What is Cold Water Therapy?
Cold water therapy (CWT) is the practice of intentionally exposing the body to water with a temperature of below 15°C to achieve therapeutic benefits for the body and mind. CWT is more commonly known as Cold Water Immersion (CWI) and can be done in a number of different ways. This can look like cold showers, swimming in open water and gaining the most popularity more recently, cold water plunging into ice baths.
Cold water therapy has been weaved into multiple healing modalities around the world for centuries. First mentioned in the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus in 3500BC, cold water plunging has been practised by the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. Exposure to both hot and cold elements has been practised in Scandinavian cultures and is also noted in Ancient Chinese medicine practices. Hua To, a famous Chinese physician was a pioneer in hydrotherapy.
Fast forward a few thousand years and CWT is still practised today. The man that re-connected and popularised these ancient practices with the Western world is Wim Hof. There’s a good chance you have heard his name before. Born in the Netherlands in 1959, Wim Hof began experimenting with extreme cold environments as a teenager and eventually began exploring the limits of human endurance when exposed to the elements. He eventually developed what is now known as the Wim Hof Method, combining cold exposure, breathing exercises and meditative practice, all of which have been extensively studied for their numerous health benefits. The Wim Hof Method is understood to have been adapted and inspired by Yogic and Qi Gong breathing techniques that are deeply embedded in ancient Eastern practices.
Cold Plunging Health Benefits
Cold exposure has been shown to support the body’s natural healing processes by activating the autonomic nervous system, influencing hormonal expression and tapping into the immune, digestive, and circulatory systems.
Some of the benefits that have been associated with cold water immersion include:
- Improvement in blood circulation
- Enhanced energy
- Reduction in inflammation and pain
- Immune system activation
- Mood regulation
- Enhanced focus and alertness
- Post-exercise recovery
- Enhanced physical performance
- Improved Lung function
- Mental and emotional resilience
Through a Chinese Medicine Lens - Cold Invasion, Qi and Kidney Yang
To really give you the full scope of how to integrate cold plunging into your life whilst ensuring you are meeting the needs of your own individual body, we first need to do some deep diving into the world of Chinese medicine.
Through a traditional lens, ensuring the body is consistently ‘warm’ is a foundational pillar in remaining healthy and vital. It is understood that exposure to excessive cold can play a definitive role in many imbalances and disease states in the body, causing an eventual imbalance of YinYang within the organ systems. At the core of this ancient philosophy is the understanding that health and vitality rely on this balance of YinYang. The nature of Yin and Yang is that they are in this constant cycle of balance and transformation.
Yin embodies the cool, moist, passive force within our physiology and Yang embodies the hot, dry, active force. For example, if there is a deficiency of Yang, or Yang is weakened, then there is no longer enough heat/fire to balance out the cool and moist force of Yin, and cold can settle into the body. This can manifest as always feeling cold, loose stools, a lack of motivation, Fluid accumulation and fatigue. Yang deficiency is often associated with cold invasion, however, Qi stagnation and Blood deficiency can also be contributing factors.
From a Traditional perspective, there are two different kinds of Cold in the body - Full Cold and Empty Cold.
Full Cold/Yin Excess
Full cold refers to an excess of Yin or cold within the body, caused by an external cold invasion such as exposure to cold weather/water to certain areas of the body (such as the Kidneys and neck) which can further penetrate deeper into the body/organ systems. This can happen for example to the digestive system when cold penetrates the Spleen, usually caused by excessive consumption of cold-energy foods such as salads, fruit and iced drinks. Another commonly affected area is the uterus.
These ‘full cold’ conditions can be avoided by limiting exposure to cold environments and foods, as well as introducing warming foods, drinks, and herbs and incorporating warming practices and habits into one’s lifestyle. Qi herbs like our QI Blend are amazing for this too.
Empty Cold/Yang Deficiency
Then there is empty cold. Empty cold rises from a Yang deficiency. It is as if the body does not have enough fire (Yang Qi) to warm the body and balance out the cold. The most common symptoms are intolerance to the cold, cold extremities, a phobia of coldness and a preference for warm climates, warm food and drinks. A deficiency of Yang may also cause symptoms such as a pale complexion, impotence, poor appetite and impaired digestion, a weakened immune system, slowness of speech and slow movements.
*It is important to note that an excess and deficiency of YinYang or the combination of Hot and Cold can co-exist, or manifest in a number of different patterns. If this is all new to you, and you feel unsure as to how to approach your own constitutional needs, then it’s best to work with a Chinese medicine practitioner/acupuncturist who can provide you with an individualized diagnosis and treatment.
