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Cold Conditioning Will Change Your Life

Summary of benefits:

  • increases metabolism - more energy, more heat

  • increases testosterone - better libido, faster healing, more vigorous living

  • reduces white fat, increases brown fat - more energy and heat + less risk of metabolic diseases

  • supercharges the immunity - increases T cells

  • nourishes the blood and tissues - the spleen produces more red blood cells

  • detoxifies the body - decreases free radicals (drops uric acid in the blood, increases glutathione)

  • psychological benefits - lowers heart rate & cortisol levels, reduces anxiety and panic, great for performance anxiety

  • Stimulates the body to flex its muscles of adaptaion - introducing controlled stress and temperature variability restores our bodies’ ability to self-regulate and become self-sufficient

You will:

  • take a significant step towards truly better health

  • feel calmer and have less anxiety

  • have better libido, feel more vigorous overall

  • recover faster from training/injuries/illness

  • get sick less

  • tolerate the cold like a hero instead of being afraid of it

Two weeks ago I felt the first real shift towards the cooler temperatures and I became very excited. For me, cold conditioning was life changing.

The cold, contrary to what many in modern Chinese medicine will tell you, is very good for your health if you know how to interact with it. If you do it correctly, honoring your body's current tolerances and limits, the results can be a stronger, more vigorous you.

If you prepare your body by taking a 2-3 minute cold shower day one, and gradually work up to full shower, and go step by step from there, you'll notice your reactions and your tolerance to cold changing as soon as a couple days. From there onward, you body becomes more vigorous and resilient.

I first started taking cold showers as an antidote to being cold all the time. You heard right. I used to be so afraid of the cold that no part of my skin would be unwrapped in the winter, and I loathed - and I do mean LOATHED - the morning commute on the really cold days. Chinese medicine and most of our community reinforce the fear of cold and the wind that carries it - I even avoided being close to drafts, and air conditioning. Sometimes it's necessary to be that conservative in your exposure to cold and wind, but for someone who loves being in nature year round, it started to seem mighty odd that I'd let the environment become an adversary rather than interacting with it. I also didn't like the feeling of being so readily susceptible to the everyday elements. It seemed the opposite of how people should live. In fact, Chinese culture and medicine has advocated cold baths for centuries. And it’s well known in much of the world, cold baths have been used to cure disease for longer than that.

Indeed, many people work outside year round and do just fine in the cold. Bike messengers, police, construction workers, not to mention farmers, field guides, instructors of all kinds, and people who have made the outdoors their life have learned to tolerate and interact with the cold. An early Spartan text on the training of its army begins with teaching children to tolerate cold, and having them sleep under a thin blanket year round. I wouldn’t do that to my kids, but that gives you a idea of how exacting the effects of cold can be on a body determined to become healthier and stronger.

Turns out, we need variation in temperatures to keep our metabolic rate high, immune system strong, and to generate the heat necessary to autoregulate. The comfort of living between 68 and 75 degrees year round, of going from one climate controlled environment to another, and wearing clothes to insulate you from the climate, makes the body lazy. If there is no need to autoregulate, if we depend on the indoors and clothing to do it for us, our body functions become depressed. We stop producing the cellular structures and tissues which generate heat and energy. Our immune system and endocrine systems become less active. We gradually learn to be afraid of the cold, uncomfortable in the cold, and we also move farther and farther from the vigor which is possible for every one of us.

When the body is forced to deal with the cold, the white, globular fat in our body turns to brown. This is important for several reasons. White fat has very few energy-producing mitochondria. It looks like a blob (see pic and please follow link). It's also really unhealthy for several reasons related to insulin signaling and estrogenic chemicals which it produces. Brown fat on the other hand is brown because it's much more densely populated with mitochondria. Cells can replicate structures like mitochondria without too much difficulty, meaning this change starts day one of cold showers... however, the change that happens through the whole body as a result, is pretty amazing. The brown cells produce more heat, and more energy - as in the driving force which powers our cells as a result of breaking chemical bonds in sugar and fat - which makes us feel, perform, and look better.

Kajimura, UCSF - Brown Fat: The Fat That Can Burn Body Fat


Step 1 - take cold showers, increase duration gradually if necessary to a full shower, for 30 days

Step 2 - once you feel ready, dress lightly during the winter.

The method I use are very simple - I take cold showers and I dress lightly. There are other methods, but this is simplest, easiest and most effective I think. But, feel free to research and take on another method like cold water on the face.

Step 1, Cold showers: Experts advise you turn the water on, let it run, get it as cold as you can, then step inside, but I never do this. I find the water from the tap cold enough to just step in and start the shower, especially in winter. Let the water hit your head first, this is an extremely warm part of the body and will help the rest of your body adapt to the cold more quickly than if you go from body to head. There are two benefits to doing it this way - the initial shock of the cold water when it first hits your body, and staying in the cold water for a few minutes.

Adapting to the shock, and the mammalian dive reflex: When the water first hits your body, it's a milder form of cold shock. Your cortisol levels spike suddenly, your heart rate goes up, and your breathing increases. This is your body telling the lungs to rapidly take in more oxygen and your heart to circulate more blood. The severity and duration of the shock starts to dissipate, however, as you take more cold showers and you get used to it. After a while, the shock is barely noticeable and that’s when you’ve turned a metabolic corner.

