Do you want more testosterone? Of course you do!
Would you like a stronger immune system? Who wouldn’t?
What about less stress and better moods? ADOY!
And how about a dollop of rapid fat loss on top? Does the Tin Man have a sheet metal disco stick!?
Well, what if I told you that you can have all that and more without having to buy or steal anything or sacrifice any small animals to the Dread Lord Hillary Clinton? (Or Donald Trump if you prefer, I’m politically fluid DON’T JUDGE ME BIGOT.)
What if all you had to do was freeze your fun stuff off for a few minutes everyday, and your body would automatically “upgrade its firmware,” as if you had swallowed the star in Super Mario?
So the story goes with cold showers, the biohack-du-jour that has “everybody” talking. A cold shower a day, we’re told, can not only help keep the doctor away, but fundamentally transform and elevate our physical and astral bodies.
Sounds too good to be true, of course, but is it?
Well, like most people, I first heard about intentionally exposing yourself to extreme cold as Wim Hof’s story began making the rounds on the Interwebz a few of years ago.
In case you haven’t heard of Wim, he’s a guy who has…
Moreover, he says anyone can tap into their own latent “superpowers” through a protocol he designed that involves regular cold exposure, breathing techniques, and meditation, much like the samurai “misogi” ritual of breath training, sleep deprivation, and chanting beneath icy waterfalls.
Intriguing, of course, and a year or so ago, I figured what the hell, I’ll give it a go.
While I lost interest in the hyperventilation and meditation because I don’t really care about being able to control my nervous system or raise my internal body temperature, I stuck with the cold exposure, starting every day with a 3-minute cold shower.
What have I gotten out of it? And what does science have to say about it all?
Well, here’s the long story short:
The benefits of cold showers have been widely oversold. They’ll improve your ability to handle cold, they’re great for waking up in the mornings, and they may toughen you up a little, but there’s very little evidence they’ll do much else.
Why, then, am I still dousing myself with buckets of ice water every morning?
I’ll get into that in a minute. Before I do, though, let’s start with some mythbusting…
According to Internet gurus, cold showers are one of the easiest ways to “level up” your biology.
Purported benefits include…
Well, as with most everything that promises big returns for little or no effort, this is more fiction than fact.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these five claims.
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The theory that cold showers can help increase fat burning is based on the discovery of brown adipose tissue (BAT), also known as brown fat in humans.
Unlike normal, “white” fat cells, whose primary job is to store calories for future use, brown fat cells help maintain a stable body temperature by doing the opposite: burning calories to generate heat.
Studies show that once “activated” by cold temperatures, just two ounces of brown fat can burn through as many as 500 calories per day in an effort to elevate body temperature.
This is why babies and other small mammals have large amounts of brown fat—they need more help staying warm. Research also shows that women seem to have more brown fat than men, probably for the same reason.
Now, it used to be thought that brown fat disappeared in humans as we got older, and that adults had none. Newer research has proven that adults do have brown fat, though, which led some people to speculate that using cold exposure to “turn on” our brown fat could rapidly increase our metabolic rate (and thus fat burning).
How has this hypothesis panned out, though?
Well, while cold exposure tends to slightly increase metabolic rate by stimulating brown fat, the effects are much smaller and more unreliable and impractical than many would have you believe.
Furthermore, research shows that cold exposure can also markedly increases appetite, making it much easier to simply eat back the extra calories burned.
For example, researchers from Maastricht University had 11 people stay in a cold room for an entire day, and they only burned an additional 76 calories on average.
To put that in perspective, a pound of fat contains approximately 3,500 calories (and you have to burn quite a bit more to actually lose a pound of fat), so an additional 76 calories burned per day for many hours of uncomfortable and hard-to-replicate conditions isn’t exactly a win. (Buy a treadmill desk instead.)
In another study, spending a few hours in a suit filled with cold water caused an 80% rise in metabolic rate, burning an additional 250 calories. That’s fairly impressive, but also extremely impractical and still about half of the calories you’d burn if you spent that time walking instead.
In yet another study, spending two hours per day in a 60-degree room resulted in 1.5 pounds of fat loss over 6 weeks, which is all well and good but you can achieve the same with a week of proper dieting and exercise.
The takeaway here is simple:
You can use cold exposure to boost your metabolism and fat burning, but a cold shower won’t cut it. You’re going to need to spend at least a few hours per day in shivering cold air and/or water, and the results will depend on your genetics.
The Bottom Line
Cold showers might help you burn a few more calories every day, but it won’t be enough to speed up fat loss.
These days, you can almost make an accurate snap judgment about the credibility of any health and fitness educator or “influencer” by what he or she says about naturally boosting testosterone levels.
And that brings me to the point at hand: cold showers and testosterone.
Most people claiming that cold showering is an effective form of hormone therapy cite a study showing that testicle cells function better in colder temperatures, which uh, is probably why our nuts dangle in between our legs as opposed to being stuffed inside our pelvises like sloths, whales, and elephants.
Other research often cited shows that sperm cells function better in winter and spring (the cooler months) than in summer and fall (the warmer months). This could be due to any number of reasons, though. The researchers thought the results were probably caused by a kind of annual circadian rhythm that affects fertility—not cold exposure.
Regardless, the assumption some people draw from such research is cold must be good for the nuts, and since they produce testosterone, it must be good for testosterone production, too.
That sounds neat and all, but there’s no evidence that taking a cold shower for several minutes actually reduces the temperature of the testicles enough to have any impact whatsoever. Considering that most of the water is going to hit your head, shoulders, and chest, who knows if enough will even caress your plumbing to make a difference.
