Hydrotherapy is the user of cold water to fight disease or maintain health, and it dates back millennia. Even though the ancient Greeks had sufficiently advanced heating systems to enjoy hot baths, they would still take cold baths for the health benefits.
Modern hydrotherapy was developed in the 1820s by a German farmer named Vincenz Preissnitz (1799 – 1851) who claimed cold water could cure anything from erectile dysfunction to fractures. Patients, including nobles, flocked to his sanitarium.
Hydrotherapy spread across Europe and eventually reached the US. Charles Darwin, who suffered from poor health, was one of hydrotherapy’s many proponents.
Even as hydrotherapy declined during the 20th century, as it was supplanted by medications, doctors still use it to treat some injuries like broken bones or strained muscles.
Scientists have since learned that cold showers provide health benefits like the following:
Cold showers boost circulation
While warm water draws blood to the skin, cold water sends it toward the body’s core to warm the internal organs. A daily cold shower can improve the circulation and thus relieve the symptoms associated with poor circulation like cold extremities, weakened immune system, and numb limbs.
A strong circulatory system also speeds healing from injury or strenuous exercise.
Cold showers relieve depression
Short cold showers can improve mood. Researchers at the Department of Radiation Ocology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that brief cold showers can stimulate the “blue spot” in the brain that produces most of the noradrenaline there. Noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter that can relieve depression.
Dr. Nikolai Shevchuk recommends taking shower set at 68 degrees F for two or three minutes once or twice a day to get the anti-depressant benefits.
He also suggests starting the shower at a warmer temperature and taking five minutes to let your body adjust to the cooler temperature.
Cold showers strengthen the immune system
In 1993, researchers at England’s Thrombosis Research Institute found that people who took cold showers every day had more white blood cells than did people who took hot showers.
They believe that the increased metabolism caused by the body’s efforts at warming itself also stimulated the immune system and caused it to produce more white blood cells.
German researchers in 1999 found that swimming in cold water increased the body’s ability to withstand environmental stressors like viruses.
Cold showers help you lose weight
Human beings have two types of fat: white fat, which is the kind we want to get rid of, and brown fat, which helps us stay warm by generating heat.
In 2009, the “New England Journal of Medicine” described a study that demonstrated that exposure to extreme cold stimulated brown fat so it could become up to 15 times more active than normal.
That increased activity could cause a person to lose up to nine pounds per year just by taking cold showers.
Cold water relieves sore muscles
Athletes often take ice baths after a workout or training session to speed recovery. They know that icy water reduces inflammation and flushes the lactic acid that causes fatigue out of the body.
While cold showers are not as effective as icy baths, they still help prevent the sore muscles caused by an intense workout.
Cold showers improve fertility in men
As it turns out, heat is bad for sperm which is why a man’s reproductive organs are situated outside the body. During the 1950s, researchers found that hot baths had a contraceptive effect; men who took hot baths every other day for a three-week period were left infertile for the next six months.
In 2007, the University of California at San Francisco completed a three-year study about the effects of hot tubs and hot baths on male fertility.
Some of the men in the study saw their sperm counts increase by a whopping 491 percent three to six months after they stopped taking hot baths.
Cold showers make hair and skin healthier
Hot water is also bad for skin and hair, for it dries them out. It can also make the skin itchy. Cold water, by contrast, closes up pores and cuticles and makes the skin look healthier.
It also makes hair shinier and he hair from becoming brittle by reducing moisture loss. Dr. Jessica Krant, a board-certified dermatologist advises that lukewarm or cold water helps the skin by not stripping it of it natural oils. By contrast, hot water does.
Cold showers increase testosterone
The 1993 study at the Thrombosis Research Center that demonstrated that cold water’s beneficial effects on the immune system also showed that it increased testosterone production.
Contrary to popular belief, taking a cold shower actually increases the male sex drive. Testosterone helps build muscles, and it increases a man’s strength and energy.
Cold showers increase tolerance for stress
Researchers have found that exposure to intense cold can boost your ability to withstand stress. Back in 1994, researchers studied a group of volunteers who swam in cold water during the winter.
The scientists found that the swimmers had less uric acid and more glutathione in their blood than did people who swam in warm water. Glutathione is an antioxidant with a number of functions, and lowering stress is one of them.
Cold showers deepens breathing
People start breathing more deeply while taking a cold shower. The combination of shock, need for warmth, and constricted blood vessels increases your need for oxygen, so you start breathing more deeply.
As with vigorous exercise, cold showers increase the amount of oxygen you inhale. The increased oxygen in turn helps you perform better at sports or exercises and keeps you from getting tired during the day.
Cold showers boost energy
As can be imagined, a cold shower in the early morning will quickly shock you awake. The shower also boosts circulation, heart rate and respiration, all of which energize the body and make the mind more alert.
Just a couple of minutes in the shower provides an energy boost that lasts for hours.
Cold showers help you sleep better
The researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine who had found that cold showers can relieve depression also found they help people sleep better. People who take cold showers have increased levels of beta-endorphins in their blood.
Beta-endorphins are neurotransmitters that attach to the same cell receptors as do opioids. They therefore have similar relaxing effects and can also relieve pain.
Cold showers thus provide a lot of health benefits. If you’re used to taking hot showers, you may want to take a “Scottish shower” in which you start with warm water and gradually work your way down to the coldest water you can stand in order to give your body a chance to adjust. Otherwise, the shock may cause hyperventilation and even heart palpitations.
Cold showers are not recommended for people with heart disease, fevers, or high blood pressure. Cold showers make the blood vessels constrict, and that can worsen the symptoms in the last two conditions, while the shock of the cold water can similarly worsen the heart disease.
Cold showers should also be short – no more than five minutes. If you stay in too long, you could develop hypothermia, which would defeat the purpose of taking a cold shower in the first place.
A spokesman for The Art of Manliness explains the benefits of cold showers along with the history of hydrotherapy.