You just got done with a day of work and an intense gym session, and there’s nothing you’re looking forward to more than getting home to relax in a bath filled with frigid water and ice.
Wait. What? Why would anyone ever want to willingly sit in an ice bath?
It’s not the most pleasurable experience, and in fact, it can be kind of painful, especially at first. However, not only are people doing it, but it’s gaining popularity, meaning more and more people are opting to sit in insanely cold water.
If people are adamant about doing an unpleasant activity, it’s likely because it serves a purpose, or at least people think it does. So, what do ice baths do? And are the effects truly worth sitting in a bucket of frigid water?
Let’s find out!
Table of Contents:
- What Is An Ice Bath?
- How Cold Should Ice Baths Be?
- What Does An Ice Bath Do? 4 Physiological Adaptations Caused By Ice Baths
- What Do Ice Baths Do For You? 6 Health Benefits Of Ice Baths
- What Is A Contrast Bath?
- Final Takeaways
What Is AnIce Bath?
Before diving into what an ice bath does, let’s first define what an ice bath is.
Cold water immersion refers to a method of cold therapy that requires you to submerge your body into a tub of ice-cold water for an extended period of time. Generally known as an ice bath, they are usually performedsitting inside a tub or a large bucket and submerging the entire body, up to the neck, in extremely cold water.
When talking in generality, the term cold therapy also refers to things such as cold therapy machines, ice packs, or icy cold showers.
How ColdShouldIce Baths Be?
To receive the potential benefits of ice baths, you need to use water around 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit or 10-15 degrees Celsius. To get this temperature, use a water-to-ice ratio of 3:1. After putting in the ice, you’ll likely need to wait about 10 minutes or so to allow the temperature to drop.
If you want to be exact, use a thermometer to make sure it’s cold enough. In the beginning, you may just want to go by how you feel rather than ensure it’s cold enough. This allows your body to adapt rather than deliver too large of a shock right off the bat.
Beginner Tip For Adjusting to Ice Water:
If you’re brand new to cold therapy but would like to try to take an ice bath, you may want to start withice-cold showers for a while. Turn the shower on as cold as you can and then stand in it for as long as you can for up to 20 minutes.
What Does An Ice Bath Do? 4 Physiological Adaptations Caused By Ice Baths
To fully answer the question of what do ice baths help with, we will discuss it intwo parts. First, we will look at the physiological effects of ice baths. Afterward, we will look at how these adaptations can affect our health.
Here are 4 physiological adaptations that result from taking ice baths.
1) Ice Baths Cause Blood Vessels To Constrict.
Perhaps the most significant physiological adaptation to extreme cold is the narrowing of our blood vessels, also known as vasoconstriction¹.
Ice baths stimulate thepostjunctional alpha-adrenoceptors, which in turn trigger the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a significant role in the body’s “fight-or-flight” response.
As norepinephrine is released, it can result in a series of things, including:
- Stabilized blood pressure
- High blood pressure
- Mitigated loss of body heat
- Controlled distribution of blood throughout your body
- Distribution of more nutrients and oxygen to organs that need them
- Protection for your body against blood and fluid loss
Cold water constricts our blood vessels, likely as a way to reduce the loss of body heat. However, more blood vessels must pass through a smaller area because the blood vessels constrict.
As a result, as the body is submerged, ice baths cause a quick increase inblood pressure.
2) An Ice Bath Increases Heartbeat And Respiration.
Norepinephrine is like adrenaline, except it’s aneurotransmitter in the sympathetic nervous system rather than a hormone that’s secreted.
But,the effects are very similar. For this reason, the same chemical that constricts your blood vessels also causes your heart rate and respiration to increase.
3) Ice Baths Decrease Blood Flow.
Because the blood vessels narrow, the blood flow to the areas submerged in ice water dramatically slows down, in terms of volume.
While this only lasts as long as your core temperature is down, there will be less blood volume during the period of ice-water submersion.
4) An Ice Bath Helps Mitigate Pain.
During prolonged periods of extreme cold, the end of your nerve endings, just under your skin, can “freeze” and lose sensation.
As a result, when discussing ice bath benefits, ice can mitigate the intensity of moderate pain or completely eliminate it altogether. This is one of the reasons ice packs are used for local injuries.
But, do keep in mind that using an ice bath is not meant to be a prolonged solution. If you maintain that level of extreme cold, eventually hypothermia can occur, which can lead to very serious consequences.
Also, your pain will return as your core body temperature begins to rise, so it should only be used as a short-term solution for pain.
What Do Ice Baths Do? 6 Health Benefits Of Ice Baths
Now that we understand some of the physiological effects of ice baths, we can discuss how those play out into practical benefits.
1) Ice Baths Reduce The Body’s Inflammatory Response.
Due to the decreased blood flow, exposure to an ice bath reduces the body’s inflammatory response, a natural part of the healing process, which helps mitigate discomfort.
There are times when you may want to mitigate the body’s inflammatory response and the pain that results, and ice baths can help.
2) Ice Baths Improve The Recovery Process And Decrease Muscle Soreness.
Probably the most common reason that the general public becomes interested in ice baths is to help with muscle soreness during workout recovery. However, it’s important to note that the majority of lifters may be approaching this wrong.
The inflammatory response from stress is part of the cycle that promotes building muscle. It’s this inflammation that can trigger an anabolic process and promote muscle recovery. However, as mentioned above, one of the potential adaptationsof a cold shower or ice bath is a decrease in the inflammatory response.
