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Exploring the Correlation Between a Cold Plunge and Immune System Function

Helping Your Body Help Itself: Is There a Correlation Between the Cold Plunge and Immune System Health?

Your friend is posting TikTok videos of her icy bathtub. You’ve overheard some gym members talking about the effects of a cold bath. You’ve even seen cold plunges advertised at your local spa.

But cold plunges are not new.

For thousands of years, various cultures have incorporated cold plunges into an overall wellness routine, but is there any merit to it?

We immersed ourselves into the science of this chilly experience and are sharing what we’ve learned about the correlation between a cold plunge and the immune system — and whether its touted benefits are actually true.

Table of Contents

Historical and Cultural Prevalence of Cold Plunges

Cold plunges, also known as cold baths or cold immersion, have a long history and cultural prevalence in various societies around the world. These practices involve immersing the body in cold water, often for health, religious, or cultural reasons.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, cold bathing was commonly used as part of their athletic training. In Nordic and Scandinavian countries, cold-water immersion following a hot plunge has long been touted as having invigorating and health-promoting effects.

The Japanese also have a practice of following a hot mineral bath with a cold plunge, known as “mizuburo,” which is used for its therapeutic and rejuvenating effects. In Russia, the cold plunge is part of the “banya” experience that also involves alternately heating the body and then immersing in icy water or rolling in the snow.

More recently, modern wellness trends have gained popularity in fitness and health communities. Practices like cold showers, ice baths, and cryotherapy are all promoted for their health benefits, which include:

  • Reducing inflammation

  • Improving circulation

  • Enhancing resilience; and

  • Boosting mood

Cold plunges have persisted throughout history and continue to be valued for their potential health benefits, both physical and mental. Some cultures have integrated them into traditional practices and rituals, while others have embraced cold immersion as a modern wellness trend.

A man sitting in an indoor tub of water.

Does Cold Water Trigger an Immune Response?

Cold water exposure may trigger an immune response. Cold exposure, such as taking cold showers or immersing oneself in cold water, may stimulate the body's immune system by activating certain immune cells and increasing the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines.

This response is thought to be one of the mechanisms behind the potential health benefits and motivators behind cold therapy. However, the popularity of this growing trend has somewhat outpaced the research, so much of what we know is based on anecdotal evidence.

The effects on the immune system may vary among individuals, and more research is needed to fully understand the extent of these effects on the immune system.

Possible Benefits of Cold Plunges That May Have a Positive Effect on the Immune System

Cold plunges are not a cure-all to improving immune system function. Health is holistic, and there are always many factors to consider.

However, with growing evidence that supports the effectiveness of ice baths and the immune system, it’s certainly something to explore as part of your overall wellness.

Production and Activation of Immune Cells

Cold plunges can potentially activate immune cells through mechanisms like:

  • The stress response

  • Release of anti-inflammatory cytokines

  • Hormonal changes

  • Enhanced circulation; and

  • Stimulation of the lymphatic system

These factors may contribute to temporary immune cell activation during and after cold exposure. The exact ways in which cold plunges may contribute to immune cell production and activation are still being studied, and individual responses to cold plunges generally vary.

Relationship Between Immune Cells and the Immune System

Immune cells are the key components of the immune system. They work together to detect, recognize, and respond to infections and foreign invaders.

Our immune systems are made up of a complex network of immune cells, tissues, and organs that collaboratively defend the body from diseases and maintain overall health. Immune cells communicate, coordinate, and carry out various functions to protect the body from pathogens and maintain immune balance.

Decrease in Elevated Levels of Inflammation

Cold plunges may help reduce inflammation by causing blood vessels to constrict (vasoconstriction) when exposed to cold and then dilate (vasodilation) when the body warms up afterward.

This "cold shock" response can potentially decrease blood flow to inflamed areas and reduce the production of inflammatory molecules, which may temporarily alleviate inflammation.

Relationship Between Inflammation and the Immune System

Inflammation is a crucial component of the immune system's response to infection and injury. When the immune system detects threats, it triggers an inflammatory response to defend against them.

The problem exists with chronic inflammation as it can be harmful and is linked to various health conditions. A balanced immune system regulates inflammation to ensure it serves its protective role without causing harm to the body.

Improved Circulation

A cold plunge, when combined with a warm bath, may improve circulation by initially causing blood vessels to constrict (vasoconstriction) in response to cold and then dilate (vasodilation) when the body warms up afterward.

This cycle may promote increased blood flow, enhancing overall circulation.

Relationship Between Circulation and the Immune System

Circulation is vital for the immune system as it helps transport immune cells, antibodies, and nutrients to infection sites and remove waste products. Efficient circulation supports immune responses by ensuring immune cells can reach their target areas quickly and effectively.

