Water’s wonderful ability to provide benefits other than just that of washing away dirt have been known long before the existence of research institutions and websites like PubMed. A recurring theme in legends around the world is the process of alternating hot and cold water to promote youth and beauty, albeit with varying success.
Affluent citizens of Ancient Greece and Rome visited thermal spas with the intention of making more efficient high-level political decisions and creative endeavours. Indeed, a leisurely stroll from one warm room to another, with an obligatory visit to a caldarium containing cold plunge pools, provides clarity of thought and energy. The patricians had no doubt about that.
And so, the benefits of contrast showers were very much taken for granted and destined to remain unquestioned. Why go to all the efforts of verifying it scientifically?
It was only towards the 21st century that scientists came to put the obvious to the test. Although there was still a limited number of case studies. Researchers were mostly preoccupied with hydrotherapy, which can include a whole range of procedures including wet sheet wraps, baths, and other water rituals with alternating temperatures. As one would expect, no harm was found in these treatments, which had all-around benefits for the nervous system, skin and brain. There was however one caveat. The influence of heat and cold pose a thermal stress for the body, and so can only be safely tolerated by healthy individuals.
While some of us might easily adapt to it, others might not be ready to take the plunge. Before we go any further, it is therefore important to be transparent about the list of counterindications. It is certainly not a suitable treatment for those with inflammatory diseases, dermatitis or epilepsy, as well as those with hypertension or pregnant and breastfeeding. However, a healthy individual can grow even stronger and this is not just a fad.
1/ Fewer sick days
The most compelling case study on contrast showers was carried out by researchers in the Netherlands and involved 3,000 participants aged between 18 and 65. In a 2015 study they asked volunteers to finish daily showers off with a blast of cold water lasting over 30, 60 and 90 seconds. The number of sick days taken over the course of the experiment reduced by 30%. Those participants that were physically active were twice less likely to get sick than usual.
The results enabled researchers to conclude with confidence that contrast showers stimulate the immune system’s function. Alongside a healthy lifestyle it becomes an invaluable method of preventing seasonal colds. However, its exact mechanism remains unclear. It seems, that temperature alteration stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Given the right amounts, it can help support immunity.
2/ Improved mood
Thermal stress during contrast showers is a prime example of hormesis, a biological phenomenon where a short-term adverse influence on the body brings about a positive mobilisation of its organs and systems. Taking a cold 10-minute shower without any preparation would likely make you end up sick in bed. However, a rapid change from hot to cold and vice versa produces a valuable increase in beta-endorphins and noradrenaline in the blood. Both function as antidepressants.
Contrast showers will likely soon become a promising means of treating depression, a method which is already being actively developed by scientists in the US. For those without any mental health concerns, contrast showers would bring a burst of vitality and energy resulting from the release of cortisol, the now familiar hormone associated with activity.
3/ Better skin
Any shower offers a gentle skin massage, so there is nothing not to like about that. However, contrast showers additionally tackle fluid retention by speeding up lymph drainage. It also tones the skin, stimulating blood circulation and the release of sex hormones responsible for our good looks, amongst other things. The only advice from the doctors is to avoid pouring cold water over your head for benefits like hair growth. The skin on our head carries countless vessels, which can end up in getting into a spasm with serious consequences for our health.
4/ Stronger vessels
Contrast showers can be seen as a preventative measure for cardio-vascular diseases - officially the most likely cause of death worldwide. The contrast of temperatures activates a set of processes. In trying to adapt to changing conditions the body encourages blood flow, increases the pulse rate and either expands or contracts the vessels of all size.
It is very literally a cardio workout, minus the sweat. However, do not expect to lose weight from contrast showers alone. Fastened heartrate does imply faster metabolism but burning off fat is not as simple as that. The most tried and tested method still lies in moving more and consuming less.
5/ Less pain
The impact of cold water on athletes’ overworked muscles has been tested countless times. Professional sportsmen have regularly endured ice baths at 10-15°С in the name of science and breaking records. Evidence suggests that it has a beneficial effect on overtrained muscles by reducing pain resulting from minor injuries, speeding up recovery after extensive training, while improving the overall mood and pushing out toxins from the body. Many of these effects come from cold water’s ability to stimulate the production of beta-endorphin, an important neurotransmitter whose function is akin to opiates.
6/ More detox
Our body is programmed by nature to respond to stress by speeding up metabolism. As already discussed, a sudden burst of cortisol stimulates the gut to get rid of any excess waste to make the body lighter in preparation for fight-or-flight. Contrast showers are not as much of a trigger as an encounter with a wild animal, but you can definitely count on your body’s detox functions to be set off.
How to take contrast showers
- Mornings only. There is too much risk of overstimulating the nervous system in the evening leading to potential problems with sleep.
- The ideal time is half an hour after waking up. Contrast showers increase wakefulness due to the production of cortisol, which is already present in high dozes in the first hours of waking.
- Strive for as much of a contrast of temperatures as you can handle to make it effective. Use the cold, rather than hot, tap to achieve desired effects.
- Start by taking a warm shower and finish with the coldest water you can bear.
- The best recommended formula is 60-90 seconds of warm water, followed by 30-60 seconds of cold. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Finish off by vigorously rubbing your body all over with a dry towel for an added skin toning benefit.
- Do not try to follow the rules too rigidly. A contrast shower for the feet alone is a great start. As the body adapts, move upwards and gradually lower the temperature of the water.