There are substantial numbers of people that credit cold water exposure, or cryotherapy, as being a life changing, natural remedy to treat depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders. Such adherents can be traced back to prominent historical figures including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about his life-long habit of dipping his feet into an ice bath every morning to “invigorate himself”.1 This experience is anchored in the phenomenon that exposing our bodies to intensely cold water has the ability to change our physiology and therefore alter our subsequent moods. As a result, there are increasing numbers of medical practitioners who are paving the way for more research to be done in this arena, as well as those who are endorsing cryotherapy as a form of treatment for mood disorders. Before altogether embracing or rejecting this alternative therapy, it is important to take a moment to understand what exactly cryotherapy consists of, what its effects are on people’s mental health, and what exactly the science behind it is.
Cryotherapy has long been recognized in non-Western cultures for its myriad of physical health benefits. However, cryotherapy has only recently been considered for its long term effects on one’s mental health in the Western world. Conditioning one’s brain and body to endure and ultimately embrace cold water immersion is undoubtedly a challenging process, but many argue that the potential health benefits far outweigh the subjective pain. Cryotherapy can take many forms, including ice baths, swimming in open waters during the dead of winter, and immersing oneself in extremely cold showers. Cryotherapy often includes strategic breathing techniques that accompany the cold exposure to guide people through the physically taxing experience. Some liken the experience to that of fasting; initially it is deeply unpleasant and difficult to endure, yet, once having undergone the initial period of adjustment, the body’s natural healing powers are activated and maximal wellbeing unlocked.
There are a number of physiological findings that underscore the benefits that cryotherapy can have on one’s mental health, particularly as a complementary treatment for depression. Most substantially, whole-body exposure to cold water has been shown to enhance synaptic release of noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is one of the key excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain (accompanied by serotonin) that is the target of many antidepressant drugs; which are designed to increase the concentration of noradrenaline in brain synapses.2 Cold water immersion has also been shown to induce production of beta-endorphin and floods of other mood-boosting neurotransmitters. Beta-endorphin is responsible for producing a sense of well-being and suppression of pain through opioid receptors. Lastly, it must be acknowledged that cold water swimming activates stress responses in the body, and repeated exposure can result in a process of adaptation called, “habituation”. British doctor Chris Van Tulleken, a proponent of this therapeutic treatment explains, “if you adapt to cold water, you also blunt your stress response to other daily stresses”.3 Through this specific process of targeted adaptation, cold water swimming carries the potential to reduce this chronic stress response that is particularly high in people struggling with mood disorders.4
Throughout millions of years of evolution, primates have endured numerous physiological stressors such as extreme temperature changes as a part of daily life. Cryotherapy is designed to take advantage of the natural anatomic reaction to these changes in order to strengthen both the mind and the body.5 However, while used extensively for hundreds of years as a remedy for medical challenges, relatively minimal clinical research has been conducted examining the effects of cryotherapy on mood. More empirical research is needed in order to fully understand this link. Nonetheless, considering its low-tech, low-cost application, cryotherapy is worth a try as a complementary therapy for those combatting mood disorders, as it holds a tremendous amount of potential to enhance mood boosting mechanisms and increase one’s overall sense of wellbeing.6
Hallie Goldstein graduated in 2018 from Scripps College with a Bachelor’s in psychology. She is planning to pursue her PhD in clinical psychology in two years, but for the time being is living in Tel Aviv and working with a start-up that lies at the intersection of mental health and tech. She is a passionate mental health advocate and self-proclaimed psychology nerd.
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