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The Benefits of Cold Therapy for Inflammation

It might not be your first choice to jump feet-first into a freezing body of water, or submerge yourself for minutes at a time in an ice bath. But after you understand the benefits of cold therapy for inflammation, you just might find yourself turning down the temperature. Here’s what to know about cold therapy and inflammation.

What is cold therapy?

Cold therapy is the practice of exposure to extremely cold temperatures in order to reap certain physical and mental benefits. Cold therapy can take the form of cold water therapy, like an ice bath, a “polar plunge,” or even a cold water shower; temperatures are typically 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cryotherapy is another type of cold therapy you might have heard of. In cryotherapy, you’re exposed to extreme cold (think -160 degrees Fahrenheit!), either by standing in a cryogenic chamber or through localized cryotherapy, where a practitioner uses a wand-like apparatus to instantly chill different body parts. Crucially, cryotherapy only lasts a few minutes, and you often wear mittens and socks while standing in the chamber (although yes, you’re otherwise nude).

What are the benefits of cold therapy for inflammation?

Cold therapy has been shown to be influential in reducing inflammation in the body. For example, studies have shown that cold therapy can be extremely effective for athletes wanting to reduce muscle soreness. That’s because the cold makes your blood vessels constrict, which reduces blood flow to the area and helps reduce swelling and inflammation.

Cold therapy might also help boost your immune system by helping you produce more anti-inflammatory chemicals. One study found that participants that used a combination of meditation, deep breathing, and cold water immersion had fewer symptoms when exposed to a bacterial infection, likely because their bodies produced more anti-inflammatory chemicals and fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines in response to the infection.The researchers credited this partially to the cold water exposure building a resistance to stress.

The anti-inflammatory benefits of cold therapy can extend to your brain as well. While more research needs to be done on this subject, researchers hypothesize that the anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects of cold therapy could help combat the inflammatory and oxidative stress responses that occur with Alzheimer’s or dementia. In addition there is research to show that cold therapy can improve dopamine levels in your brain and can improve mental resilience.

Finally, cold therapy may be an effective natural treatment for autoimmune diseases. Since autoimmune diseases are rooted in inflammation, using cold therapy to manage inflammation may help people with autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, lupus, and more.

How to try cold therapy

Trying cold therapy is “refreshingly” simple (see what we did there?). You can try cold water therapy at home by taking an ice bath or a cold shower. If you’re near a body of water, you can double up on the upsides of cold water therapy by taking an outdoor plunge, which will also earn you the benefits of being in nature. Finally, you can try cryotherapy at a dedicated cryo lounge or spas; some performance sports centers might have access to cryo as well.

What temperature?

There is no clear answer here but a good rule for temperature is to place yourself in an environment that is uncomfortably cold but you can stay in safely for the given time of exposure. Starting at temperatures in the 50 degree Fahrenheit range seems like a good starting point for most people. Or bring the temperature of your shower to an uncomfortable level where you feel like you really want to get out. As you get use to it, you can decrease the temperature.  Do not immediately go to extreme cold exposure without training your body and mind first.

How long, how often, and when?

There is no clear answer here either as different benefits are seen at short and longer exposure. We think people start to see metabolic benefits at around 10-11 min per week of cold water immersion. Most people start with 30 sec to 1 min and then work up from there. Many people start cold therapy 1-2 times per week and then work up from there. Often, we find that people eventually enjoy and look forward to this as they feel mentally more clear and have less muscle soreness and joint pain.

If your goals involve muscle hypertrophy, we recommend avoiding cold therapy immediately after strength training exercise. If your goals are cardiovascular and joint health then there seems to be more benefit to cold therapy immediately after prolonged zone 2 exercise. Overall though, anytime is a good time.

One thing to note: cold therapy (especially cold water immersion) can stress your cardiac system by affecting your blood pressure, heart rate, and circulation. To make sure you’re a good candidate for cold therapy, talk to your precision care doctor. They’ll be able to run the appropriate tests to make sure cold therapy is safe for you, and they’ll also be able to provide insight on how cold therapy might help you inflammation. Click here to learn more about how precision medicine can optimize your health.