In similar celebration of cold-shock treatment, self-help guru Anthony Robbins has installed cold plunge pools in six of his homes to use after a sauna. Scandinavians love that hot-cold thing, and it doesn’t seem to do their skin any harm. And athletes also have a love-hate relationship with the recovery benefits of ice baths.
While cold showers aren’t for the faint-hearted (indeed, check with your doctor before trying them, and start with just a few seconds), they may have mental health benefits. Triggering the high density of cold receptors in our skin, it’s theorised, floods the brain with electrical impulses, providing an antidepressant effect. As well as noradrenaline, the cold increases levels of beta-endorphins, neurotransmitters linked to runner’s high.
Concrete evidence of the benefits of cold showers is limited, possibly given the lack of volunteers forming an orderly line to participate. One Dutch study of 3000 people had some ending their shower with a cold blast for at least 30 seconds each morning for a month; those who did so took 29 per cent fewer sick days in that time than those who stuck to their warm-water regimen. And they were showering in 10°C water – lower than the average June tap-water temperature in Sydney.
As to the long-term health benefits, there’s no scientific proof as yet. But, says Rathner, “there is evidence that repeated cold exposure can help promote increased energy expenditure, which may facilitate weight loss and associated health benefits. While a short cold shower may be part of the regimen, these benefits have only been seen with longer and mild cold exposure – about an hour per day at 18°C – over many weeks.
“We might predict additional health benefits as a result of increasing energy expenditure, but rigorous studies have not been undertaken. Cold exposure also may have physiological benefit
in exercise recovery, where cold is thought to reduce inflammation caused by muscle injury.”
One assurance: a cold shower in the morning gives a feeling of doing something slightly brave. It’s hardly volunteering in a war zone or stepping up at an open-mic comedy night, but it does offer a buzzy sense of ballsiness in daybreak suburbia. Even if you don’t get to the point where you kind of enjoy it, that’s the point. You feel tougher.
A final positive takeaway: you’ll be saving water – for which our too-often drought-ridden land can only silently give thanks. Because your showers will be shorter. Cold water has its feel-good qualities, but it doesn’t mean you’ll want to hang around.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale June 14.