Cold plunge ice baths may have several benefits, such as burning body fat, improving insulin resistance, and reducing stress, among others.

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Cold water exposure may have health benefits such as blood sugar regulation and reduced body fat.. Johner Images/Getty Images

The authors of a new review say that taking a dip in cold water may be just the thing if you are looking to reduce the amount of unhealthy body fat that you have.

The findings, published on September 22 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, suggest that cold water exposure might also lower your risk for certain conditions such as diabetes.

Cold water exposure appears to increase the amount of a hormone called “adiponectin,” made by adipose tissue.

Adiponectin is important in preventing insulin resistance, in which the muscles, fat, and liver become less responsive to insulin.

Lead study author Dr. James Mercer, a UIT — The Arctic University of Norway professor, said several benefits of cold water exposure have been previously proposed. These included:

  • boosting the immune system
  • giving a natural high
  • improving circulation
  • increasing libido
  • burning calories
  • reducing stress
  • making new friends
  • relieving depression
  • jump starting the metabolism
  • improving cardiovascular health
  • reducing pain and inflammation

“Our investigation shows that there is increasing evidence that many of these suggestions may be correct, especially regarding the potential preventative health effects on the immune system, potential prophylactic effects on the cardiovascular system, prophylaxis against insulin resistance, and improved insulin sensitivity and mental health,” Mercer said.

However, he noted that the speculated effects such as a natural high, increased libido, and reduced depression, don’t appear to be supported by evidence.

Dr. Chris Minson, an expert in exercise physiology, women’s health, heart health, and thermoregulation at the University of Oregon, as well as a member of the American Physiological Society, said that one of the key things we should take away from this review is that we still don’t know enough about the potential health benefits of cold water exposure.

However, Minson noted that some of the stronger evidence revealed by the study suggests that cold water exposure seems to aid in blood sugar regulation.

“This is through improvements in the way that insulin works in our body,” he explained, “and it has real potential for helping to improve the risk of diabetes, and thereby may also improve cardiovascular health.”

Minson added there is more limited evidence that repetitive exposure to cold water might reduce the amount of unhealthy body fat, maybe by changing it to be more like the healthy, more metabolically active brown adipose tissue.

As to how this might happen, Minson explained that cold water exposure creates stress on our physiology in much the same way that exercise does.

“If these stresses are repeated over time, and we are able to recover and adapt to the stresses, our physiology will be more resilient,” said Minson, “and we may have lower levels of background inflammation (which occurs when we are sedentary, eating poorly, or have excess body fat).”

If you find the idea of cold water exposure to be intriguing, Mercer said his best advice is first to be aware of the possible negative effects and then to start gradually, maybe with other people who are already experienced with it. He also suggests reading up on the topic.

Minson noted that cold water exposure is difficult, and many people will not like it. He suggests that a cold-shower challenge is a good way to see how well you can handle it before diving deeper.

“For one week, during your daily shower, decrease the water temperature as low as it will go with still decent water flow for 15 seconds,” he explained. “Stay under the water, including your head and neck and as much of your body as possible. Then turn the water up again to warm yourself.”

Then, start increasing your time under the cold water by 15-second increments each week for a total of four weeks.

Minson said that you should check in with yourself after each shower to see how you are feeling over the next few hours.

“People are often in a better mood and seem to have more energy. Others may hate it and not be happy. But this is a good test to see if you may like cold exposures,” he said.

Minson further advised that it’s a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional before you begin, especially if you have heart disease or have had a heart attack.

“If a person is generally healthy and somewhat active, it is as safe to try this as it is to start an exercise program,” he said.