It’s an enticing idea for many of us; the idea that we can somehow trigger our immune systems into action via some kind of immediate ‘shock’ or trauma. Indeed, one of those potential means of providing such a ‘shock’ – a cold shower or bath – has been the subject of a few fair traditions and ‘old wives’ tales’ down the generations.
No less than the father of medicine himself, Hippocrates, prescribed cold baths for his patients. And as the Daily Mail has reported, the Victorians were keen fans of them, too, believing that they could – among other things – help to heal bruises and banish hysteria.
More recently, athletes have often taken to cold baths and showers to soothe aching muscles. Among them is Wim Hof, the Dutch extreme athlete renowned for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures, and whose Wim Hof Method combines breathing with cold therapy to supposedly deliver such benefits as increased energy, better sleep and a stronger immune system.
So, is it true – could a ‘shock to the system’ bring real benefits to your immunity?
Let’s take a closer look at the science
As we’ve just been discussing the Wim Hof Method, we might as well flag up studies cited on its own website indicating that it may, indeed, genuinely influence the immune system.
Those include a Radboud University study in 2014 that scrutinised how the Wim Hof Method impacted on the autonomic nervous system and innate immune response. The findings were that the study’s 12 practitioners of the Method were able to control their sympathetic nervous system and immune response, with this having potentially significant implications for “conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases.”
Additional research, in 2020, which built on the aforementioned study, further affirmed that the metabolism affects the immune system, and that the Wim Hof Method causes a shift in the metabolism that plays a part in a subsequent anti-inflammatory response.
The discovery that the Wim Hof Method impacts on the body’s metabolism shouldn’t necessarily be all that revelatory. After all, even simply being immersed in cold water can have this effect, given that this forces the body to work harder to maintain a stable temperature – as backed by the conclusions of a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
So, could your immunity benefit if you simply have a cold shower at home?
An interesting study addressing that question was published in the journal PLoS One in 2016. It made the eye-catching discovery that people who took cold showers had 29% fewer sick absences at work or school than those who didn’t. That percentage ballooned to 54% if the participants also regularly took part in physical exercise.
The exact link between cold showers and the immune system was less clear in the findings of this study, although it’s interesting to note that the average number of days the participants reported feeling ill was the same across both the cold-showering and normal-showering groups. The difference was that those who took cold showers felt more energetic or had less severe symptoms, which enabled them to continue functioning through their illness.
In summary, then – do shocks like cold showers cause your immune system to work harder?
The short answer is that there are signs it might well do so – but also that we still have a lot to learn.
Nonetheless, it’ll be fascinating to see what other scientific evidence emerges in the years ahead that might continue to back up the notion of the health benefits of a cold bath or shower being far from a mere ‘old wives’ tale’.