Deliberate Cold Exposure: ‘Let’s Chill’ for Health and Resilience

Joey Randazzo

Published: Oct 27, 2023

Last Updated:

If the weather gets below 50F and you look like this…

… then this article miiiiiight not be for you. 

Or maybe I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and you’re looking to get better at handling the cold.

This article is really more of a comprehensive guide. It talks about:

  • What cold exposure is
  • Historical uses of cold exposure
  • The scientific benefits
  • And more

Defining Deliberate Cold Exposure and its Physiological Effects

Deliberate cold exposure entails purposefully exposing the body to cold temperatures, initiating adaptive responses that promote overall health. When faced with cold stress, the body activates several physiological mechanisms to maintain core temperature and protect vital organs. Vasoconstriction, shivering, and increased heart rate are some of the responses that help conserve body heat. Additionally, the release of hormones like norepinephrine and adrenaline enhances alertness and focus.

Deliberate Cold Exposure Has Been Around for a Long Time:

When I tell people that I love doing deliberate cold exposure, they frequently respond with something like…

“Oh yeah, cold plunges are all the rage right now. Definitely a huge fad that people are getting into.”

I just look at them and smile.

1. Finnish Saunas and Ice Baths:

Finnish saunas have a long history in Finland and other Nordic countries, dating back over 2,000 years. Saunas involve exposure to high heat followed by plunges into cold water or rolling in the snow. The practice of alternating between heat and cold is believed to have numerous health benefits, including improving blood circulation, detoxification, and stress relief.

Source: "Sauna - A Finnish Perspective" by International Sauna Association


2. Japanese Tradition of Yukimi-buro (Snow Bathing):

In Japan, there is a traditional practice called "yuk1imi-buro," which involves bathing in outdoor hot springs while surrounded by snow. This practice is believed to strengthen the immune system, improve circulation, and provide a sense of mental clarity and relaxation.

3. Russian Banya:

Similar to Finnish saunas, the Russian banya is a traditional steam bath with a long history in Russian culture. It involves alternating between intense heat and cold, where individuals first expose themselves to high heat in the banya and then immerse themselves in cold water or roll in the snow. The practice is believed to promote relaxation, cleanse the body, and strengthen the immune system.

4. Ancient Greek and Roman Baths:

In ancient Greece and Rome, communal baths were prevalent and played a significant role in daily life. These baths typically had hot rooms (caldarium) and cold rooms (frigidarium). The practice of moving between hot and cold baths was believed to have therapeutic benefits for the body and mind.

5. Indigenous Nordic and Inuit Practices:

Various indigenous cultures in Northern Europe, such as the Inuit in the Arctic regions, have a long history of using cold exposure as part of their traditions. For instance, the Inuit practiced ice water immersions and cold exposure to enhance their cold tolerance, survival skills, and connection to their natural environment.

6. Traditional Korean Medicine:

In traditional Korean medicine, cold exposure and hot-cold treatments have been used to balance the body's energy (qi) and treat certain health conditions. Cold water baths and cold showers are used in conjunction with hot water therapies to promote well-being and vitality.

7. Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremonies:

Native American tribes, such as the Lakota and other Plains tribes, conduct sweat lodge ceremonies, which involve intense heat followed by cold plunges or exposure to the elements. These ceremonies are believed to purify the body and spirit, strengthen connections to nature, and promote healing.

8. Dr. William W. Keen and Ice Baths in Surgery:

In the late 19th century, Dr. William W. Keen, an American surgeon, used ice baths to reduce body temperature during surgeries. This practice was particularly helpful in reducing the metabolic rate and the need for oxygen during prolonged procedures.

Source: "William W. Keen: 1829-1932: Surgery at the Beginning of the Modern Era" by James G. Hershberg


These historical examples demonstrate that various cultures around the world have practiced deliberate cold exposure as part of their traditions and rituals. The use of cold exposure in these cultures reflects its significance in promoting physical, mental, and spiritual well-being throughout history.

The primary physiological changes that occur during deliberate cold exposure include:

1. Vasoconstriction: 

Blood vessels constrict in response to cold, reducing blood flow to the skin's surface and extremities to retain heat in the body's core.

2. Brown adipose tissue (BAT) activation: 

Cold exposure can activate brown adipose tissue, which generates heat through a process called thermogenesis.

3. Increased metabolic rate: 

Cold exposure can temporarily increase metabolic rate, leading to the burning of more calories to maintain body temperature.

4. Hormonal response: 

Cold exposure stimulates the release of hormones like norepinephrine and dopamine, contributing to improved mood and mental clarity.

Different Types of Deliberate Cold Exposure

1. Cold Showers:

Cold showers are one of the most accessible methods of deliberate cold exposure. By turning the water temperature to its coldest setting during a shower, individuals can experience the invigorating effects of cold without the need for specialized equipment.

2. Cold Water Immersion - Indoor:

Indoor cold water immersion can be achieved through ice baths or cold plunge tubs. These controlled environments allow individuals to immerse themselves in cold water for a predetermined duration.

3. Cold Water Immersion - Outdoor:

Outdoor cold water immersion involves submerging oneself in natural bodies of cold water, such as lakes, rivers, or creeks. This is the type of stuff that I LOVE doing.

