The benefits of cold showers (and why Fearne Cotton swears by them)

Since launching her platform Happy Place, which now includes several books and a podcast, Fearne Cotton has become a wealth of wellness knowledge, so when she divulges a secret to improving her own mental health and state of mind, we take note.

Fearne Cotton
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This one might leave you feeling a little chilly, however – Fearne was recently a guest on Joe Wicks’ podcast (aptly named The Joe Wicks Podcast), where she divulged that she takes a freezing cold shower every morning.

‘I’ll have a warm shower and then I put it on the most cold, freezing setting it will go to and I can stay in there now for up to three minutes and then I just get out, so I finish the shower on freezing,’ explained the former Radio 1 DJ. ‘It’s heaven, you’re pumped!’

Joe also admitted to being an avid fan of the daily cold shower, but what’s the attraction? While turning the temperature dial to the dreaded blue side might sound akin to self-inflicted torture, there are in fact many benefits to cold exposure and you might just surprise yourself with how quickly you come to love it.

The benefits of cold showers explained

Mental health

Just like Fearne says that taking a daily cold shower boosts her energy and sets her up for the day, it’s widely (anecdotally) reported that cold shower-takers experience improved mood, less stress and more energy.

‘Cold showers, aside from being highly invigorating, they produce endorphins, the happy hormones, which are produced after exercise or when happy,’ says Dr. Vijay Murthy, an Ayurvedic Doctor and Nutritionist, who combines ayurveda and functional medicine treatments at his Wimpole Street Clinic. Additionally, he notes that ‘research has shown that cold showers two to three times a week can improve depression.’

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Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, agrees: ‘Cold water immersion seems to be beneficial for mental health. Because of the high density of cold receptors in the skin, when suddenly exposed to cold water the brain receives an overwhelming number of electrical impulses and is flooded with beta-endorphins and noradrenaline. This may well explain the fact cold showers have been shown to improve symptoms of depression.’

Immune system

Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, is probably the most well-known advocate for cold exposure, who insists that, combined with deep breathing exercises, is the key to a stronger immune system, among other things (including reducing stress levels, better sleep, increased energy, focus and creativity).

While a cold shower can’t guarantee you will never get sick, nor can it cure you of any sickness (and it’s suggested that any sick or frail person should not take cold showers as it may create more stress than benefit), Dr Deborah Lee notes a 2016 study from the Netherlands, which investigated the health benefits of cold showers. Half of the 3,018 participants were asked to end their daily shower with a blast of cold water for either 30 seconds, 60 seconds or 120 seconds, while the other half (the control group) did not, for 30 days.

‘The results revealed that those who took the cold showers had a 29 per cent reduction in absent days from work, over the 60-day follow up period,’ says Dr Lee. ‘The commonest reason for time off work in the Netherlands at that time of year is influenza. The authors could only speculate that the cold shower group may have had less influenza.’

Interestingly, the length of cold exposure had no effect on the outcome: ‘The authors commented that previous studies have found the greatest benefits from cold exposure are seen in the first few seconds and are probably mediated through the direct nerve response to cold, and this is why there was no difference in the response with longer duration.’

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Additionally, Leyla El Moudden, naturopath consultant at The Really Healthy Company, explains that contrast showers (going from hot to cold) can help the lymphatic system, the part of our immune system that carries excess waste and water out of the body, to function better. ‘What the blood cannot remove from the body, will be sent to the lymphatic system, which is like a large waste disposal and drainage unit for the body. The lymphatic system is extremely important for overall immunity, and is covered with immune cells.

‘It is also slow moving as it does not have a pump like the heart to help it move… [so] a contrast shower can facilitate lymphatic movement: cold water will make all of the body contract and hot water will make all of the body dilate.’ This creates movement within the lymphatic system which means it can drain away waste product and excess water from your body more efficiently.

Weight loss

While the benefits of cold showers are unfortunately not the magic key to loosing weight and still eating KitKats, is has been proven that cold exposure, such as an icy cold shower, stimulates the production of ‘good’ brown fat over ‘bad’ white fat. ‘Research has shown that we possess two types of fats, white fat (which does not generate heat) and brown fat (generating heat, also called thermogenic, what is seen in fat in babies),’ explains Dr Murthy.

He continues: ‘Even as adults, if we can stimulate the brown fat, which can generate heat and as such burn fat [by taking a cold shower], it would result in faster utilisation of fat as energy,’ thus stimulating potential weight loss.

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Digestion

Dr Murthy explains that taking a cold shower requires the body to generate energy to warm up the body, thus increasing metabolism. ‘Usually those who have cold showers have better digestion and sharper metabolism,’ he says. ‘Those with slower metabolism tend to have issues with digestion due to sluggish metabolism.’

Aches and pains

You’ve heard of extreme athletes taking ice baths after playing sport or exercising – it’s because the cold exposure helps to reduce the development of aches and pains. ‘When exercising – particularly intensively – micro-tears appear in muscles and create inflammation,’ explains Leyla. ‘A cold shower will slow down blood flow to the injured region, [therefore slowing down] the inflammatory process and reducing pain and swelling.’

If you’re an avid gym-goer but often suffer from DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), a brisk cold shower post-exercise could be what you need to stave off tomorrow’s aches and pains.

Skin and hair

You might see goosebumps, but one of the lesser-known benefits of cold showers is that they’re good for your skin, too. ‘Having hot showers strips away the natural oils in the skin and can make our skin feel more dry and worsen conditions such as eczema and psoriasis,’ says Dr Lucy Glancey, founder of Dr Glancey Clinics. ‘Therefore having a cold shower has many benefits to our skin. Firstly it wakes up our skin receptors which increases overall activity in the brain. It helps to tighten pores and decrease redness and puffiness to the skin whilst boosting our circulation. It makes the skin feel fresh, awake and clean and most feel as though they have a healthy glow.’

And your hair will thank you for a blast of cool water at the end of your bath or shower, too – just as cold water closes pores, it also helps to close and strengthen the hair cuticles, leaving your locks shiny and healthy.