If you live anywhere near us, it’s that time of year when cold weather is a fact of life. While many eagerly await the spring and dream of the delayering of clothes coming in the summer, there’s a huge advantage to winter. Yes, cold is our friend. Like our ancestors for thousands of years, dealing with a little discomfort and the need for our body to adapt, can be an amazing health boost. In modern fancy science terms, cold thermogenesis is the phrase we use to describe embracing the value of being cold.
Some people call it cold therapy or cryotherapy or cold adaption but they all speak to using cold to improve well-being. While there might be some differences, for our purposes here, it doesn’t matter.
Okay, I’m sure you are about to stop reading, grab a warm tea and blanket, sit by the fire and dismiss me as a crazy Canuck who leaves in an igloo. I might be a little crazy (my family tells me it’s in a good way) and my igloo is quite nice with running water, windows, wood floors and electricity but before you run away to your warm place, let me quickly list some benefits of cold thermogenesis.
Benefits of Cold Thermogenesis
- Better quality sleep
- Improved immune system
- Elevated mood and attitude
- Good for pain and inflammation
- Reduce food cravings
- Kill fat cells with visceral fat going first
- Lower body fat
- Aid in halting eating disorders
- Encourage the reversal of diabetes
- Improved hormone levels
- Increased fertility and reproductive health
- Support adrenal function
- Reset thyroid function
There are many reasons this happens when you expose yourself to the cold. One reason is that exposing the skin to cold causes the hypothalamus to message subcutaneous fat cells to die (a process called apoptosis) without any damage to the skin or muscles.
Cold thermogenesis also transforms WAT to BAT. WHAT? You say. That’s white adipose tissue (WAT) being changed to brown adipose tissue (BAT) which in English means the bad, dangerous fat turns to fat that can be used for energy and warmth. BOOM!!
If you’re still following along, you might be getting pretty excited and have started to visualize your next beach vacation happening in the Artic…but wait!
WARNING: If you have a serious health condition, consult a physician before jumping into cold thermogenesis. Stop if you get light-headed or a pale pink to white skin color.
Becoming Cold-Adapted for Cold Thermogenesis
Now, let’s get to the process. Note: some people will take longer to cold adapt and have to deal with some sensitivities that might require more gradual and careful progressions.
Also, women might take longer to become cold adapted but there are tips that can aid in speeding this up (mentioned later).
You might be surprised but what you eat can help with cold thermogenesis. Before going for it…
- Eat a meal high in fat and/or protein
- Drink 2-4 glasses of ice cold water (16-32 oz) but not more
Smart Steps to Gradual but Effective Cold-Adaption
1. Face First:
- Fill up a sink, large bowl or something you can shove your face in with cold water (50-55 Fahrenheit/10-12 celsius)
- Dunk face and see if you can last until you need air
- If you can, move on to step 2
2. The Ice Chest:
- Using a wicking top, like a compression shirt or workout wear, place, at least, 20lbs of ice double bagged on your torso on top of the shirt
- See if you can make it for 5 minutes and then, increase by 5 minutes a session until you make it to 60 minutes.
- It’s okay for your skin to go red or pink but if your skin goes white, stop immediately, and warm up with a shower. You need to alter your essential fatty acid intake to get more omega-3s and less omega-6s. (Women or anyone struggling to cold-adapt can increase their seafood intake to get more DHA).
3. The Skinny:
- Once you can handle 60 minutes, no problemo, take off the shirt and put the double-bagged ice on your skin.
- Work your way up to 60 minutes, your ready to take the plunge.
4. The Plunge:
- Wearing a hat, gloves, and socks or neoprene gloves and booties, lie in a bathtub of cold water.
- Once this is manageable, add 20lbs of ice.
- Got this, remove hat, gloves and socks/booties, in that order.
- To play it safe, check your skin’s surface temperature and make sure it doesn’t dip below 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit
- Aim to get up to 45 minutes while being responsible for hypothermia awareness.
- If this becomes relatively easy, add more ice, or…
5. The Drink:
- Once again, with awareness, responsibility, and respect, enter a natural body of water, like the ocean, a lake or river.
- Flowing water will feel and be colder, even at the same measured temperature.
- Have a warming back up plan in place and a support person.
- Enjoy the exhilaration of becoming a “homoarticus” – human of the cold.
It takes about two weeks to cold adapt and months to a year to use cold thermogenesis to increase athletic performance vis a vis Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong.
There’s a lot of science backing up the benefits for mitochondrial health, autophagy, apoptosis, leptin and insulin sensitivity and other evolutionary precedents for the value of cold thermogenesis. I’m not going to list them here because this is a quick guide but it works and the studies are starting to pile up (I included two for your reference at the bottom of this article).
Final tip, have fun with it and enjoy the process. It’s not easy but it is an exciting journey. It truly wakes you up. Beyond that, you can use breath like Wim Hof or just really master the mental game. You either think you can or you think you cannot, either way, you’re right.
Strengthen your mind, grasshopper or should I say, seal.