Cold Showers and Depression

News from The Discovery Channel: “Treatments for depression range from medicines that can come with scary side effects to electric shock therapy, but a new paper suggests a simple cold shower might sometimes cure, and even prevent, the debilitating mood disorder.” Now I understand why I always feel so uplifted and, well, happy, after my morning cold shower gush. A 2008 research study, reported by the National Institutes of Health, supports the use of cold water on the skin as one treatment for depression. Two reasons are proposed: First, our evolution from primate ancestors “trained” our bodies  and brain chemistry to benefit from brief changes in body temperature, such as cold swims. Second, genetic predisposition means that some people are more susceptible to others to this “thermal stress.” Researchers hypothesized that brief cold showers  “send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect.” And that is in fact what the research supported: “Cold hydrotherapy can relieve depressive symptoms rather effectively. The therapy was also found to have a significant analgesic (pain reducing)effect and it does not appear to have noticeable side effects or cause dependence.” So turn that shower dial to “cold” for  a few seconds after your hot shower! (But check with your doctor first to make sure you don’t have any contraindications.)

41 Comments

Filed under cold shower health benefits, depression, Healing, Water

41 responses to “Cold Showers and Depression

  1. I have to say that is a very interesting approach to treating depression. I have never heard of anyone taking this approach. But sometimes its the unthinkable approach that is the one that really works.
    I have depression and suffer from the ups and downs of the right approach so that I can live with my depression. I do say that I will have to try it and see if it works.

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  2. I think each of us has to experiment to find what is right for us. Please let me know if this is helpful! (Experts also recommend checking with your doctor before trying any new therapy.)
    Roanne

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  3. Leon

    I am a cold shower person and I haven’t seen a doctor since March 2007. Hope it stays that way. My asthma has drastically improved to the point where I really don’t have it, because the cold shower increases the oxygen in my lungs and my circulatory system. My mood is more stable and less irritable. I have been taking cold showers since July 2007.

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  4. Great comment, Leon! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences about asthma improvement, as well as the mood-lifting powers of cold water.
    Roanne

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  5. I read about the cold shower treatment–maybe it was even in your book, I can’t remember. I must say that during a depression, it was almost impossible to try. Still, I went out and bought one of those hand-held shower faucets and started with my feet. Although I could never get beyond my knees, it did have benefits. It didn’t end the depressions but at least I was grateful that I was depressed and warm, rather than freezing!

    Susan

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  6. Dear Susan,

    How sweet of you to comment on even such a tiny improvement already! If you start doing cold showers in a better phase, you will be able to then apply it in your really depressed phases.

    Another idea: I do not know about your nutrition but bipolar disorder (and depression, anxiety, panic attacks) might also be linked to what you eat (as much as it is also a genetically-determined disease). The Standard American Diet (SAD) is an inflammatory diet. Perhaps you want to give the anti-inflammatory diet Roanne and I describe in our water book a try. – Which also helps asthma (in response to Leon’s comment)

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  7. Pingback: How Empty Science becomes Wisdom « Experimental Chimp

  8. Leon

    I am curious as to how cold water therapy would strengthen the mucous membrane?

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  9. Wilson

    Susan,
    it is interesting that you mentioned starting with your feet, because the paper by Nikolai Shevchuk proposes to start cold showers from the feet up and gradually cover the whole body after 5 minutes. Maybe if you tried 68 degrees F, rather than very cold water, you could get past your knees? 🙂

    Leon,
    cooling is known to have anti-inflammatory effects, i.e. it can reduce redness, pain, heat, and swelling: the hallmarks of inflammation. With respect to asthma, cold showers increase the blood level of noradrenaline and it can act on the same receptors as adrenaline (epinephrine), which is often used to treat asthma attacks.

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  10. brian

    Rymaszewska J, Ramsey D, Chladzinska-Kiejna S. Whole-body cryotherapy as adjunct treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. Archivum Immunologiae et Therapiae Experimentalis. 2008 Jan-Feb;56(1):63-68.

    Shevchuk NA. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical Hypotheses. 2008;70(5):995-1001.

    Huttunen P, Kokko L, Ylijukuri V. Winter swimming improves general well-being. International Journal of Circumpolar Health. 2004 May;63(2):140-4.

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  11. Cryotherapy is relatively new method – mostly developed and promoted in Scandinavia and Poland. Cryotherapy – exposure to -120C (!!) for a few minutes in a sauna-like chamber – is a very interesting approach – not so much for cryotherapy itself but for the cold studies that have been done on it. Cryotherapy is related to winter swimming – a prolonged exposure in ice-cold water.

    Some physiological studies of cryotherapy and winterswimming have shown changes similar to what we see in cold shower exposure. But to date, no clinical studies have been done on cryotherapy – at least, I found none.

    Why we don’t recommend cryotherapy and winter swimming: Cryotherapy needs a specialized chamber. Since for all practical purposes, a simple cold shower has the same effects – which are mainly pain-relieving, anti-swelling, anti-inflammatory, immunological, hormonal and circulatory reactions – I would not recommend a complicated machine that depletes Earth’s resources.

