We’ve all heard about ice baths aiding post workout recovery. Back in high school, my buddy on the track team would complain about having to sit waist deep in a trash can filled with icy water post practice. He said it helped his legs not feel like Jell-O.
I’ve experimented myself with the occasional ice bath or polar plunge and reaped improvements in mood and muscle soreness during the minutes and hours afterwards, but I’ve never been inspired to make them a recurring part of my routine… until now.
Enter Wim Hof, nicknamed "The Iceman."
The Iceman holds some of the craziest and seemingly impossible world records. Here are a few for you to chew on (from wiki):
2007: He climbed to 22,000 ft altitude at Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, but failed to reach the summit due to a recurring foot injury.
2008: He broke his previous world record by staying immersed in ice for 1 hour, 13 minutes and 48 seconds at Guinness World Records 2008.
2009: Hof completed a full marathon, above the arctic circle in Finland, in temperatures close to −20 °C (−4 °F). Dressed in nothing but shorts, Hof finished in 5 hours and 25 minutes.
In the last few years, Hof has exploded into the mainstream world by conducting podcasts with Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, and Lewis Howes. So what gives him the ability to withstand extreme cold? He attributes his wizard-like feats to regular cold exposure.
Recently, more research has come out about exactly what mechanisms are at play during regular cold exposure and how it causes adaptations in the body and brain that improve athletic performance, recovery, disease prevention, and mood. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Effects on the Brain
Improves Mood and Focus - Cold exposure increases levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in the bloodstream by as much as 530% and 250%, respectively. Low levels of norepinephrine have been linked to poor mood, brain fog, and lack of focus. Cold exposure may lead to you feeling happier, more energized and productive!
Prevents Neurodegenerative Disease - Cold exposure (in mice) is linked to improved synapse regeneration and this is hypothesized to apply to humans as well. Why does it matter? The ability to prevent loss of synapses is a defense against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Effects on the Body
Reduces Inflammation - Chronic inflammation is associated with many age related diseases. And our old friend, norepinephrine has one more ability to boast: anti-inflammatory effects. Cold exposure could play a role in warding off many chronic illnesses, from arthritis to cancer, by decreasing inflammation in the body.
Boosts Immune System - Cold exposure is linked to increased white blood cell counts.
Q: Want to ward off a winter cold?
A: Go out in the cold more.
Promotes Fat Loss - Cold exposure increases metabolic rate by as much as 350%. These effects can last for a long after the time of immersion. Do you remember Michael Phelps eating 12,000 calories a day? I may have a theory as to why…
So how would you go about experimenting with cold exposure? Wim Hof advocates for a 4 week, 20 day challenge.
If you are interested in going digging a little deeper into the effects of cold exposure and the physiological mechanisms at play, check out Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s full 20 page study on the subject here.