Women are Governed by Blood
Men are governed by Qi and women are governed by Blood. Blood provides energy and vitality. It is considered a Yin Fluid and a vehicle for Qi, it nourishes and moistens the body. Regardless of gender, the health and quality of our Blood is crucial, however, the presence of a menstrual cycle and the cyclical loss of this Yin substance enhances its importance for the female body. Earlier we explored the concept of cold invasion, and how certain organ systems can be penetrated, causing an imbalance, such as in the uterus/womb. A cold womb can occur from overexposure to cold and/or a Yang deficiency, hindering Blood flow to the area. This can lead to irregular periods, menstrual pain, coldness in the lower abdomen, and lower back pain and may affect fertility.
This is where cold plunging and practices that expose the body to the cold, such as surfing can lead to further imbalances within the body. The reason the male body is able to withstand cold exposure better is because they regenerate Qi more efficiently, and do not periodically lose Blood. So to the ladies out there reading this, that love their cold plunging, or those wanting to give it a go but aren’t sure whether it is right for them - we just want to suggest a few things that may support that wonderful body of yours a little bit better.
- Incorporate warming herbs into your practice! Have a warm ginger tea straight after your cold plunge.
- Our I Am Gaia blend was formulated to nourish and replenish Blood and support a healthy menstrual cycle. Both I Am Gaia and our QI Blend will support the flow of Blood and Qi to the uterus.
- If your body does not temperature regulate 5-10 minutes following cold water exposure then this can be a sign to ease off from this practice until you are constitutionally stronger.
- Apply a hot water bottle or heat pack to your lower abdomen/womb space after cold exposure to warm the area and avoid cold invasion.
- Have regular acupuncture
Kidney Yang and Qi
Our last focus is on the Kidneys, in particular Kidney Yang. Kidney Yang produces our foundational life force energy and acts as the core heating centre of the body. It warms our body to promote the smooth flow of Qi and it is needed to ensure the other organs function properly. If you want to practice cold plunging, you need to ensure that you have sufficient Kidney Yang.
If you frequently experience cold hands and feet or are missing that Yang force to get up and go in the morning, then you may need to focus on building your Kidney Yang first. Doing a cold plunge can sometimes be the very thing you need, it can kick it into action and let your body know to step up to the challenge, but as with everything, sometimes less is more. If you’re in a state of exhaustion and are completely burnt out and experiencing a Jing deficiency, then regular cold plunging may not be the best practice for you. Peel it back and focus on replenishing your Jing with supportive physical practices, healthy boundaries, rest and Jing herbs. We love using out our JING blend to catch us before we fall too deep into depletion.
You only have a certain amount of Qi so it is wise to make sure that you are not doing so much excessive cold plunging that you are expending all of your daily energy. This is where depletion can find its way in. In the beginning, you feel amazing, but after 3 years of excessive cold exposure, the body’s innate ability to find balance can be impacted. Cold plunging, like any practice, should find its own sustainable place amongst everything else. Really, the key is to know your body, to understand your own individual and constitutional needs and pay close attention to what feels good both in the short term and the long term.
Lastly, if you find yourself at a place where you have built up your reserves, your Jing is replenished, and your Qi is abundant then this practice can support the refinement of your Shen. Read our article ‘The Three Treasures - Jing, Qi and Shen’ to dive deeper. Cold plunging nourishes the mind just as much as the body, and this meditative practice can cultivate space for reflection to emerge. The physical and mental endurance that comes with this practice brings forth an ability to witness how we react to the discomfort of the cold and in turn how we respond to adversity in our life.
Through this Chinese medicine lens, the health benefits of cold plunging include:
- Increased capacity to regulate between extremes
- The increased flow of Blood and Qi
- Increased capacity to send Qi from the surface to the core of the body
- Enhance Yang Qi and Yang Jing
Tips to Keep You Thriving
- Incorporate tonic herbs into your daily routine and when you are practising cold plunging. I Am Gaia, QI and SHEN are our favourites. We also recommend using the JING blend if you are needing some deeper support to get you more aligned with cold plunging.
- The Wim Hof method is extreme Yang breathing, make sure you are incorporating breath work into your practice.
- Take it slow, work your way up to lower temperatures or simply start with other forms of cold exposure such as hot and cold showers
- Exercise! Ensure you are moving your body and getting that Qi and Blood moving
- Limit your intake of cold/raw food and drinks - eat warming, slow-cooked meals and only drink room temperature or warm water
- Have cinnamon and ginger tea before if you are concerned about Cold Invasion
If you are currently pregnant, have recently given birth, or are experiencing an active and acute illness then we recommend not participating in cold plunging practices. Please seek the advice of your practitioner for further advice if you feel that you want to incorporate this practice into your life but are unsure whether it is suitable for you and your constitutional needs.
If we have sparked your interest and you are wanting to dive a little deeper into some of the topics we covered in this article. Check out some of our related podcast episodes:
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: Third Edition by Giovanni Maciocia
Chinese Medicine: The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted J. Kaptchuk