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Cold showers have many uses. From keeping hair dye from fading to reducing acne-causing inflammation. What interested me most though was losing the stubborn extra 10 pounds. In The 4-hour Body a Nasa scientist named Ray Cronise wrote about his struggle and success losing fat. He had done lots of diets that worked for time, but he still had 30 pounds to go off his muffin top. Then he read something very discouraging. “Michael Phelps eats 12,000 calories a day.”
At this point he became extremely frustrated. He had been trying to restrict his calories to less than 2300 and here was a guy that looks 10 times better and eats 6 times as much. After he got mad, he got to thinking. It must be the water. Phelps spends more than 4 hours per day in water which is taking heat away from his body. The calories were leaving as heat instead of the commonly prescribed diet & exercise. The thermodynamic formula of calories in calories out works, but the ways that calories went out is more complex than he was told. Thermodynamics, the science of heat, was robbed of its very name when it came to humans. He experimented greatly, the details of which are in The 4-hour body. How effective was it for him to add cold to his diet?
This was not the first time Ray had tried to lose weight. In 2006, he lost a respectable 20 pounds following the Body-for-Life (BFL) exercise and diet plan, designed by Bill Phillips. BFL performed as advertised, and Ray lost 17.8 pounds of fat in 12 weeks, for an average weekly fat-loss of 1.48 pounds. This was, by all conventional measures, a huge success. Unfortunately, in a pattern familiar to millions, he then gained it all back, plus interest.
In the second experiment, however, repeating BFL with intermittent cold exposure, Ray lost 28.6 pounds in six weeks, for an average weekly fat-loss of 4.77 pounds. The addition of cold exposure alone increased fat-loss per week more than three times. This added up to 61% more total fat lost in half the time. Ferriss, Timothy (2010-12-14). The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman (Kindle Locations 2427-2429). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The Devil’s Details: Biochemistry 101
Losing fat comes in both direct and indirect ways when you expose yourself to the cold. The first and most direct way is through Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT).
When you expose yourself to cold showers, ice packs, or ice baths on the back of your neck and collarbone your body feeds BAT cells in these areas to burn calories for heat. BAT density increases over time with cold exposure so you can produce heat faster. You’ll feel less cold on the back of your neck if you’ve got more BAT.
The second way you lose fat is indirectly from hormones that increase from cold exposure. So far hormonal increases have been identified in testosterone, leptin, adiponectin, and potentially irisin. These effects last longer than the effects of the cold showers so they’re particularly interesting for body recomposition. (If you want just the things you should do and how well they have worked for others, take my advice and skip this part. You can always come back to it later.)
- Testosterone: Testosterone does many things in the body. It increases sex drive, encourages muscle growth, interplays with hormones like serotonin and dopamine, increases metabolism, and perhaps most importantly raises perceived well-being and makes your self-image better. This doesn’t just go for guys either, even though women have 1/20th the amount of testosterone as men(footnote) the way it affects other hormones and brain chemicals is still important. The way that testosterone affects men and women is for the most part indirect. It’s a precursor to other chemical reactions that have all the effects that we see here. Is it entirely plausible that the low amount of testosterone in women gets preferentially funneled to processes for the brain instead of the body in women? You bet’cha.
- Leptin: Leptin is one of the main appetite regulating hormones and goes up with consistent cold exposure. It reduces hunger when present in high enough amounts in the body. When fat cells become emptier leptin goes down as a response to make you hungry enough to refill the fat cells and keep you at a bodyweight “set point.”
(Sidenote: Your bodyweight “set point” is informed by how many fat cells and muscle cells you have, which is why losing weight is often excruciating. Cold showers will, as a consequence, reduce your set point permanently as soon as the fat cells go through apoptosis(programmed cell death). This prevents the “yo-yoing” that dieters go through where they gain back all the fat they thought they “lost” but in they reality simply shrunk.)
- Adiponectin: Adiponectin is a hormone that is released by fat cells and is increased by cold exposure. It stops protein, lactate, pyruvate, and glycerol from turning into glucose. It increases fat burning, reduces triglycerides, and increases insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity, commonly translated into “carb tolerance,” allows muscle cells to intake calories and grow instead of fat cells. This also assists in killing fat cells because only empty fat cells die.
- Irisin: Irisin is a newly discovered hormone that could lower myostatin, a hormone that inhibits muscle cell growth and division, and is also involved in the “browning” on white adipose tissue. They do not turn into full on brown fat cells, but Irisin could increase the number of mitochondria in the fat cells meaning they will burn faster (meaning more energy) and be ready to die faster. The research on this promising hormone is scarce, so we’re not sure about it.
How to (really) take cold showers
“You have to go straight in, if you’re not, then you’re being a pussy.”
“Start slow with a level of cold you can deal with. After that you can make it slightly colder after each shower.”
Hmmm, who’s advise to take? The conflicting methods came up again and again. For months this conflict led me to confusion and giving up half a dozen times. This all changed when I listened to Tim Ferriss interview Wim Hof. Wim Hof, “the Iceman” is the world record holder for the longest Ice bath and participated in a study where activated his immune system to eliminate toxic material that was injected into him within 15 minutes (That same podcast has him describing how he activates the immune system, how he trained 12 others with no prior experience to do the same in 4 days, and why laying down and breathing deep in his specific produces the same relaxing biochemicals as heroin with none of the side-effects). That means that our understanding of the autoimmune system is wrong. It is not “auto” at all, we can, in fact, control it.
