Woman washing hair in shower to illustrate hot-cold shower

Immune Tip: Hot and Cold Showers

A hot-cold shower a day to keep the doctor away?

To help support your health and wellbeing, we’ll be sharing some simple lifestyle tips to incorporate into your weekly routine and help you strengthen your immune system naturally. Aside from taking supplements known to provide immune benefits, there are many things we can do to support our immune systems and give our bodies the best chance at fighting off an infection, should the need arise (touch wood!). These include healthy eating, a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, stress reduction, sunlight exposure, and – last but not least…cold exposure. Read on to find out more.

You may have heard the name Wim Hof (aka the ‘Iceman’) circulating around in recent years. If you didn’t already guess based on the image below, Wim Hof is famous for being able to withstand extreme cold. He advocates the health benefits of ‘cold therapy’ as one of the key pillars of the Wim Hof Method – along with breathing techniques and meditation.

Wim Hof AKA 'Iceman' in ice bath.
Brrrr! Fancy a bath? Wim Hof (AKA the ‘Iceman’) in an icebath by Djandyw.com (via Flickr)

While Wim Hof’s work has popularised the concept of cold exposure in the Western world, it’s worth noting that the use of alternating water temperatures for health and wellbeing has been a common custom around the world for a long time. In ancient Roman bathhouses, after spending time bathing in hot and warm plunge pools, people would traditionally end their session with a dip in a cold plunge pool known as a frigidarium (see image below – doesn’t it look inviting?!).

Image of an ancient Roman frigidarium by Abdurrahman Abdul Kadir (via Flickr)

While we may not all have access to luxurious hot and cold plunge pools while self-isolating at home, most of us do have access to a shower. So can a cold shower a day really keep the doctor away? Studies have shown that alternating hot and cold water (e.g. during our daily shower) is a very healthy addition to our daily routine, and is particularly good at strengthening the immune system. As we head into winter the prospect of a cold shower may seem a little daunting, but after breathing through the first few cold bursts you’ll soon appreciate the benefits of this age-old practice.

What does the science say?

A 2016 study undertaken with adults in the Netherlands found that (hot to-) cold showers reduced participants’ absence from work due to sickness by 29% (Buijze et al., 2016). Similarly, German researchers Goedsche et al. (2007) studied a group of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and found that repeated cold water ‘affusions’ (bursts of water) can improve wellbeing and reduce the frequency of upper respiratory infections.

Also known as ‘contrast showers’, the practice of alternating hot and cold water while showering causes the body to heat up and cool down in response to these external temperature changes. This practice has been traditionally used to improve vitality, support detoxification, and reduce inflammation. It does this by strengthening and regulating the nervous, endocrine, musculoskeletal, circulatory, and immune systems (Wardle, 2013).

Furthermore, according to Wardle, “heat relaxes and sedates while cold stimulates, invigorates and tonifies. However, prolonged cold can be depressive and seductive, while high temperatures can stimulate and also be destructive.” In order to maximise the health benefits of this practice, it’s therefore important to get the timing right.

So, are you up for the challenge?

Read on for a step-by-step guide to try out in your own shower today.

Try It Yourself!

PLEASE NOTE: we do not advise using this technique if you have a heart condition or any other condition where a shock to your body or sudden temperature change may be detrimental.

Tip: If at first you find the shock of stone-cold water too great, use tepid (slightly warm) water to start with. You can build your courage slowly!

Step 1: While in the shower, adjust the water to a comfortable temperature and wet the whole body.

Step 2: Once you’re feeling comfortable, turn down the hot water until the water is as cold as you can tolerate. Stay in this cold stream of water for as long as you like – up to a minute. If you’re having trouble staying submerged in the cold water, try to breathe through the sensations.

Step 3: Increase the water temperature until it as hot as you can tolerate. Let the hot water warm up your body before switching again to the cold water.

Step 4: Ideally repeat this process 7 times in total; 7 bursts of hot and 7 bursts of cold. However, if you find this impractical, instead do a few bursts and tie them into common things you do in the shower – e.g. hot water for lathering, cold for rinsing. Remember to always start with hot water and end with cold water.

Step 5: After ending with cold water and exiting the shower, use a towel to gently rub and rewarm the body.

Not only do the health benefits stack up, cold showers are an amazing way to start the day feeling invigorated, refreshed, and full of life. Try it out; you might surprise yourself with how long you can stay submerged in the cold water.

Stay well!

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