Hearing the water. Walking through the trees. Feeling the current.

I just love it.

4. Minimal Clothing Walks:

Another form of deliberate cold exposure involves walking outside in cold weather with minimal clothing until mild shivering occurs. This practice challenges the body to adapt to colder temperatures and stimulates beneficial physiological responses.

Dr. Andrew Huberman is interested in this one and does it pretty frequently. We have a full article talking about Dr. Andrew Huberman’s cold plunge thoughts.

Scientific Research on Deliberate Cold Exposure Shows Benefits

Many scientific studies have investigated the effects of deliberate cold exposure on the human body. Here are some key research findings:

1. Cold exposure and immune system enhancement:

Article Title: High ambient temperature dampens adaptive immune responses to influenza A virus infection


A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2018 found that cold exposure increased the number of immune cells (T lymphocytes) in the blood, potentially strengthening the immune system's ability to respond to infections.

2. Brown adipose tissue activation and metabolism:

Article Title: Brown Adipose Tissue: Activation and Metabolism in Humans


Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism demonstrated that cold exposure activated brown adipose tissue, leading to increased calorie expenditure and potential benefits for metabolic health.

3. Mood enhancement and stress reduction:

Article Title: Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression


A review published in the medical journal Medical Hypotheses proposed that cold water immersion and exposure to cold temperatures could trigger the release of endorphins, leading to mood enhancement and reduced stress.

4. Cognitive benefits:

Article Title: Plasma norepinephrine responses of man in cold water


This study shows that just a very short amount of time immersed in cold water can increase norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter, enhances cognition by promoting increased attention, alertness, and focus. It activates neural pathways involved in learning and memory, leading to improved cognitive function and mental performance.

They show that:

“After immersion for 2 min, the mean norepinephrine concentration was increased from 359+/-32 (basal) to 642+/-138 pg/ml and rose gradually to a maximum of 1.171+/-226 pg/ml after 45 min of immersion.”

5. Improves depression and mental wellness / mood improvement

Article Title: Efficacy of the Whole-Body Cryotherapy as Add-on Therapy to Pharmacological Treatment of Depression—A Randomized Controlled Trial


Here’s what the findings show from this study:

“This study highlighted the effectiveness of 10 sessions of cryotherapy (WBC) in reducing the symptoms of mood disorders in patients with the diagnosis of depression. Study participants observed the positive effect after the first week of this biological intervention, while in a clinical assessment, the effectiveness was visible after 2 weeks of the end of WBC. Moreover, from the participant’s perspective, the improvement was maintained throughout time in psychopathological symptoms of depression such as sadness, loss of pleasure, self-criticalness, crying, loss of interest, loss of interest, and indecisiveness.”

6. Improves inflammation

Article Title: The effect of whole-body cryostimulation on the prooxidant–antioxidant balance in blood of elite kayakers after training


This study is looking at athletes specifically after training. It suggests that cold exposure has the potential to reduce inflammation both in individuals with inflammatory conditions and those who have undergone exercise training.

7. Has positive effects on mental resilience

Title: Impact of cold exposure on life satisfaction and physical composition of soldiers


While this study is looking specifically at the performance of soldiers, I think there’s still relevance to everyday people (since soldiers undergo more mental stress than the average person).

The study says:

“Regular exposure positively impacts mental status and physical composition, which may contribute to the higher psychological resilience. Additionally, cold exposure as a part of military training is most likely to reduce anxiety among soldiers.”

Experts Advocating for Cold Exposure

1. Dr. Andrew Huberman: 

Dr. Huberman, a neuroscientist and host of the "Huberman Lab" podcast, has discussed the physiological benefits of cold exposure and its impact on the nervous system.

Read our article on Dr. Andrew Huberman and cold plunges.

2. Joe Rogan: 

Comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan has discussed cold exposure in various episodes of "The Joe Rogan Experience," highlighting its potential benefits.

Read our article on Joe Rogan and cold plunges.

3. Dr. Rhonda Patrick:

Dr. Patrick, a biomedical scientist and host of the "FoundMyFitness" podcast, has extensively discussed the benefits of cold exposure and its effects on health and longevity.

Read our article on Dr. Rhonda Patrick and cold plunges.

4. Tim Ferriss: 

Bestselling author and podcast host Tim Ferriss has explored the practice of cold exposure and its potential impact on physical and mental performance.

Read our article on Tim Ferriss and cold plunges.

Frequency Recommendations for Deliberate Cold Exposure

Dr. Andrew Huberman recommends a total of 11 minutes of deliberate cold exposure per week, distributed across 2-4 sessions lasting 1-5 minutes each. The frequency allows for gradual adaptation to cold temperatures without overwhelming the body's systems.

Popular Athletes Using Deliberate Cold Exposure for Recovery

1. LeBron James: 

The NBA superstar LeBron James has been known to use cryotherapy and cold water immersion as part of his recovery routine.

2. Wim Hof: 

Known as "The Iceman," Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete who has popularized extreme cold exposure practices and holds numerous cold-related endurance records.

3. Laird Hamilton: 

Professional surfer Laird Hamilton is a proponent of cold water immersion for post-workout recovery.

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