The cold, hard facts on cold showers
Relatively, there is quite a lot of specific research out there on what is quite a niche topic. A lot of this centres around Hof himself, who has participated in a lot of the research that is referred to below.
MRI scans of Hof’s brain found that when he is carrying out his breathing technique, he is able in a sense to trick his brain into producing a chemical that puts him into a euphoric state at a time when the rest of us would be feeling intense discomfort. The pain we would typically feel is important, as from an evolutionary sense, it lets us know when a situation is undesirable. Subsequently, this lets us know that we should remove ourselves from it – this is certainly how I felt as the water became waist deep in Ireland!
Our bodies, though, can override this, again for evolutionary reasons. For example, let’s imagine you’re being chased by a gorilla 10 seconds after standing on a nail that goes right through your foot. Normally, the nail would be extremely painful. In this circumstance though, your brain knows it can worry about your foot later – if you’re able to outrun the gorilla! It seems as though Hof’s breathing technique enables him also to override his pain response, without the need for the ape!
So, is it actually the breathing that is leading to the reduced pain and improved psychological state rather than the water itself? Well, it is argued this initial consequence will only help you for the first couple of minutes in the water. As a result of more prolonged exposure, opioids, serotonin, and dopamine (all of our happy chemicals) kick in, a kind of self-fulfilling positive cycle. These chemicals, it seems, are your reward for getting through that initial pain barrier. They then aid your ability to tolerate longer exposure and potentially bring about some of these further benefits.
But what about some of these other benefits that are claimed? Are they too good to be true?
The changes in the brain referred to above not only seem to allow for greater ability to tolerate the cold but also provide additional chemical responses. This is achieved via what has been described as a controlled stress response characterised by activating the sympathetic nervous system. This appears to reduce the innate immune response and, in turn, leads to reduced inflammation which has subsequently been found in more in-depth research also. Though links are yet to be specifically made, this could lead to many positives linked to some of the physical benefits listed above, from enhanced recovery to reduced likelihood of some disease occurrences.
This manipulation of the body’s immune response could also influence the way the body responds to pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. This was trialled with a group who were trained in Hof’s methods and were found to be able to voluntarily activate their immune response and subsequently showed fewer flu-like symptoms.
The chemical response mentioned above is likely the primary reason for the pleasure experienced by many following their cold showers, alongside serotonin and dopamine chemicals, including adrenaline which have also been found to be ramped up after undertaking Hof’s methods. This cocktail would combine to give effects similar to that felt when on a rollercoaster.
Beyond such acute euphoric benefits listed above are also a handful of specific chronic medical conditions. At this time, it seems evidence to substantiate such claims is often unspecific, and it is suggestions based on broader evidence that triggers them. That is not to say they are untrue, and often in science the research can take time to filter through.
Arthritis is one such condition where this is the case. Linking back to the potential to reduce inflammation in someone practicing these techniques, healthy individuals have been found to be able to reduce chronic inflammation using Hof’s methods. This has prompted researchers to suggest that this proof of concept investigation should now be rolled out further to include diseased populations. This is similar for many other chronic illnesses linked to the above proposed benefits.