Get in, the water’s freezing

Exploring the enduring popularity of cold water swims

People in wintry Dublin flock to the many beaches along the coast on a daily basis for their cold plunge while university societies often plan sea-swimming events for members.

Plunging into the ice-cold water of the Irish sea at any time of the year may seem like an unnecessary discomfort at best for those of us who flinch at the thought of taking a cold shower, but it has become an emblematic part of Irish culture and student life. But what makes diving into waters as cold as 15 degrees such an addictive experience for many? Are there observable benefits to our overall health? 

The use of cold water for health is not by any means new, but research into its long-term benefits has only been carried out in the last hundred years. The Greek philosopher Hippocrates hailed cold water immersion as a remedy for fatigue, while American president Thomas Jefferson is said to have submerged his feet in cold water daily for over 60 years for its alleged benefits to his health. Although these claims were unsubstantiated at the time, research into physiological bodily response to cold water in the 18th century led to the discovery of phenomena like afterdrop, hypothermia, and other effects of extreme temperatures on the body.

Given our greater understanding of human physiology, usual responses to extremely cold environments have been recorded. It is a widely accepted fact that exposure to cold water for long periods of time can result in hypothermia, but physiological responses to cold water immersion are much more complex, exhibiting different effects upon immediate contact and long-term practice of cold water swims. Our immediate response to plunging into ice cold water can explain the addictive and euphoric nature of cold water swims often described by those who support it. The immediate cooling effect on the skin, the sudden rush of adrenaline, and the surge of endorphins result in a perceived rush of joy and excitement. Endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the brain inducing euphoria and pain relief, further dulled by adrenaline, which reduces the sensitivity of our pain receptors. These and other immediate benefits observed makes tools like ice tubs popular for athletes and health enthusiasts, due to the long-standing belief that plunging into cold water can help with recovery. Their effective use in sports recovery can be explained by sensation of relief as decreased tissue temperature could reduce acetylcholine production which is involved in muscle contraction, leading to pain-relieving effects. Simply being submerged in water can also help reduce inflammation immediately by promoting the absorbance of fluid, in this case working similarly to compression socks. Studies have shown that people who practise cold water swimming habitually present lower inflammatory and stress responses than those who do not. 

“Exercise is known to be an effective tool in mental health management, but cold swims can be especially beneficial”

The benefits of cold water swims and plunges are not limited to sports recovery. Exercise is known to be an effective tool in mental health management, but cold swims can be especially beneficial. Besides the immediate increase in adrenaline observed, through persistent practice an enhancement of the synaptic release of adrenaline is observed. As this is one of the key neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants, cold water swims can present a non-pharmacological alternative to increase the concentration of adrenaline in synapses and alleviate depression. In fact, treatment protocols have already been developed using cold water swimming as a treatment for depression. A 24-year-old woman diagnosed with major depressive disorder undertook such a treatment plan, practising sea swimming regularly for a few months. After one month her medication started to be reduced, and she was able to stop her medication without negative effects after 4 months of consistent practice. It is thought that cold water swimming can have such drastic effects on mental health by working similarly to electro-convulsive therapy: providing an intense, brief stimulus to the brain with much less severe side effects while also stimulating the vagus nerve. 

The popularity of cold water swims seems to know no bounds. Sea swims, ice baths, and any of the constantly evolving forms of cold water therapy provide substantial benefits to mental and physical health, making them increasingly relevant to students seeking holistic well-being practices in a time where a sedentary lifestyle is the norm. As a more thorough physiological understanding of the benefits of cold water immersion develops, it is impossible to deny the reported benefits of jumping in.