When you hear ‘cold exposure’, you might picture hardy Nords flinging themselves into Arctic pools cut into the ice.
That is certainly one way of doing it.
(And if you live in Finland, own a private jet, or work from an Antarctic research station, that may well be the best option for you).
However, there is a simpler ‘free’ way to get access to cold exposure for most people: the humble shower.
Before we get into this, I just want to make something clear…
I don’t like the cold.
If you’d said to me just a few years ago that I’d look forward to plunging myself under an ice cold shower for 2 minutes a day, I would have laughed.
I really don’t embrace shivering or cold weather. If there’s the option to turn the heating in the house in winter, I’m there.
And yet today, one of the single most impactful things for my health, wellbeing, energy levels and – most importantly – autoimmune disease, is to get into a freezing cold shower every morning for 2 minutes.
The effect of this is so positive that not only do I endure it, I actually enjoy it.
(Admittedly part of me is happy when it is finished too, it’s complicated!)
Cold exposure isn’t just a quick dopamine hit. It can have a profound effect on your pain symptoms, and general overall sense of well-being, for hours afterwards.
Prior to this regime, my mornings were a slow, sloth-like saunter into the day.
As someone who is fond of the snooze button on the alarm, it was always a case of delaying things for as long as possible. Delay getting out of bed at all costs. That was my natural routine. A slow awakening, but not a particularly satisfying one.
Now when I start my day though I have a slight trepidation that I will feel cold for a bit during my shower I actually embrace the day. And because my body is now used to and in love with the benefits there’s no real anxiety attached.
This will happen to you too. The muscles in your body will adapt over time. It’s a bit like a workout, only all you have to do is stand still. Instead of spending two or three hours in the gym to get a positive outcome, you are literally only sacrificing 2 minutes a day.
Here is what that 2 minutes of daily cold exposure does for me:
If you have followed this website for a little while, you will know that by following my wellness plan I have reached somewhere in the region of 90 to 95% pain-free with my autoimmune condition.
This has meant I don’t have to take biologic injections which, though beneficial for many, can have side effects, including a weakened immune system.
I am so grateful for this. These aspects of my regime have been absolutely life-changing. I cannot emphasise that enough.
If you’re reading this – and you are currently in pain – I really hope you can get there too. That’s why I created this site.
But despite my success there are some days where I get a reminder of my autoimmune disease.
For example, though increasingly rare, some mornings I wake up with a twinge in one of my sacroiliac joints. Typically this is the area most susceptible to getting pain.
It’s not the kind of crushing pain I used to feel before I made these changes to my life (which was so debilitating that I couldn’t operate without a fistful of painkillers) but it is still there and a reminder of my condition.
The incredible thing about the cold exposure is that usually, after 2 minutes in a cold shower, I will come out of it feeling three things:
1. Any stiffness in my lower back melts away
This is pure magic. One of the hallmark signatures of my condition, ankylosing spondylitis, is that typically people will wake up feeling very stiff all the way from the base of their spine up to the middle of their spine. It is almost as if someone had poured concrete into my spine.
It eases up during the day, but it’s a very frustrating symptom. My stiffness had already improved massively since changing my diet and routine, but if I wake up feeling 15/100 for lower back stiffness it will often drop down to below 5/100 immediately after cold exposure. And often if I am feeling a slight twinge in my sacroiliac joints, the cold exposure can melt away this as well.
While I’m not saying this will work for everybody, every time (of course different people may have different results) cold exposure has been proven time and time again to reduce inflammation.
And autoimmune disorders produce a lot of inflammation…
In my experience a simple cold shower is ten times as powerful as applying a heat or ice gel to your body. And unlike the heat pack, it’s not something that only lasts a few minutes. I often find the effects of cold exposure can last 2 hours or more by which point I have the extra flexibility and energy to engage in other parts of my daily routine.
2. It gives you a massive energy boost
2 minutes in a cold shower is like the strongest espresso you have ever had, only without the jitters or the anxiety.
Also, and this is fairly hard to describe, if it’s cold enough (for example in winter when the water’s even colder) you also get this glorious light tingling sensation all over your body. Like an invisible fairy has sprinkled you with energy bubbles.
This is the result of something called vasoconstriction and vasodilation.
When you are exposed to the cold it causes narrowing of blood vessels, or vasoconstriction. This body does this to conserve heat and as a result, blood flow is reduced.
When you start to warm up after the cold exposure, the blood vessels widen again (vasodilation). This allows increased blood flow to the previously constricted areas. It’s this sudden rush of blood that can lead to a tingling sensation.
It feels great. You have the almost immediate relief of inflammation accompanied with this very pleasant light tingling feeling, which is brief but feels like confirmation you have done it.
And you then get an amazing energy hit which is profoundly effective and can last a good few hours.
I now kick off every morning at warp speed. It’s amazing because I feel like I have gained a couple of hours in my day.
I won’t make you some insufferable productivity hactivist (having a cold shower doesn’t mean you’ll do 17,000 chin-ups by 6am and write a thought leadership piece before your first coffee).
But it can give you a real healthy, genuine long-lasting energy boost.
This is my daily cold exposure regime:
I’m going to tackle this part in two parts because:
a) When you’re starting out, you might be anxious, at first, about the shock of the cold water (don’t worry, that’s normal!)
b) Once you’re well practised, you may get bored being in the cold for 2 minutes
So here are my top tips.
1. Start off the way you normally would. Begin with a nice hot shower and enjoy it. This is not about punishment!
2. Once you’re done washing, and you’re ready for your cold therapy, switch the shower temperature to the coldest possible setting.
3. Now stand under the water for 15 seconds. Count it out properly. One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, etc.
4. When you are done, switch off the shower and carry on with your day.
Follow this 15 second routine until you feel ready to up it a little.
Important: Do not try and get to 1 minute or 2 minutes straight away. This is not a healthy way of going about things. You wouldn’t go to the gym and try to bench press 200 pounds on your first go.
Your body needs to acclimatise and those tiny little muscles, which have been dormant for so long, need reawakening. It’s a case of doing it little by little.
You will know over the coming days when it is time to add a little more time to your cold shower.
I personally recommend doing it in 15 second increments.
Everyone is different, but in my case I found that after about a week I was able to get to 30 seconds.
To get from 15 seconds to 2 minutes, which is what I do now, it took me about 6 months.
As you build up the time you spend under the cold you’ll want to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
I found that when I was doing anything over 45 seconds, I didn’t really trust my own counting. (When you are cold, the speed at which you count goes up considerably, for me at least!).
So I now take my phone into the bathroom, put it at a safe distance, and yell at the voice assistant to start a 2 minute timer as soon as I start the cold shower. It then sets the timer and lets me know when my time is up.
This removes any stress about having to keep count.
I also have a good podcast playing on my phone at the same time. If you are finding the cold challenging, this can help you focus your mind on other things.
So that is my routine.
Like everything else it is a constant work in progress. I am fine-tuning and tweaking and testing things all the time. But I am just sharing the exact process I use here, in case it is helpful for you.
Regardless of whether you suffer with an autoimmune disease, I cannot recommend cold exposure enough.