The Benefits of Cold Water Swimming
There are a lot of great benefits of cold water swimming, particularly for mental health, physiological & physical health.
Mental health benefits of cold water swimming can be divided into two phases: the initial ‘cold shock’ response, and then adaptation that happens over the longer term. This is noted by a leader in cold water swimming research, Prof Mike Tipton.
Cold water shock: This is the initial stage of the cold water immersion, where the person starts to hyperventilate, adrenaline increases, heart rate increases, the person starts to panic, blood pressure increases, and glucose & fats are released into the bloodstream to provide energy should the person need to get out quickly.
This is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
A stress hormone, cortisol, is released from your adrenal glands, together with beta-endorphin hormones in the brain to provide pain relief and give a sense of euphoria.
Over time what occurs is the cold water shock response, whereby your body learns to adapt: your heart and breathing rates don’t rise as much, you panic less and you learn to control your breathing.
This makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water, but has the potential to make you less reactive to everyday stress.
How does this relate to everyday life stress?
‘Cross-adaptation’ - This is something theoritised by another leading researcher in cold water swimming, Dr Heather Massey, whereby if the body adapts to one stressor, it can partially adapt to others.
Cross-adaptation can potentially lessen our response to psychological stress as well. In essence, by graded and gradual exposure to shock on our body via cold water immersion/swimming, the body begins to better learn how to deal with sudden stress on the body.
Cold water swimming also has links to improving our immune system and potentially decreasing depression.
As stress causes an adrenaline surge, preparing us to ‘fight or flight’, it also kick-starts our immune system in preparation for possible wounds or infection, i.e. the need to heal. Even a short bout of cold water swimming can increase the amount of leukocytes in our bloodstream, which are part of our immune system. Studies however are yet to definitively link this to an improvement in immune function though.
This protective response, i.e. the kickstart of our immune system, is called inflammation, which is healthy when stressful events are rare and isolated, but can become chronic when people experience stress every day.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to depression, with a study finding that of identical twins, the twin with higher levels of inflammation was more likely to have developed depression when reviewed five years later.
So if adapting to the stress of cold water can decrease our general stress response and reduce inflammation, it is likely that it could potentially reduce the risk of depression too. However, depression is of course complex, and inflammation is likely to be one of a number of factors that play a role.
Cold water swimming can also be dangerous too if not carried out safely. So these are important measures to be taken under consideration:
If you have a history of heart disease or suffer from asthma, talk to your GP before you swim.
Swim with other people, this makes it safer.
Choose a safe site, and make sure you know how to exit the water before you get in.
Build up to just wearing a swimming costume - wear a wetsuit if it makes you feel more comfortable, but the colder you feel, the better the adaptation.
Try using neoprene boots and gloves during winter to keep your hands and feet warm, and a woolen cap underneath a swimming cap.
Ease yourself slowly into the cold water. Start on a ladder or where you can touch the bottom, and learn to control your breathing before going in completely.
If you start to feel like you can’t maintain a swimming stroke or are stiffening up, get out of the water.
Once you’re out, your body will continue to cool for about half an hour. Put on warm clothes, have a hot drink, and wait until you’ve warmed up before heading off or driving home.
Hopefully you enjoyed the read and learnt a thing or two about cold water swimming and it's benefits!