There’s also no evidence that exposing any bits of your body to even extreme cold actually raises testosterone. All we can say right now is that the twins like to be slightly cooler than the rest of the body, and that the boys might be better swimmers when it’s cold.
So, no matter how you look at it, this hypothesis is little more than unlikely and ill-informed speculation.
The Bottom Line
There’s no credible evidence that cold exposure, least of all cold showers, can increase testosterone production.
Cold showers, however, do not.
Point being: 30 seconds (or even a few minutes if you’re not a pussy) of sprinkling your upper body with maybe-cold-water (how low do you go?) is a far cry from the ice bath protocols used in scientific studies, which means it’s also far less likely to produce similar results.
In one study, researchers at the University of Queensland found that two 10-minute ice baths per week for three months reduced muscle gain by about half a pound and reduced leg press strength by about 150 pounds.
This is probably because immersing yourself in cold water suppresses signaling molecules that are responsible for muscle growth, blood flow, and satellite cell activity, all of which hurts your body’s ability to create new muscle proteins.
The Bottom Line
10-minute ice baths can reduce post-workout muscle soreness, but they can also impair muscle growth and strength gains. Cold showers probably don’t do either.
Similar to muscle recovery, the idea that cold showers boost your immune system is more wishful thinking than outright fake news.
Another study found that sitting in cold water for an hour three times per week for six weeks can slightly boost white blood cell count, although it had no impact on other markers of immune function.
Yet another study found that cold exposure did improve several markers of immune function, but participants weren’t merely cold showering. Their daily routine included…
Furthermore, this study didn’t prove that brutalizing yourself with cold actually reduces your chances of getting sick. It just showed that it can cause a few chemical upticks that might help you fight off infections.
So, my point is this:
While regular, intense bouts of extreme cold exposure may improve immune function over the long term, citing that as evidence that hitting yourself with a bit of cold water every day can make you invulnerable to bugs is obviously absurd.
The Bottom Line
If you’re willing to expose yourself to subzero temperatures for 30 to 60 minutes several times per week for several months, then there’s a chance you could slightly improve your immune function. There’s no evidence that taking regular cold showers will give you the same benefits, though.
Supposedly, cold showers can improve skin health and appearance by tightening pores, which prevents dirt from clogging your skin and producing blackheads and acne.
Moreover, cold showers are often said to “seal in” the natural oils in your skin and hair, helping keep them shiny, strong, and smooth.
While there may be some validity to these claims, there’s no real science to back them up and the effects, if any, are likely to be negligible.
First, studies show that pore size is mostly determined by age, genetics, and ethnicity, and there’s very little you can do to change this.
That said, pores do seem seem to get slightly larger with age (until around 40, where they seem to settle), and you may be able to prevent this by using topical tretinoin creams, vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), helping you maintain a more youthful look.
Cold water, though, doesn’t make the cut.
There’s simply no evidence that splashing cold water on your skin every day can constrict pore size for any length of time, or otherwise improve skin health or appearance. Just because it causes blood vessels to constrict doesn’t mean it can do the same for skin pores.
Another popular theory is that because cold water doesn’t dissolve fats and oils as effectively as warm water, cold showering better preserves the natural oils coating your skin and hair, resulting in improved skin and hair health and appearance.
This isn’t impossible I suppose, but there’s not much in the way of reasoning or evidence to back this hypothesis up.
We know very little about how these natural oils ultimately affect hair and skin health and to what extent hot and cold bathing can impact oiliness. A more reliable way to control this is regulating your use of soaps and shampoos, which are designed to strip oils.
The Bottom Line
There’s no good evidence or argument for cold showers improving the health or appearance of your skin or hair.
Now that we’ve stripped cold showering of its mythological trappings, let’s get to my personal experience.
Despite all of what cold showers can’t do for me, I still do them every day. Can you guess why?
No, it’s not because I think taking a “Spartan bath” makes me a “badass.” (The fabled Spartans supposedly preferred to bathe in cold water, therefore, I’m a Spartan? I FEEL SO ALPHA!)
It’s also not because it jolts me awake in the morning (a good pre-workout can do the same and more without giving me brain freeze and shriveling my frank and beans).
And it’s totally not because it allows me to give one of my friends shit about how pathetic his cold tolerance is… (Okay, I’ve enjoyed this a little.)
The reason I’ve converted to the cold shower is this: it’s uncomfortable.
And the better I can force myself to do things that are uncomfortable or even painful—things that I don’t necessarily want to do—the better my life is going to be.
One of the most fundamental things that separates successful from unsuccessful people is simple and unsexy:
Successful people do the things unsuccessful people don’t want to do.
You know, the things that make us go “ugh,” that turn us off, that scatter our thoughts and weaken our wills.
The hard things, the uncomfortable things, the complicated things, the unexciting things, the exhausting things.
Successful people do them all. Every day, week, month, and year. Without fail.
They don’t even necessarily learn to like these things, either. They just have a strong enough reason to do them anyway. They just care more about reaching a brass ring than doing things that make them feel good.
Unsuccessful people have that backward.
They care more about how they feel while doing the things they want to do than what comes of them. That’s why they actively avoid doing things they don’t want to do, and why they strive to eliminate any and all forms of discomfort from their lives.
I don’t want to become one of those people—a milk-and-water milksop—so if nothing else, my daily cold shower is a reminder to continue embracing things that make me uncomfortable.
“Never get sick again!”
Those are just a few of the many rallying cries of the acolytes of the cult of cold showering, and unfortunately, their reality is more fiction than fact.
By my lights, the only sensible reason to get under a stream of glacial water every day is because it sucks, and the more willing you are to do things that suck, the more satisfying your life is going to be.