Ice baths are fast re-emerging in the health and fitness world and have become a commonplace trend. Whether taking an ice bath before or after a workout or used as a remedy on its own like the Wim Hof ice bath method, everyone is talking about the benefits of ice baths. People take ice baths for muscle recovery and anti-inflammatory benefits, but we ask, are ice baths really a necessary component of training and health improvement? Furthermore, has anyone considered are ice baths dangerous in the wrong context? In this article we will delve into these questions and share insights on what we deem as important factors to look at for optimal health.
Ice Baths: An Overview
For quite some time, the idea of submerging yourself in a cold environment like an ice bath has been used throughout human history. Beginning with the Ancient Greeks and Romans who used ice baths after workouts or battles as a way to recover from muscle soreness, as well as partaking for social reasons. More recently, ice baths have been trending as a therapy all on their own. The “Wim Hof Ice Bath method” founded by Wim Hof, and popularized by prolific figures such as Andrew Huberman and Joe Rogan. These figures advocate for regular ice baths for the anti-inflammatory effects and psychological benefits. A key assumption about the benefits of ice baths or cold immersion is that it reduces inflammation in skeletal muscle, yet there is no data available from humans to support this notion.(1) .The research on ice baths after workouts suggests “cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimizing the inflammatory and stress responses in muscle after resistance exercise.”(1) Other research suggests there may be some potential benefits for mental health, immune system, and auto-immune conditions but there needs to be more research on this topic as there is nothing conclusive. (2)
The fitness industry has a pattern of repeating methods that have been around for a long time yet don’t seem to show visible results with these methods. Below we will explore this further and explain why looking at other aspects of your health may be more effective for longevity and a better quality of life.
What Happens to your Body in an Ice Bath
When you take an ice bath, your body goes through a process called vasoconstriction, i.e, the cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow to the extremities and redirects it to vital organs to maintain core body temperature. This process can help reduce muscle soreness and inflammation by slowing down metabolic activity in the affected tissues. The thinking in mainstream health is that taking an ice bath after a workout can lead to a faster recovery.
It has been said that ice baths or cold immersion, supports the mitochondria in our cells by going through a process called ‘’mitochondrial biogenesis,’’ essentially meaning that more mitochondria are created. Mitochondria are an organelle within the cell that creates energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and is widely referred to as the cell’s powerhouse or battery. Mitochondrial biogenesis helps the cell to renew the mitochondrial network and, consequently, to improve mitochondrial function, slowing down the cascade of damage caused by mitochondrial dysfunction (one of the nine hallmarks of aging). (3)
Although we don’t deny the potential benefits of an ice bath, we ask if going through a stressful context like an ice bath is an essential component for human health. At Functional Patterns, we consistently showcase results of our clients including serious conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, all in the absence of ice baths. How is this done? Through a deep understanding of your body’s interconnected systems. We aim to create homeostasis in the body by focusing on your biomechanics and the relationship between your muscles and fascia as you move through space.
Multiple sclerosis results with FP practitioner Louis Ellery. First photo can only stand assisted, second photo is able to stand unassisted.
Are Ice Baths Dangerous?
We believe it’s not necessary to resort to drastic measures like ice baths to achieve amazing results. In fact, in some circumstances, taking an ice bath may become dangerous if your body maladapts rather than adapts to the stimulus. Maladaptation is when you are unsuited or poorly adapted to a particular stimulus. As your body adapts to the stimulus poorly, it may not experience any short term damage but could experience long term damage. We know as humans, we are all different. Our genetics, our cells, our mitochondria are different and not everyone will achieve the same anti-inflammatory effects from the same stimulus, and for some people, overuse can even lead to adverse reactions.
Cold therapy is a jarring experience for the body and the state we are in will affect how our body reacts to that stimulus. If we have had a bad night’s sleep, have poor mechanics, are excessively stressed, or for females during the second half of their cycle, we are more likely to maladapt to the stimulus. If our mitochondrial function cannot keep up with the stress and the body is unable to heat up, then the stimulus may become damaging rather than regenerative.
Are Short Term Benefits Equivalent to Long Term Benefits?
People are drawn to health hacks like ice baths or cold showers because of the short term benefits they may feel but often neglect their intuition or awareness of what their body actually needs because they are chasing that short term benefit. And in turn, they repeat a pattern over and over which may lead to a negative outcome rather than a favorable one. It is said that ice baths can help with mental health and anxiety, but we ask, is it only in the moment or does it translate into day to day life. Do you need to take an ice bath every time you feel anxious? And how does it change the way you interact with your environment for the long term. Again, we are not saying there are no potential benefits, but more if there are other factors to look at for more substantial long term results.
Let’s pose a scenario, you work a stressful 9-5pm job. High pressure, long hours, suboptimal working environment. You have difficult work interactions with colleagues and bosses that make you stressed. So, you start taking ice baths 2-3 times per week as a way to deal with the anxiety. Initially, you feel the short term effects of the ice baths. After a long day at work you come home and do the ice bath and it helps you de-stress from your day. But then you go to work again and encounter the same situations and react the same way you did the day before. The anxiety comes back so then you need an ice bath to calm you down. And this pattern repeats itself. You then realize that some days the ice baths are easy, and other times they are hard. You ‘’motivate’’ yourself to do it because you’ve been told it’s good for you. And then over time you notice the effects of the ice baths are not always the same and the benefits are diminishing yet the way you are interacting with your environment stays the same. The anxiety is the same, your stress response is the same and the ice baths are no longer providing any changes to the way you interact with the environment.
Focusing on your Mechanics is Cooler than an Ice Bath
Understanding our mechanics and how that affects our relationship to the environment is a key variable to human health. We believe a big component to how we react to the stressors in our environment is our mechanics and posture. Functional Patterns looks to optimize the first four human movements; standing, walking, running and throwing. By learning how to execute these movements to the highest degree, the benefits will transfer to literally every other movement you do. You will experience the benefits through an enhanced structure in a pain free body that is more resilient to life stressors and it will positively change the way you navigate through the world. We believe that this has much more short and long term benefits than routine ice baths in creating anti-inflammatory effects and sustainable changes.
Rather than focusing solely on routines involving ice baths or cold showers, we suggest investing more time working on your biomechanics which will take into account more variables and improve health overall. Learning how to move effectively and efficiently through space will create anti-inflammatory effects on the body as your muscles and fascia move more effectively. Rather than having an ice bath after a workout for recovery purposes to relieve sore muscles, moving properly will result in better harmony with your muscles. The need for relieving sore muscles will be unnecessary, as essentially your body will feel pain free and amazing all the time.
Despite the fact there may be some potential benefits to ice baths, we believe there are more optimal ways to enhance your health without creating the necessary stressful effects of extreme health hacks. We ask people to be intentional when it comes to addressing their health and not that doing an ice bath is necessarily bad, but when used habitually that an ice bath can become detrimental to your health. Whether it's taking an ice bath before or after a workout, we believe addressing your movement can have more effective anti-inflammatory benefits to your health that will create sustainable changes.
Joe Rogan says he doesn’t look forward to waking up in the morning because he knows he has to do an ice bath. If someone who’s a great advocate for it needs to find discipline to force themselves to do it, we ask if that level of willingness to do something for their health can be utilized more wisely.
The Functional Patterns 10 week course is a great course that will reprogram the way you move down to an unconscious level, addressing your biomechanical imbalances and the fundamental reasons why you might be feeling pain. The 10-week course encompasses myofascial release techniques, posture training and integrative corrective exercises which will restore motions to restricted areas and create balance in your body. This is the ultimate way to become anti-inflammatory.