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What The Science Says About Cold Exposure

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Last year, it seemed like everyone and their grandma was taking the plunge—the cold plunge, that is. But what exactly is cold exposure, and why has it garnered so much attention in the health and wellness space? 

Cold exposure, simply put, is any method that makes you uncomfortably cold for a sustained period, ideally for eleven minutes, but more on that later. It’s not about enduring freezing temperatures for the sake of it but rather about leveraging the body’s response to cold for health and performance benefits. 

The methods are diverse, but the goal is the same—to tap into the potential of cold exposure for better health and vitality. So, let’s explore the science behind cold exposure, the role of brown fat as the body’s secret weapon, and the practical strategies for incorporating chill time into your routine.

What Is Cold Exposure?

You don’t need a $3,000 tank to expose yourself to the cold. For health and performance purposes, cold exposure is anything that makes you uncomfortably cold for a sustained amount of time.

Whatever the method, it must make you uncomfortably cold for the entire exposure time. This could mean turning your house temperature down at night, taking a cold shower, getting into the ocean or a lake, putting ice packs on certain body parts, or walking outside in a t-shirt and shorts on a really cold day. 

While polar bear swims and cold plunges are all the rage, here’s what the science tells us to do

Down To The Science Of Brown Fat: The Body's Secret Weapon

You’ve probably heard of white fat—the stuff that accumulates around your waistline and hips—but have you ever heard of brown fat? 

Unlike its blubbery counterpart, brown fat is a metabolic miracle worker that exists in greater quantities among children and decreases over time. That is unless you do cold exposure.

Brown fat is found only in specific regions throughout the body and is packed with mitochondria, which are tiny energy factories within your cells that make you active. Brown fat is insulin-insensitive, which is a really good thing. If you were insulin-sensitive, you would have higher blood glucose levels and, ultimately, type 2 diabetes. You want the cells in your body to be sensitive to insulin, like brown fat.

The density of the mitochondria in the cells gives brown fat its distinctive brown colour and remarkable ability to generate heat through thermogenesis (heat production). This process breaks down sugars and fats in our bloodstream to produce heat.

While white fat stores energy, brown fat burns it, helping to keep you warm and rev up your metabolism. But here’s where it gets really interesting; research suggests that cold exposure can stimulate brown fat’s growth and activation, turning up the heat on your body’s calorie-burning capabilities. So, by braving the cold, you’re not just toughening up—you’re tapping into a powerful physiological process that can profoundly affect your health and vitality.

What Does Science Say About Cold Exposure?

A study conducted on humans by Dr. Susanna Soberg and a team of Danish scientists showed an astonishing increase in the insulin insensitivity (remember, that’s a really good thing) of brown fat in a group of males who turned the temperature in their apartments down to 19 degrees celsius while they slept. 

Dr. Soberg recommends eleven minutes per week of deliberate cold exposure, which can be divided into multiple sessions. This means you must get uncomfortably cold for two to three minutes daily for five days every week to experience the benefits.

3 Ways To Do Cold Exposure Without Cold Water

  1. Turn the temperature in your house down to 19 degrees celsius while you sleep.
  2. Change your skin temperature by simply going outside in a t-shirt while it’s cold.
  3. Where a cooling shirt or vest.

 

It does not matter how you get cold; what matters is that you get uncomfortably cold (safely) for 2 to 3 minutes per session.

4 Core Benefits Of Cold Exposure

So, we understand the science behind cold exposure and the role of brown fat in keeping us healthy and warm. Let’s dive into the four core benefits of incorporating cold exposure into your routine. 

  1. Boosted metabolism: Aids in weight management, energy and heat production, and overall metabolic health.
  2. Mental resilience: There’s a reason why Navy Seals must withstand frigid water exercises in special operations training. This is called overriding limbic friction and is an indicator of mental toughness. 
  3. Improved mood and cognition: After cold exposure, dopamine levels increase 2.5X from baseline (starting point) and last several hours.
  4. Blood lipid and insulin management profiles:
    1. Lipids include cholesterol and triglycerides and are essential for various bodily functions but can become problematic if levels are too high.
    2. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate blood sugar levels by facilitating glucose uptake into cells for energy.
    3. In conditions like insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes, cells become less responsive to insulin, leading to elevated blood sugar levels.

 

Cold exposure can enhance insulin sensitivity, improve mood and focus, activate brown fat, increase energy expenditure, reduce inflammation, and improve circulation. So start shivering, people.

How Do I Incorporate Cold Exposure Into My Routine?

The good news is you don’t need to dive headfirst into an ice bath to reap the rewards (plus, that sounds painful and potentially fatal). Many practical strategies exist to activate that brown fat, from taking cold showers and brisk walks to turning down your thermostat.

Aim for a total of about 11 minutes of cold exposure per week, divided into short sessions of 2 to 3 minutes each. Start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your cold exposure sessions as you become more accustomed to the cold. And remember, safety first—listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard.

Embracing the Chill for Better Health

In conclusion, exposing yourself to cold temperatures may initially seem daunting, but many methods exist for you to tap into these truly remarkable natural processes. 

By incorporating cold exposure into your routine, you can work, increase, and grow your body’s brown fat, which has evolved to keep us in a perfect homeostatic balance—a fancy way of saying to keep it keeps us alive.

The science has spoken. It’s time to get cold!

Sources:

  1. Dr. Andrew Huberman, PH.D.
    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XecbuI-9QE&ab_channel=TheProofwithSimonHill
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3MgDtZovks&pp=ygUiQW5kcmV3IEh1YmVybWFuIGFuZCBzdXNhbm5hIHNvYmVyZw%3D%3D 
  2. Dr. Rhonda Patrick, PH.D.
    1. https://www.foundmyfitness.com/topics/cold-exposure-therapy
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaLd5w6zF7A&ab_channel=FoundMyFitness 
  3. Dr. Susanna Soberg
    1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34755128/ 
About the author
Picture of Gabe Fontana

Gabe Fontana

A freelance writer who strives for clarity, brevity, and humanity. He takes complex topics and make them approachable and fun to read. Find him online at www.fontanacopy.com to view the breadth of his work.

Gabe Fontana

A freelance writer who strives for clarity, brevity, and humanity. He takes complex topics and make them approachable and fun to read. Find him online at www.fontanacopy.com to view the breadth of his work.

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