In addition, the extreme coldmay actuallyblunt the anabolic process.
Interestingly, studies have shown that ice baths after a workout session can reduce this process and mitigate muscle growth. If you’re training for muscle hypertrophy, takingice baths immediately post-workout may not be the best time for you to do so.
Alternatively, not everyone trains for hypertrophy, and if you fall into that bracket, an ice bath post-workout may be just what you need.
For example, if you’re a runner and finish a longer race or training session, cold water effectively reduces muscle soreness and mitigates the severity and longevity of DOMS². It may help to eliminate metabolic waste faster³.
In addition, ice baths are also beneficial to the central nervous system as they can promote better sleep. As we all know how important sleep is for recovery, it’s easy to see how bettersleep is good forworkout recovery.
3) Ice Baths Help You De-Stress.
Your valgus nerve is one of your primary nerves that relays information to and from your cardio and respiratory systems⁴. It acts as an interface between things such as your lungs and heart and can control your response to stressors.
By stimulating it with cold water immersion, studies have shownthe valgus nervecan help relieve stress and help you better handle stressful conditions.
In addition, the constant secretion of norepinephrine and epinephrine routinely places your body understress. Doing so teaches your body to handle these situations with acalm and clear head.
4) Ice Baths Build Your Immunity.
Researchers have noticed a unique benefit of using an ice bath on a consistent basis: Chronic ice bath use can boostyour immunity.
A study found that a single cold immersion at 14 degrees C for 1 hour had no effect on the immune system of young, athletic men⁵. However, after 6 weeks of using cold water immersion at least three times a week, a small, yet significant improvement was seen.
Researchers concluded that the stress-inducing effects of consistent cold water immersion resulted in a meaningful increase in immunity, likely due to the increase in catecholamines, a neurohormone that plays a role in stress response.
5) Ice Baths Decrease Pain Perception And Reduce Swelling.
Extremely cold temperatures can effectively reduce sensation to the point that it has a numbing effect. In addition, it reduces blood flow to submerged areas, which mitigates edema (swelling). These two factors can make ice baths very useful for treating trauma injuries.
In fact, studies have found that usingice packs is effective at relieving postoperative pain⁶. Using an ice pack has even been shown to reduce the use of narcotics for pain relief. Due to it being low-cost and low-risk, using ice packs has been encouraged to help treat discomfort after surgery.
Just remember exposing yourself to frigid temperatures for extremely long periods of time can make ice baths dangerous, so only stay in for the suggested amount of time!
6) Ice Baths Offer Potential Mental Health Benefits.
Studies show that regular ice baths can also improve your mood and well-being.
A study examined the effect of regular cold water immersion on patients experiencing signs of depression⁷. Patients took one or two ice baths daily, sitting in water at 20 degrees Celsius for 2-3 minutes. This went on for at least several weeks, while some patients followed this ice bath protocolfor months.
While the patients in the study weren’t clinically depressed, they did experiencesignificant improvements from mild signs of depression. This results fromtheactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and the blood level of beta-endorphin, in addition to noradrenaline.
While the study acknowledgedthat further testing is needed, when you consider the cost-effective price and the low risk of negative side effects, adding ice baths, along with a regular workout split, to your mental health routine may be a good idea.
What Is A Contrast Bath?
Another way to use ice baths is through contrast baths, the practice of alternating between warm baths and cold baths. In fact, when examining all of the studies that look at therapeutic dips (hot, cold, contrast), it seems as though contrast baths have the most consistent positive results.
After your body temperature drops and vasoconstriction occurs from an ice bath, implementing heat therapy will produce vasodilation for a longer period, further increasing adaptive responses within your body⁸.
What Does An Ice Bath Do For You? Final Takeaways
We just discussed in detail what getting into freezing cold water does to your body. And while we do want to note that not all studies are conclusive about ice bath benefits, when factoring in the low cost and low risk of cold water exposure, it’s definitely worth trying, as long as you use it properly.
The best things to utilize ice baths for include things such as improving your overall mood, increasing your immunity, resilience, and stress response, and treating sore muscles after long periods of training.
Just don’t use it after a hypertrophy workout, and you should be good to go. The very worst-case scenario is that you’ll sit in ice-cold water for a bit and be extra clean.
Now that you know what ice baths do and how theywork, check out these 5 Best Ice Bath Tubs, so you can optimize your recovery from home!
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- Tavares F, Beaven M, Teles J, et al. (2019) Effects of Chronic Cold-Water Immersion in Elite Rugby Players. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2018-0313
- Bouzigon, R., Dupuy, O., Tiemessen, I., De Nardi, M., Bernard, J. P., Mihailovic, T., Theurot, D., Miller, E. D., Lombardi, G., & Dugué, B. M. (2021). Cryostimulation for Post-exercise Recovery in Athletes: A Consensus and Position Paper. Frontiers in sports and active living.https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.688828
- Jungmann, M., Vencatachellum, S., Van Ryckeghem, D., & Vögele, C. (2018). Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR formative research. https://doi.org/10.2196/10257
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- Shevchuk N. A. (2008). Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical hypotheses.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2007.04.052
- Michalsen A, Lüdtke R, Bühring M, Spahn G, Langhorst J, Dobos GJ. Thermal hydrotherapy improves quality of life and hemodynamic function in patients with chronic heart failure. American Heart Journal. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-8703(03)00314-4
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