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Cold Therapy for Boosting Health and Improving Longevity

Cold therapy involves cooling the entire body with cold water or air for a brief time. Research has explored the potential mental and physiological benefits of this cold remedy.

The health benefits of cold therapy have long been touted. For example, Hippocrates claimed it cured lethargy, and Thomas Jefferson bathed his feet in cold water every morning to maintain good health. This view is still prevalent in modern times, including cold morning showers, swimming in open water, ice baths in athletic training rooms, and cold mineral water spa treatments. However, what does science say? Let’s take a look.

Types of cold therapy

Before diving into the existing scientific evidence, it is important to define different types of cold therapy, which vary in their temperature, mechanism, and target population. Some of the examples include:

Ice bath, also known as cold plunge tub, involve adding ice to water until the temperature is between 50°F and 59°F (10°C and 15°C) and staying submerged for 10 to 15 minutes.

Cold shower is a convenient way to expose oneself to cold water, between 50°F and 59°F (10°C and 15°C), for a brief period of time (5-7 min).

Cryotherapy involves exposing the body to extremely low temperature vapors — ranging from -184°F and -238°F (-120°C to -150°C).

Important to note: Cautiousness should be exercised with any form of sudden temperature change in the environment, especially if you have a heart disease or other chronic health conditions. If possible, perform cold therapy under the supervision, for a brief period of time, and make sure to consult your doctor before implementing this into your daily routine.

How does cold therapy work at the molecule level?

What happens to the human body on a molecular level when it experiences an extreme cold? The answer is that it activates so-called “cold shock proteins”. Many of these proteins are always present in the body. However, extreme temperatures spike their levels.

Why is that? In short, these proteins protect the body against excessive stress in extraordinary situations. So when the brain senses that we’re entering one of those situations, shock protein production kicks into high gear as a protective measure.

In studies, mice afflicted with an Alzheimer’s-like disease were exposed to extreme cold in the early stages of the disease. The result was a massive production of cold-shock proteins, which slowed the disease’s progression. The protein acted as a mechanism that protected and shielded important nerves in the brain from the degenerative damage that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease. Because of their dramatic changes in expression in response to cold stress, these proteins may be involved in the underlying mechanisms by which cold stress might provide health benefits.

Cold therapy benefits

Reducing migraine

The cold application alone may be effective in some people suffering from migraines. One study found that applying a neck wrap containing two ice packs to the arteries in the neck significantly reduced migraine pain. It’s thought that this works by cooling the blood passing through intracranial vessels.

Reducing pain in irritated nerves

The cold can numb an irritated nerve. Exposing the affected area to extreme cold may help support pinched nerves, chronic pain, or even acute injuries. Cryotherapy also is routinely used for a large number of sports injuries. Cold treatments have been shown to provide pain reduction.

Fat burning

Humans store active brown fat tissue (BAT). Brown fat is active when burning calories for energy. Cold exposure increases BAT activity which leads to increased calorie expenditure. A lack of BAT has been linked with obesity. In one study, subjects were exposed to an environmental temperature of 15–16°C for 6 hours a day for 10 consecutive days. Afterward, individuals showed an 80% increase in their metabolism, activated thermogenesis, and BAT activity.

Mood and sleep improvement

One study showed that 15 daily visits to a cryogenic chamber for 2–3 min at –160°C reduced depressive and anxiety disorders in 50% and 46.2% of participants, respectively, according to Hamilton’s depression rating scale (HDRS). Temperature appears to be a major regulator of human sleep duration and timing. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping bedroom sleeping temperatures between 15°C and 19°C.

Cold therapy and longevity

The majority of longevity findings for cold therapy have been seen in animal studies. One study lowered the core temperature of mice by 0.3 °C (males) and 0.34 °C (females), resulting in an increase in the average lifespan of 12% and 20%, respectively. Research in rodents sparked further investigation in humans and whether cold therapy could have positive effects on them.

There are several hypotheses about how cold therapy could improve longevity. For example, hormesis is defined as a phenomenon in which exposure to a harmful substance is beneficial if the dose is small. In this case — the harmful small-dose substance is extreme cold.

Other researchers prefer the ‘rate of living hypothesis’. This theory suggests that lower temperature promotes longevity by slowing down the rate of reaction of various metabolic processes. It has been postulated that increased energy expenditure results in shortened survival. With a very intensive metabolism, there’s a greater chance of inducing oxidative stress. Oxidative stress could initiate cancerogenesis, mutations, and telomere irrigation. All of these are key to a shortened lifespan. On the other hand, metabolism can’t be reduced too much because it is necessary for life. Hopefully, researchers will find the perfect medium for using cold therapy.

Even though there is strong evidence that exposure to cold activates “cold shock proteins” that protect our cells and slow aging, further clinical trials in human are needed to support this correlation to longevity.

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