Chilling Adventures: Cold Water Immersion for Health

In recent years, cold water immersion has gained popularity as a health practice that offers a myriad of benefits when done correctly. In the Comox Valley, you can regularly see brave souls venturing into the bracing waters of our rivers, lakes and ocean throughout the year. As someone who has always considered themselves to be “thermally challenged”, I was reluctant to try cold water swimming, but the health benefits, plus the rave reviews of people who do it regularly, convinced me to try it. I was amazed by the increase in my vitality after cold water swimming and decided to do a little more research on cold water immersion.  As a naturopathic physician I am interested in practices that help my patients tap into their health potential and improve longevity. Cold water immersion, when practiced safely, is a way to utilize the healing power of nature. We’ll explore the health benefits, risks, and how to safely practice cold water immersion, whether in the ocean, lakes, rivers, or at home.

Wim Hof, a Dutchman, brought the ancient practice of cold-water immersion back into the limelight through his extraordinary feats of endurance in extreme cold environments. He introduced his Wim Hof Method, a combination of breathing exercises, meditation, and cold exposure, to the world. His method has garnered followers worldwide, who have experienced improved physical and mental well-being by embracing cold water therapy.

Cold water immersion is not a new concept; it has roots in naturopathic hydrotherapy, a practice that has been used for centuries to promote health and healing. Naturopathic physicians have long believed in the body’s innate ability to heal itself and the role of natural elements like water to promote this process.

Modern science supports these ancient beliefs. Cold water immersion is now backed by scientific studies that show a range of health benefits. It can boost the immune system, improve circulation, reduce inflammation, improve blood sugars and even alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. People who do it report increased energy and alertness. The practice has also been associated with enhanced recovery from exercise and injury, and improved sleep quality.

To practice cold water immersion outdoors, find a safe body of water with cold temperatures. Ensure there are no strong currents or dangerous wildlife. Make sure you go with an experienced buddy to two. Start with short, controlled dips, gradually increasing your time in the water as you become acclimated. It’s essential to focus on controlled breathing to manage the shock of cold water. You can also practice at home in the shower or bath. Start with a warm shower to relax your muscles and gradually decrease the temperature. You can also try alternating between hot and cold water for a ‘contrast hydrotherapy’ effect. Always end with cold water to stimulate your body’s response to the change in temperature.

Not sure if you’re the right person for this health practice? It’s vital to acknowledge potential risks which include hypothermia and excessive cold shock if it is not done correctly. It may have increased risk for individuals with certain medical conditions like heart problems, Raynaud’s disease, or cold urticaria (hives). I vet my patients carefully before recommending cold water immersion practices.

Whether in the wild or within the comfort of your own home, cold water immersions practices can be a refreshing addition to your holistic approach to health and wellness. Check out the Facebook group “Point Holmes Wild Swimmers” for more local information and discuss your suitability for the practice with your naturopathic physician.