Sometimes it’s the most uncomfortable things that are the best for our health. Being cold is one of those things.
- It’s Incredible for Brain Health and Depression
Whats the best way to ward off a negative mindset or even symptoms of depression? Cold exposure.
Cold exposure increases levels of norepinephrine in the brain by up to 200%. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter known to boost our mood and improve our memory and focus for a short period of time – allowing us to focus for the day ahead.
There is also some fascinating research emerging that suggests cold exposure can help clinical depression via its actions on the immune system.
One potential mechanism for this is the anti-inflammatory effects of cold exposure – many people with depression have high levels of inflammation, and studies have shown that blocking this inflammation can reverse symptoms of depression. This would explain some of the therapeutic potential of cold for depression.
In fact, it has been suggested that pro inflammatory cytokines themselves – an immune signal released in response to sickness or infection, can initiate depression. While these cytokines are necessary for survival, if they get too high they can become harmful. Indeed, I mentioned that blocking inflammation can reverse symptoms of depression, and this is done by blocking these cytokines from getting to the brain.
Depressed individuals also have trouble thermo-regulating. In other words, they are hot and cold at all the wrong times.
For mostly unknown reasons, cold seems to help with this, again likely due to its effects on the immune system, and the sympathetic nervous system, both of which modulate body temperature.
- Cold Exposure Ramps up Fat Loss
Humans have two general forms of stored fat, white adipose tissue, and brown adipose tissue (BAT). These are often characterized as good fat and bad fat.
And cold exposure can ramp up our good fat which consequently burns our ‘bad fat’. Here’s how it works:
White fat comprises most body fat, while brown fat (BAT) actually burns calories and uses energy. In other words, it turns calories into heat instead of body fat, meaning a little brown fat is a GOOD thing.
Indeed, studies show that cold exposure can increase BAT activity which leads to increased calorie expenditure.
Cold also burns calories and thus sheds fat by inducing shivering and nonshivering thermogenesis.
Lastly, increased exposure to cold temperatures increases levels of adiponectin, a protein that increases fat burning. Looking to shed some pounds or fat? Time to get a little uncomfortable!
- Reduces Inflammation
I talk about inflammation a lot, that’s what happens when you study something for 2 years straight. So I talked about the role of (neuro)inflammation in depression, but the truth is chronic low grade inflammation; whether it be from diet, exposure to toxins, chronic stress, or being sedentary, inflammation contributes to nearly all chronic illnesses.
Interestingly, cold exposure decreases inflammation, for instance by lowering pro inflammatory cytokines TNF-α and IL-6.
For this reason, I tell my athletes to avoid cold exposure immediately (e.g. cold tubs) after weight training. Why? Because in order to adapt to training (get stronger) inflammation is necessary and serves as a signal to initiate muscle growth. On the other hand, cold tubs are a valuable tool during competition because they speed recovery (by reducing inflammation).
We are complicated beasts.
- Cold can improve insulin sensitivity (and regulate blood glucose levels)
Exposure to cold can increase glucose uptake into peripheral tissue, by enhancing the body’s response to insulin.
If we are cold our body needs energy to warm up, it will get this by soaking up blood sugar like a sponge. Insulin sensitivity is extremely important for overall health, especially brain health, but also athletic performance.
Many brain illnesses are associated with insulin resistance (the opposite of insulin sensitivity) and the brain starves because it can’t get energy. Insulin sensitivity is a predictor of longevity, while insulin resistance is a predictor of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
For athletes, insulin sensitivity means recovering and refuelling faster – insulin sensitivity will allow you to get energy and nutrients into muscle faster.
Here’s what to do:
Don’t have easy access to a cold tub? No problem. Start with a 2-3 minute COLD shower every morning. Of course it’s uncomfortable, but get over it, once you do you will experience the profound health benefits.