Naturally I had to stop for a moment and think about that. The next moment I signed up for his free “mini-course”.
Two weeks into my new cold showers routine and I didn’t feel the cold shower on most parts of my body and even comfort and relaxation isn’t much different to hot showers. Now I put my face directly into cold at the second most extreme setting which, in combination with the lemon juice/alcohol/witchhazel concoction I make, and 2 grams of fish oil per day I was already doing, I no longer have acne. (Finally) Incredible.
What makes his method so effective? First, a focus on calm breathing. Something to keep in mind. Breathing deeply 40 times relaxing on the ground isn’t hard, in fact it’s purposefully easy. Results come from calm relaxation in Wim Hof’s Method. Your body will teach you to control your emotions and cold response when you let go and let it simply be, not when you’re demanding it to teach you. Second a focus on scheduled progress, instead of trying to do more than you’re prepared for. The first video of the mini-course teaches you that you to breathe deeply and oxygenate the body before you ever step foot in the shower, preferably days before. The breathing dilates your blood vessels, reducing the amount of heat they exchange with the environment and reducing the “feeling” of cold. Once you’ve mastered breathing deeply 30-40 times per set, doing 3 sets you’re allowed to take cold showers.
How To Breathe Properly
There are right and wrong ways to breathe as all singers know. It order to adapt to cold showers getting oxygen into your bloodstream is necessary. No oxygen–>wide blood vessels–>rapid heat transfer from your body to the cold. Unless you’re as hairy as a yeti then breathing deeply is the only path for surviving the cold.
This post shows the basics of breathing correctly for cold adaptation. The instructions below are that post on modafinil, the drug given to U.S. special forces for 30+ hour missions. If you still can’t take cold showers with ease then comment below or email me and I’ll see what I suggest and what I can do. Don’t be shy, this stuff is fun for me ;).
Sidenote: People fight about whether you need to breath in your nose or mouth, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether oxygen gets to your bloodstream or not. Do what’s more comfortable and don’t listen to the yoga teachers or their students. If Wim Hof, the WORLD RECORD HOLDER for longest ice bath doesn’t care, neither should you.
Cold Showers Mastery
Before you get started: Switch the showers you take to warm instead of hot for 1 week before you start taking cold showers. You breathe 40 times just as below in order to adjust your reference for a “normal” shower and grow used to the amount of time that 40 deep breathes is. This will prepare you mentally for when it’s uncomfortable and you just want to get out the ice shower.
It will also make it so you’re not learning to do 2 new things at once which will divide your attention and your ability to withstand the cold. Breathing 40 times isn’t hard, but it does take first hand experience to get used to because of the rapid increase of oxygen to the brain.
There are 3 different tracks, but don’t view them as exclusive. The slow track leads into the medium, which leads into the fast. Start where your willpower can sustain you, and move backward if it’s too much. You can always move forward again once you feel comfortable and you’re body has adapted to produce more heat. Don’t pick off more than you can chew. Once you’ve been on the slow track for a while then it becomes easy, sustainable, and doesn’t even require willpower.
In order to take the guessing out of your shower divide the dial into 4 with a semi-permanent marker. The first section is right below warm where you don’t feel heat anymore and the last section is as cold as you can without being less forceful. This will allow for a simple progression so you can make progress instead of going all or nothing into ice baths (if you choose to go that far, I don’t).
Slow Pace Track (Low willpower. If you come home tired then this is probably all you can bear sustainably. If you’re nervous or don’t get a lot of cold in your life you start here. This is where I started, and I moved to cold showers within a week.)
Put an icepack on the back of your neck (the region that BAT exists most) for 30 minutes at night, when insulin sensitivity is generally lower. Tim Ferriss who wrote The 4-Hour Body showed that he experienced 60% of the fat loss benefits from this compared to 20 minute ice baths.
Medium Track (Normal willpower. If you have extra energy in the day you have enough willpower to start here. To be blunt, it sucks. You’re going to REALLY have to push yourself to stay in the entire time.)
Turn the shower to hot for soaping and shampooing. Then turn it to warm for 2 minutes (key for not psyching yourself out), and keep your hair out of the water as much as possible. Cold hair=screaming and cursing why you did this to yourself, which we want to avoid. Breathe 40 times VERY deeply and slowly. Now turn the shower cold, the point where there is no warmth coming from it, and breathe 40 times while the water is hitting the back of your neck. That’s it! you can turn it off now. Every 3rd shower (3rd, 6th, 9th) you either turn the water down colder than the last time until it feels colder or increase the breathes by 10. Go all the way to cold and 100 and you should be seeing some awesome results.
Fast Track (High willpower. If you’ve decided that you need to lose weight, handle your depression, or want to commit fully to the cold.) This is the ice bath track, but before starting it I would recommend you do cold showers for a week and 40 deep breathes twice OUTSIDE of the bath. This is enough to get you prepared. Put on some “let’s kick some ass!” music and mentally prepare. In the words of LeBron James “This is borderline torture.”
Before Plunging yourself:
Get a thermometer and pour cold water into the bath tub. Now cover it 1/4 with ice. The water should be 55-65 degrees fahrenheit or 13-18 degrees celcius. If it’s not then put in more ice, start with 65 or 18 degrees. Write down how much ice you put in so you don’t need to keep your thermometer in your bathroom.
First, put the lower half of your body in. Now gradually (30 seconds to 55 seconds) pour in the quantity of ice determined by your test ice from an ice maker or ice bag until the water will reach the desired temperature.