It usually takes a week or more for your body to start to acclimate and the shock to reduce to almost absent. Somewhere around this time, you'll start to feel your hands getting and staying cold through the day, and you'll also feel really vigorous after you get out of the shower. This is the mammalian dive reflex, in which our bodies divert blood to the brain and heart by constricting blood vessels in the limbs, and conserving energy by lowering the heart rate. With even more experience with cold conditioning, you spleen will also produce more red blood cells - this is where your body really starts to change. More red blood cells means more oxygen, more iron, better nourishment for all the body's organs and more resilience. Your body will also start producing more T cells, superhcarging your immunity, and begin to reduce uric acid and free radicals, meaning better health and less achy joints. Less cortisol throughout the day means a calmer, more aware mind and emotional center. That plus a body and mind trained to deal with temporary spikes in cortisol and heart rate, boasts a slower heart and less cortisol the rest of the time, means significant awareness and control of anxiety and panic - which is why cold conditioning works for these.

You can also use cold water on the face to calm you down before a stressful moment - interview, big presentation, audition, any time you have performance anxiety. Hold your breath and apply a cold compress or ice water to your face. The rapid cooling of the trigeminal nerve in the face triggers the same responses as a cold shower, but again you have to do this daily over a few days to train your body to get over the cortisol dump and favor a slower, calmer heart rate.

I recommend 30 days of cold showers, and I recommend you start in the fall (that’s now) - get used to the process before the weather (and the water) gets really cold. Very cold water can be painful on the scalp. I have to rinse my in batches because it hurts. Or, I shower and wash in cold, then turn the temperature on the water up slightly to make the water cool but not cold, and rinse only my hair.

Some people can't make themselves suffer that initial shock. They get into a warm shower, and gradually turn the temperature to cold. This is fine, but you don't get that same cortisol lowering effect, at least not noticeably. And I think you're going to do something, why not get all you can out of it, but whatever amount of a good thing you can get, will benefit you.

As far as my advice for which is better, I say go for the cold shock. As soon as your feet hit the floor in the morning, don’t think about it - just go straight to the shower, get in, and turn the water on. You can sing, you can stomp (use a bathmat!!!!) you can curse, whatever you need to do to get through those first few seconds, the first few days. When my son was 9, he tried it voluntarily and he sang like a banshee the first time - but now he’s used to it and takes an occasional cold shower all the way through.

Step 2 is dressing lightly during the cold months. I found I could easily tolerate short sleeves and a light jacket down to about 40º. Below that, long sleeves and a light jacket. I did resort to a scarf once the temperatures hit 25. Any anywhere near freezing (32º) by the way, you need gloves to protect the skin on your hands and fingertips. After a while, I started to notice one or two other people dressing like myself, and w all seemed to be feeling fine.

As far as the experience of cold conditioning as a newbie, in those first three days I felt more stressed - I had a few moments during that time when I lost my temper unexpectedly, like “where did that come from?” outbursts...and I believe this was because my blood cortisol was higher than usual. After three days though, I felt much calmer, and I was able to tolerate everyday stress with greater ease. Things didn't bother me as much, and I started to feel noticeably more...chill. And I loved feeling more alive, more energetic, and part of the environment rather than afraid of the cold.

If any of my clients underatake cold conditioning and want to take a dip in the waters at Coney Island over the winter, I'd love to take you.

Safety considerations, contraindications

Abrupt change is your enemy until your body is conditioned for the cold. And if you have certain conditions, don’t attempt it at all. I have to say this - you’re responsible for your health, and for all the risks you take with that health. Do your research, and talk to your doctor.

If it's really cold outside and you abruptly start underdressing, it's probably going to backfire. It's guaranteed to backfire if you're also currently overworking, not eating well, not getting any exercise, or generally fatigued. If you’re in this state, eat three meals a day and get a solid nights’ sleep for a week before starting cold showers.

It's also not a good idea to expose yourself to cold if you're currently sweating - be it from illness, spicy foods, or alcohol consumption, alcohol or drug detox.

Women, if you're pregnant or have given birth in the last 6 months, cold exposure is a no go. If you're breastfeeding, wait until you stop producing milk - don't mess with your body's metabolism when it's working so hard to begin with. Do not take cold showers (or underdress from the waist down) while menstruating. Do not do cold conditioning of any kind if you are sick, even a minor cold, and at the same time are menstruating. Wait until bleeding stops in all cases.

Do not undertake cold showers or exposure/ consult your primary care physician if you have:

  • Anemia

  • Hypertension (due to secondary vasoconstriction)

  • Hypotension (low blood pressure)

  • Frequent dizziness or light headedness

  • Raynaud's disease

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • History of stroke

  • Migraine headaches

  • Local limb ischemia

  • History of vascular impairment, such as frostbite or arteriosclerosis

  • Cold allergy (cold urticaria)

  • Paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria

  • Cryoglobulinemia or any disease that produces a marked cold pressor response

  • Peptic ulcer


Audio Interview with Kenton Whitman

Dr. Mercola’s article on cold conditioning, the wide ranging health benefits, metabolic changes, and ‘hardening’

Brown Fat: The Fat That Can Burn Body Fat

Short term whole body cold exposure lowers Uric acid and increase glutathione levels

Mammalian Dive Reflex

The Mammalian Diving Response Explained - Stig Severinsen on Superhuman Showdown

Contraindications of superficial cold exposure:

Fewer illnesses, less stress: how cold water swimming can change your life

The Benefits of Cold Showers for Health & Wellbeing

12 Proven Health Benefits of Cold Exposure and Cold Showers

Therapeutic hypothermia and controlled normothermia in the intensive care unit: practical considerations, side effects, and cooling methods.

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