Ice Baths: a wonder cure for anxiety or the latest fad?

I’m a massive fan of giving things a go and doing what works for you but all too often, and especially at the moment everyone seems obsessed with ice baths. So I thought I’d write about my experience and investigate a little further into the new popular trend.

I’ll start with the science behind it. The theory of the ice bath is really simple, we have the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The former when activated is a survival response – the fight, flight, freeze response. Your body adapts very quickly to help you in situations where your likely to need to think or act quickly

The sympathetic nervous system activates as well when we are under stress, feeling unwell or generally under strain. If it is constantly activated or for prolonged periods of time it will begin to affect your immune system and the body’s own ability to repair itself. To calm the sympathetic nervous system you need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which you can do quickly by changing your body’s temperature using cold water, it triggers the dive reflex which slows down the heart rate down, relaxes airways etc. To achieve any real benefit from ice baths you need to do it regularly – Joe Wicks is a perfect example of someone who embraces the ice and sees a real benefit because he is consistent and also does all the other essentials like sleep well, eat well, exercise, socialize, limit mind alternating substances!

If you do this when already exhausted, tired, overwhelmed as a quick fix your body releases high levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine – as a result your blood pressure, heart rate and respiration rate go up as well as your temperature dropping. If it takes you a while to warm up this is a bad sign that your body is not coping well and this is not a good strategy for you, you likely have a lower metabolism and you could be impacting thyroid function.

The short answer to my question is that is can help reduce the high level of anxiety or stress in that single moment. It might also help you with discipline (but there are loads of other more pleasant ways to do this). However, it won’t solve the reasons you felt like that in the first place. This leads me onto taking a wider look at your life in general and are you doing too much?

Most people I meet – me included are doing too much. We have competing demands to work, look after relatives or children, build careers, see friends etc. Take a step back from your life and ask what do you really need to do and what is actually important. Where is your downtime to sit quietly and read or watch or listen to the birds? If you haven’t then I would suggest this is the first place to start. Stop looking for a quick fix to wider systemic issues no such thing exists and this fixation on wanting a quick fix will not lead to long term improvements.

So my advice would be to forget about investing your time, energy and money into an ice bath and instead focus on getting the basics back into alignment. Once you have these nailed then look into ice baths for up to 1 minute only (short bouts of 30 seconds is all that is necessary to elicit the dive response):

  • Sleep for between 7-9hrs consistently every night
  • Eat a balanced diet (range of fruit and veg, fibre, carbs, sugar and fat) try to avoid ultra-processed foods
  • Exercise 30 minutes high intensity a day or 60 minutes moderate a day
  • Stop / reduce mind altering substances – drugs are the obvious but keep an eye on alcohol as this will impact sleep, change brain chemistry both in the long term and short term. Moderate caffeine intake both in coffee and energy drinks. Caffeine increases dehydration and you will feel another slump when it wears off.
  • Do something you enjoy every single day – the best way to protect against low mood!

Saturday 11th November 2023