Reduction in Perceived Stress

Cold plunges may reduce perceived stress through the "cold shock" response, which triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline. This response could temporarily improve mood and reduce stress due to the release of endorphins, leading to a sense of relaxation and well-being.

Controlled exposure to a challenging situation like cold water immersion may help individuals build resilience to stress over time — especially when combined with breathing exercises, such as the Wim Hof method.

Relationship Between Stress and the Immune System

Stress can impact the immune system negatively. Chronic stress can suppress immune function, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Stress hormones like cortisol can suppress immune responses, affecting the body's ability to defend against pathogens.

Managing stress is essential for maintaining a healthy immune system.

An outdoor wooden natural spring tub.

How To Cold Plunge

If you’re interested in trying a cold plunge, it’s always advisable to speak to your healthcare provider in advance. People with certain underlying health conditions may experience adverse effects from cold plunging.

Always prioritize safety and start with shorter sessions if you're new to cold water immersion. Gradually build up your tolerance over time, and be mindful of your body's signals.

Once you’ve been cleared by your doctor, here are a few ways you can enjoy the benefits of cold plunges.

Natural Cold Plunge

To do a natural cold plunge, follow these steps:

  1. Find a natural body of cold water, such as a river, lake, or ocean.

  2. Check the water's temperature to ensure it's safe for cold immersion.

  3. Slowly and gradually enter the cold water, starting with your feet and gradually working your way in.

  4. Stay in the water for a brief period, such as a few minutes, depending on your tolerance and experience. Do not stay too long, especially if you're new to cold water immersion.

  5. Afterward, exit the water and warm up gradually. Dry off and dress warmly to prevent rapid cooling of the body.

  6. Listen to your body and be cautious. If you experience discomfort or extreme cold, exit the water immediately.

If you don’t live near a cold body of water, you may want to consider creating your own cold plunges at home.

At-Home Cold Plunge

To do an at-home cold plunge, follow these steps:

  1. You can use a bathtub, a large container, or even a cold shower as a cold water source.

  2. Fill the chosen container with cold water. You can add ice cubes for an even colder plunge, but be cautious with the amount of ice you use.

  3. Ensure the water is cold but not dangerously so. Safety is essential.

  4. Before entering the cold water, warm up your body with some light exercises or stretches to get your blood flowing.

  5. Slowly enter the cold water, starting with your feet and gradually moving up. Focus on controlled breathing.

  6. Stay in the cold water for a short period, such as a minute or two, depending on your tolerance.

  7. Exit the water and warm up by drying off and dressing warmly. Consider taking a warm shower or using blankets.

  8. Pay attention to any discomfort or signs of excessive cold exposure. If you feel unwell, exit the cold water immediately.

You can gradually increase the time spent in cold water with each session as your body adapts. Cold plunging at home may be the most accessible option for most people. With some preparation, cold plunges could easily become a part of your ongoing wellness routine.

Spa Cold Plunge

Lastly, you have the option of visiting a spa that offers cold plunges. Spas are generally considered hygienic and you’ll be under the supervision of spa staff, which makes them a safe option for first-timers. You may also enjoy a cold plunge as part of a larger spa experience to promote overall relaxation and stress reduction.

However, spas can be cost and time-prohibitive, or you may not have a spa in your area that offers cold plunges, making this the least accessible option in many cases.

Man sitting in an ice tub outdoors.

Avoid Unnecessary Risk: Cold Plunging Safely

Cold plunges are not suitable for everyone, and certain individuals should avoid them or consult a healthcare professional before attempting cold immersion.

Here are some groups of people who should be cautious or avoid cold plunges:

  • Individuals with heart conditions

  • People with respiratory issues

  • Pregnant women

  • Individuals with Raynaud's Disease

  • Young children

  • Elderly individuals

  • Those with skin conditions

  • Anyone with severe medical conditions

Always prioritize your health and safety when considering cold water immersion. If you have any doubts or concerns about whether cold plunges are appropriate for you, it’s always best to consult a medical professional before attempting them.

Enhance Your Efforts To Boost Your Immune System With Good Bitters

Building new habits — especially ones that invoke the flight or fight response, like a cold plunge — is not always easy. Good Bitters is here to help with Kalm Drops.

Our drops are specifically designed to aid in calming or centering oneself during concentrated activities such as cold baths.

For generations, the Silk Tassel herb has been used for its relaxing properties, making it the perfect companion when plunging into the world of cold-water baths.

For more information, or support along your wellness journey, visit us on the web.

The content in this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Disclaimer: The information on this website is taken from traditional wisdom and modern research/databases and is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to act as medical advice or to replace medical treatment. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The statements and information on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Please consult a knowledgeable healthcare provider for your individual needs.

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