Last week I pretty much destroyed, with the power given me by science, the bullshit about cold showers that everyone is talking about.
I still think though that cold showers are a valuable tool for some purposes that I will describe in this post. They are just not as "magic" as the hype makes you believe.
Cold Showers Make You Badass
One of the way to become badass is through body hardening.
"Dude but I'm already a total badass! Have you seen how much I do on bicep curls?!"
No brah, we are talking about real badassery here. Like the one Leonidas I and his 300 Spartan warriors had. Something that most of us softies today can only dream about.
The fact that in our Western modern society we got accustomed to avoid every pain, discomfort and roughness made us into pussies.
In the past, humans were continuously subjected to several environmental stressors. We had to hunt for our food, we had to walk miles for our water. This made us fit and ripped asf. Look around yourself nowadays and you can immediately see how we came a long way to have a prevalence of fat and soft bodies that are just a parody of the ancient Greek statues' bodies that were the norm once.
One of the other stressors we faced were thermal stimuli. We couldn't choose to have a warm shower. There was a river, there was a lake. It's 41 °F out there? Well, I got to clean myself anyway. Splash!
We were badasses and we turned into wimps.
It has been suggested that the lack of this natural stimulation contributed to the increase of degenerative disease of the skeletal and the muscle system, heart diseases and infectious disease. And it might even be the cause of diseases as depression.
So, if you wanna become a man and stop being a crybaby, you have to toughen up. One of the suggestion is to go on the streets and start a figh...I'M KIDDING, I'M FUCKING KIDDING, DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT DOING THAT!
Luckily for you and for everyone else, there are ways to become tougher in a society were everything and everybody push you in the opposite direction. One of this is exercise but if you are reading this I suppose you got that covered already (although one of the future posts is going to be about the benefits of lifting heavy shit). The second way is through body-hardening that can be achieved with intensive short exposure to cold as a cold shower can in fact be. If you are badass level 100, then swimming in ice cold-water is a very good way to toughen up.
Indeed, a group of German researchers (and you know that when Germans do something, they do it right) studied the biochemistry going on in 36 members of the Berlin winter swimmer club. These people every week from fall, at least once per week during the whole cold season, swim between 5 and 10 minutes at least once per week in ice-cold water. What researchers found out is pretty interesting.
These people are the real badass. How were they different from the control group which never swam in cold water?
They had higher antioxidant power compared to the control group. (for a quick recap about what antioxidants are, check this post)
This means that these people got used to the stress caused by the cold water and developed a defense mechanism by increasing their antioxidants levels. Pretty cool huh? It's like lifting weights, the more you do it (and the more you add weight to the bar), the more your body responds by increasing your muscle mass to make you lift heavier next time.
You can found this very interesting study here.
Cold Showers For Waking Up
We've seen in the previous post that cold showers activate the sympathetic system which promotes wakefulness. This is why it's a bad idea to have a cold shower before going to sleep. On the other hand they are perfect for waking up in the morning and promote alertness.
There's also a, call it philosophical, use of cold showers that is not backed up by science (SO, BROSCIENCE DISCLAIMER HERE) but whoever ever tried at least once can report. Cold showers promote self awareness.
You immediately become aware of your body and the sensations going through it.
This is what is achieved also through the practice of mindful meditation. Cold-showers therefore can be a good tool to combine to mindfulness meditation. (if you want to start with mindful meditation I highly recommend you this book)
Finnish researchers (and damn if they know cold!) showed in a study that winter swimmers had less tension and fatigue and improved in mood and memory compared to a control. So, although we can't say that cold showers cure depression, it has been shown that exposure to cold water can improve your mood. Indeed, another study shows how cold water immersion increase the level of dopamine which could trigger pleasure in your brain.
My friend Rich (one of the most badass people I know) introduced me to cold showers last year. He told me that cold showers can teach you a new mindset: resiliency and perseverance. You go with it, you hate it, it's painful but you keep going at it. Don't resist it, accept it and embrace it. A smile will arise on your face. If you can withstand being naked in the cold water, what is going to stop you? You became a badass.
