Popular with professional athletes, ice baths have become a hot topic in health and wellness circles. As uncomfortable as they may sound, these chilly baths are gaining popularity for their ability to reduce inflammation, soothe sore muscles, and offer mental health benefits.

Taking an ice bath involves submerging your body in 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit water for up to 15 minutes. Although some scientists claim that the benefits are a result of the placebo effect, others suggest that ice baths can yield a long list of health benefits. Note, however, that the benefits outlined below reflect the results of only small studies.

Reduces Inflammation

Similar to how ice packs help with bumps and bruises, ice baths help reduce inflammation in larger areas of the body. Frigid ice baths reduce the size of blood vessels, which causes a reduced blood flow to muscles of the extremities. This results in a quick reduction of inflammation and swelling.

Ice baths also address inflammation pain through cold-induced analgesia, which is an increased pain threshold.

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Boosts Mood

According to recent research, a dip in a cool ice bath may also improve mood and mental health.

People who took a 20-minute ice bath multiple times a week reported less anxiety and depression than those who took warm baths. Scientists think that cold water activates the nervous system and helps the body adapt to stress over time, thus strengthening mental health.

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Helps the Central Nervous System

Scientists found that extended exposure to ice baths activates the nervous system and conditions it to adapt to stressors. Stress contributes to a variety of health issues, including depression, cardiovascular diseases, fatigue, and insomnia. When plunged into ice baths multiple times a week, the nervous system elevates parasympathetic activity, which is known to promote relaxation and reduce "held stress" in the body.

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Aids Exercise Recovery

Professional athletes frequently utilize ice baths post-exercise, but does it help? Recent research suggests it does. After getting out of an ice bath, blood vessels dilate or get larger again, sending nutrient-rich blood rushing to muscles. This may help flush out metabolic waste, thereby reducing recovery time.

In one study, athletes reported reduced muscle soreness after participating in ice baths.

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Supports the Immune System

Ice baths provide an important boost to immune health. Prolonged exposure to a cold bath may increase the concentration of glutathione in the blood, which helps T-cell lymphocytes to function properly. T-cells are the body's first line of defense against germs and help protect against disease. Additionally, ice baths produce an increase in both red and white blood cells.

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Relieves Pain

One of the most sought-after benefits of ice baths is pain relief. Excellent for both muscle soreness and joint pain, ice baths reduce inflammation, increase pain tolerance, and encourage slow nerve responses to pain. Although the results for joint stiffness and pain may not be long-lived, an ice bath can provide temporary relief.

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Trains the Vagus Nerve

The Vagus nerve is the primary set of nerves in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for a myriad of essential body functions, such as the immune system, mood, digestion, and heart rate. Scientists think that ice baths stimulate the Vagus nerve to send a distress signal to the brain, which in turn releases the hormone norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine is a feel-good hormone that helps relax body systems of the parasympathetic nervous system. To ensure the Vagus nerve is submerged, bathers need to lie back in the cold water to right below their ears.

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Improves Metabolism

Ice baths may also improve the metabolism rates of regular bathers. Brown adipose tissue breaks down glucose and fat reserves to help maintain body temperature. Brown adipose tissue is activated in cold water bathing, which increases heat production in the body. Increased heat production increases metabolic rates, and scientists found regular ice baths may help maintain that increased metabolic rate.

An animal study suggests that regular cold water baths may also improve glucose levels and help stabilize weight.

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Although touted for its health benefits, plunging into an icy bath has inherent dangers. Bathers should aim for a water temperature of 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit and should never exceed fifteen minutes in the bath. Prolonged immersion in cold water increases blood pressure and creates excessive stress on the heart, which may be fatal.

Other risks from ice baths include frostbite, anaphylactic shock, and heart arrhythmias. People with diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure need to consult with their doctor before participating.

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Counter Evidence

There is evidence that suggests ice baths provide little benefit outside of a placebo effect. Some studies even propose that ice baths may mask muscle or joint pain and lead to delayed onset discomfort. Science supports cold-induced analgesia, but spot-treating sore muscles with a simple ice pack may yield similar pain-relieving results to a full-body dunk, with fewer inherent risks.

While there are a few studies that suggest ice baths produce immune, mood, and metabolic benefits, much more research needs to be done to provide conclusive results.

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