recent healthy ageing journey I recall taking cold showers is in Thailand. Those just-off-cold showers in a beach bungalow were a genuine pleasure – a relief from the sticky, humid daytime conditions.
After reading the papers highlighted below, I figured that cold showers have a big upside and little downside beyond the initial discomfort.
It is hard to find a healthy behaviour with this good a balance.
Cold showering also hit my ‘pairing’ criteria for new habit formation. My runs require a shower afterwards, and so starting cold fits perfectly. Those runs are typically 6 to 10km, and a mix of sprints, fast walks with incline, and longer mid-speed running. I alternate days with circuit training and resistance, averaging three runs each week.
Cold Showers vs Cryotherapy vs Cold Plunges
When it comes to cold immersion and longevity, I’m a junior.
The only link between health and temperature already in place for me is a cool sleeping environment. This includes a light duvet, thermostat down and the occasional leg-out moment.
Here are the ways you can use cold for health benefits:
- Cold Showers: Anything from a few seconds to a few minutes in a regular shower on cold.
- Ice on Injuries: Muscle strains and other sporting injuries benefit from an immediate icepack.
- Coldwater Swimming: Using nature’s cold water for short duration swimming.
- Cold Plunges: A cold water plunge is popular after a session in the sauna.
- Ice Bath: Fully immersing in a bath of cold water and ice, popularised by Wim Hoff.
- Cryotherapy: A blast of crazy cold air, in a specially designed chamber.
As a quick aside, I’m planning a cryotherapy session soon – and will report the results over in my blog.
Summarising the Longevity Benefits of Cold Showers / Cold Immersion
My dive into the clinical evidence for longevity and cold immersion is reported in the sections below.
There are multiple positive effects, though nothing that stood out as directly delivering a longer life or health span.
That said, who would not like to strengthen their immune response, trigger antioxidant pathways and reduce inflammation.
Here are the primary effects of cold showers and other low-temperature interventions.
- Immune System Boost
- Triggers Antioxidant Pathways
- Reduced Inflammation
- Brown Fat Stimulation
There are other benefits including brain health, mental sharpness, and improved mood.
How Cold Showers Boost Your Immune System
Impressive headlines include a 29% reduction in sick days after morning cold showers, but what are the mechanisms involved?
Papers showing that the number of white blood cells get a boost from cold exposure highlight one pathway. Cells specific to immune function are included in this are Natural Killer Cells. Production of immune specific lymphocytes and monocytes was boosted after weeks of cold exposure treatments.
Out of all the longevity benefits of cold showers, this one has the biggest ‘more research needed’ feeling.
Hormetic Stress and Antioxidant Pathways from Cold Showers
The mechanism behind immune boosts from cold showers is stress.
This stress triggers cold shock proteins, which in turn boost cellular processes including autophagy, repair mechanisms and gene expression. The type of ‘hormetic’ stress you get from cold exposure has similar benefits to stress from exercise. You mildly stress your cells, and the repair process makes you stronger and healthier.
Boosted glutathione production from cold exposure has been found in rodents and small sample studies with people. This powerful antioxidant pathway not only reduces oxidation from ROS, it has protective effects for chronic diseases.
Other pathways are neuroprotective antioxidant effects from cold shock proteins. Pathways include cold shock and heat shock proteins and inducing apoptosis.
Cold Showers and Longevity: Reduction in Inflammation
Ice packs are a tried and trusted way to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness.
Papers show that continuous or regular cold exposure has a body-wide role in reducing inflammation, including the chronic inflammation of autoimmune diseases. Glutathione is one pathway. Measurable reduction in inflammatory cytokines clearly demonstrates and effect.
I’m keeping an open mind as to whether a simple cold shower will have anti-inflammatory effects. The papers in this area include prolonged cold exposure, cryotherapy, and topical ice packs – rather than a regular cold shower.
Brown Fat Boosts from Cold Showers and Ice Baths
Brown fat activation via cold exposure is significant.
Studies show doubled brown fat activation triggered by low temperatures.
This comes with multiple benefits:
- Improved glucose metabolism.
- Burns calories.
I’m planning a deep-dive into brown fat soon, this mitochondria-rich tissues are an exciting area of research.
Wrapping Up: Longevity and Cold Showers – Are the Benefits Worth the Discomfort
I’m already over the ‘gasping for breath and fighting the urge to turn the dial on my shower’ phase.
Thirty seconds is at the low end, though a solid start, and I feel clear headed and happy when it is over.
The next phase is to get to one minute (my plan is for the end of this month), then settle at around 90 seconds. My current house is not big enough for a sauna or plunge, though an ice bath is something I’ll consider.
There is good evidence for antioxidant qualities, cellular health, and reduced inflammation from cold showers. Immune system benefits show promise, though I’m yet to be convinced as strongly on that front.
After reading the clinical papers I’m not seeing cold showers as a slam-dunk. Instead, this is just another simple habit that will incrementally see my middle-aged body through middle age and onto a lively, ‘unfrail’ future.
Cold showers are a simple habit. This works alongside my exercise ‘snacks,’ healthy food choices, fasting and sleep routine without being a burden. Luckily, I’m over the screaming on first cold shower splashes now, which means I won’t be startling any guests.
More Longevity Habits:
- Minimum Viable Exercise for Longevity
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Healthy Ageing
- Alcohol and Longevity