How cold showers make you badass:
- Increase in level of antioxidants. Better resistance to free radicals (click here for a list of free radicals and some explanation).
- Improvements in mood.
- Make you more self-aware.
- Teach you resiliency and perseverance.
Cold Showers And Your Immune System
What's the immune system bro? The immune system is one of the coolest thing we have. Seriously, when I studied it at the University some years ago, I was in total awe. More or less the same when I see #datass entering the squat rack.
Imagine the immune system like the police of your body, but cooler. It prevents microbes and viruses to kill you and I wish I could talk about the way it accomplishes it but it is out of the scope of this blog but trust me man, this stuff is mind-blowing. If you wanna learn more about it in a amusing way (and if you have kids I highly recommend you this), buy this DVD. I know in the USA basically nobody knows about it but in Europe it was pretty big when I was a kid.
In the picture on the right for instance, you can see a cell of the immune system (in yellow) telling the orange bacteria to not fuck with him.
Let me explain it real quick: the immune system works on two levels.
Level 1 is the basic protection. Among other sytems, it has some cells that are like the village sheriff, not very specialized but can still kick asses. They act fast and their role is to contain the emergency and call the big guns for help.
The "big guns" are the Level 2. Imagine it as the FBI. They are more specialized and know exactly how to deal with the threat. Their protection is also lasting longer and can eradicate the threat.
When it comes to cold exposure and immune system, a pretty big number of scientific papers come up (for a comprehensive review, check this one). Problem is that the results are not quite definitive (that's why I used the word "might" to title this paragraph).
Here some studies:
- Cold water immersions, activated the immune system to a slight extent. (study)
- Seven healthy men sat for 2 h in a climatic chamber maintained at 5 degrees C. Results showed that acute cold exposure has immuno-stimulating effects. (study)
- Habitual winter swimmers have higher number of immune system cells in their body. (study)
- The immune response might be different between men and women after cold water exposure. (study)
In conclusion, it seems like cold exposure (as in cold showers) has a boosting effect on the immune system but more studies need to be performed in order to have a definitive answer on the topic.
Cold Showers After Training?
You just had a heavy squats session. You feel tired but you nailed it. You go home, eat like a you just conquered Babylon and upload a photo of your quads on Instagram. Then you go to sleep and it's all fine. A day passes by, chicks liked your quads on Instagram, you have a slight soreness in your legs but you know, you squatted like the bodyweight of your mom (haha! a your-mom-is-fat-joke!) so you deem it as normal .
Then it happens: day two. Out of nowhere, your legs suddenly have gone through a reverse-Pinocchio phase: they became wooden legs. You start invoking the Fairy with Turquoise Hair, stop lying and start behaving like a good kid but nothing, your legs are still wooden.
This is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and it's a bitch. The mechanism of DOMS is not completely understood but the pain is real. Most likely it is caused by the mechanical damage to the muscles and by the inflammation that occur after a training session (here a review). The culprit is the eccentric phase which is the phase of the movement when your muscles stretch. In the squat is when you go down (and start praying that you can go up again).
An analysis of the scientific literature on the effects of cold water on recovery after training, shows that cold water immersion had a moderate effect in reducing DOMS 48 hours after the eccentric exercise. While recovery of muscle strength was not improved, recovery of muscle power was improved by exposure to cold water.
Despite the vast amount of papers published on the topic, still the rationale behind the reason why this works has not been elucidated yet.
Cold showers might help reducing the inflammation after training speeding up the recovery process and limiting the arising of DOMS.
EDIT: Cold water after exercise has been shown to hinder muscle hypertrophy. I wrote more about it here.
Cold Showers And Fat
And here the last and my most favorite part.
Have you ever heard about BAT? It stands for Brown Adipose Tissue. For the bros, it's brown fat.
(I swear, Cleveland Brown is the first thing that popped in my mind but he's not amused )
Until 2009 it was believed that only newborn infants had brown fat and that by growing up we tend to lose it until we have just a little bit that basically wouldn't do shit. But in 2009, the presence of active brown fat also in human adults was confirmed. Brown fat is present in the area below the neck and between the shoulder blades.
Why is it called brown?
Contrary to the normal fat, called white fat, brown fat is rich in mitochondria which contain iron, making this fat cells look brown. What are mitochondria you ask. See mitochondria as the energy facilities of your cells.
They convert energy of your food into molecules that your body can use for energy as for instance ATP. Your muscles, as you can imagine, are rich in mitochondria so that you can press overhead your girlfriend and make her brag with all her girlfriend (and you hope this is not the only think she brags about with her girl-friends *WINK WINK*).
What's brown fat doing?
Brown fat it's used to generate heat. There are three ways our bodies react to in response to cold to generate heat:
- Vasoconstriction: peripheral vessel shrink so that blood stays in the deep and central part of the body to keep important organs warm
- Shivering: your muscles contract involuntarily producing heat
- Activating brown fat
How does brown fat generate heat?
This is pretty cool. I have to summarize it a lot because the concept is pretty vast.
Explanation for NERDS only
In the mitochondria, energy is produced by something called the electron transport chain. Don't freak out, I'll try to explain it as dumbly as possible. What happens is that from glucose or fatty acids or aminoacids, electrons are extracted and moved around this chain until the electrons are finally given to oxygen so that they can become water. This process of passing the electrons around is energetically favored, therefore, some energy is released. This energy is used to move protons outside the membrane (check the picture, it's easier to follow). This creates then a so called electrochemical gradient of protons between the two sides of the membrane. Outside a lot of protons, inside few. This gradient will be used to the ATP synthase to create ATP (the final "fuel" of the cell) by allowing the protons to come back inside the membrane. This process is energetically favored therefore it can be used to make ATP.
In brown fat cells though, there is a protein called UCP1 or uncoupling protein which is kind of a retard version of the ATP synthase. It makes the protons flow back in the inner membrane, without making ATP. So the result is that only heat is produced!
The activation of brown fat is triggered by the sympathetic system (check my previous post for a quick recap) which is indeed activated by cold exposure. Can you see where this is going?
Whenever you are doing a cold shower or you are being exposed to cold temperature, your brown adipose tissue is activated and to keep you warm you will burn energy!
In one study, subjects were wearing some special cooled jackets. The researcher cooled these at 18 degrees C for 2.5 hours so that the people wouldn't shiver and therefore the body heat would be generated only by activation of the brown adipose tissue. You know what happened? These people burned extra 250 kcal!
Cold showers might activate brown adipose tissue which will increase the energy expenditure of your body so you'll burn more calories.
BONUS: How to take cold showers?
DISCLAIMER: I'm not a medical doctor. Before following the advice here, please consult your physician especially should you have a history of heart-related problems.
In conclusion the question that every one wants to know. The answer? There's none (yet). There's no consensus yet scientifically on which is the best way to take a cold shower but I can tell you how I do it and I want to stress here that this is going to be sheer broscience.
How I take a cold shower
- Warm water first for around 1 minute until my body is wet
- Gradually turn the know to cold water. This will allow gradual adaptation and prevent shivering.
- Stay under cold water for 1 min and then stop the water
- Shampoo and soap
- Warm water to rinse
- Finish off with cold water 1 min
- (optional if at night) Warm water for around 30 seconds
I want to reap the benefits of both warm and cold water, therefore the scheme I use. I use the warm water on the feet at night so that I can fall asleep faster (check the previous post to read more about it ).
Note: If you are a man, try to minimize the exposure of your genitals to cold water. To increase the activation of the brown fat, don't get the water so cold that you are shivering and try to direct it in the area just below your neck and above the shoulder blade where most of the brown adipose tissue is located.
That's it folks! Leave a comment below for any question and share with your bros to spread the knowledge!
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