    As for winter swimming: Every year, when they publish pictures in the Boston Globe of the hardy winter swimmers who take their traditional dunk on New Years morning, I marvel how only the chubby ones can get through that ordeal. Even Sebastian Kneipp, who started out with something like winter swimming himself when he submerged himself in the gray Danube River three times a week and thus cured his tuberculosis, found out later that this treatment is too harsh for most people, and he reduced the length of the cold exposure drastically. What counts physiologically is the momentary change in temperature: A cold shower should not last more than 20 to 30 seconds – one reaps all the benefits already in that short times.

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  12. jim

    I’ve a history of cold weather-induced asthma which lay dormant for many years but flared up in summer ’03. Disappointed with pulmonologists who are trained to push pills and puffs, I visited an alternative practitioner who advised a cold shower treatment protocol. Since 2003 I have taken straight cold showers at least 5 mornings out of a week and discarded breathing medication for good a mere week into the treatment. I can’t comment whether the cold showers have improved my mood directly, but I can confidently state that current Western medicine treatment for breathing disorders is atrocious.

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  13. Jim,

    Yours is an interesting observation! I am not aware of a cold water study done on asthmatics – and it probably won’t be done soon because of funding problems.

    How long do your cold showers last? And is anything else involved?

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  14. Leon

    Well, Jim, I used to have asthma myself and had to depend on medication for relief. I did that from 1977 until I found cold showers helped me to the point where I don’t need medication anymore. That happened on January 22, 2008. Since that time my asthma has been non-existent and the only problems I’ve had were mucus flareups to the point where I used the cold-shower method for relief. It helps! I’ve been asthma-free since 2007, taking the cold shower and medication-free since 2008.

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  15. Leon

    Cold showers along with tap-water nasal irrigation has proven to improve my health, breathing and my quality of life. I’ve practiced this therapy for a year or cold showers and, along with nasal irrigation since September. I have noticed a big difference in my breathing, to the point where I need no medication. I am very satisfied with this practice. I have no complaints.

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  16. Leon,

    Sounds you are doing terrifically.

    Not sure we ever discussed this (and it does not have immediately to do with cold showers) but have you also stopped milk and dairy?

    Milk and dairy high highly inflammatory foods and are known to exacerbate asthma and sinusitis (among other things). Often, leaving these out helps asthmatics tremendously.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  17. Leon

    Dr. Alexa,

    I don’t eat much cereal, but I do drink milk in my green tea, along with little sugar. I do eat milk’n cornbread. But I does not cause asthma in me. I’m just proud to breathe better from the nasal irrigation and cold shower lifestyle.

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  18. Leon Darnell

    I found the cold water in nasal irrigation does irritate the nasal passages inside the nose. What I do is use lukewarm water to irrigate my nose or water that’s not so cold. I still find the practice very useful in the fight against colds and flu. That, along with cold shower and my health is second to none. I am surprised that not many doctors know about this. And they should.

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  19. nancy

    Cold water therapy for depression has been around for over a century in this country. Cold water immersion soaks.

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  20. Hi,
    I think this may be the case for some people only, but not for me. I suffer of clinical deppression and been taking cold showers and few days ago I got a terrible flu which is making me feel even worst! My mood is not any better either and feel even a bit more irritable!

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    • Kristen Luong

      To Sandra,

      Getting the flu can only mean one thing. You were exposed to the flu virus. Cold showers do not lead to the flu. So don’t rule them out just because you were exposed to the flu virus at the start of your cold shower therapy.

      Start off washing with warm and end with a few minutes in the cold water. Feet first, then legs, arms, chest, head and back. Just make sure you step out into a warm room to dry off in afterwards. Would be a good idea to invest in a space heater if you have a cold bathroom.

      I am a really bad case of the clinically depressed and I have been taking cold showers and it really works.

      -Kristen

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  21. Sandra,

    The immune effect of cold showers takes about six months to work. Whereas a normal person gets five to six bad colds a year on average, with cold showers you may be able to reduce it to one to two.

    Cold showers’ anti-depressive action depression might be similar: You can improve a mild to moderate depression with cold showers, but a really bad clinical depression might not be touched at all.

    One last thought: If you overdo the cold shower (more than twenty to thirty seconds), you might get too cold. Then the cold shower can have a really draining effect, especially on slim people.

    All the best to you!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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    • Kristen Luong

      To Alexa,

      You really don’t know if cold showers might help a really bad clinically depressed person but it does not hurt to tell them to at least try.

      I don’t think that telling the really bad clinically depressed that cold showers might not help them at all, without offering some type of documentation since there probably hasn’t been studies done, is very responsible of you.

      Despite all that, I do believe you’ve done great work and your advice has always been highly regarded on here and other useful sites you’ve posted on regarding cold shower therapy.

      But please, don’t make such general statements on the really bad clinically depressed. I can say this since I am such a case and cold showers have helped me tremendously.

      -Kristen (a really bad clinically depressed person)

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  22. Dear Kristen Luong,

    I am so glad to hear that a cold shower helps even in severely depressed people! Good for you!

    As a physician, I definitely did not want to discourage people from using cold showers. But I am bound by results of studies – and there just has never been a study on severely depressed patients. And likely will not be done soon, because who would be interested to fund such a study? Surely not the pharma industry…

    Yours is what we call “anecdotal evidence” – and I am absolutely tickled by it! Go on doing well – and spread the word!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  23. erkan

    I have been taking cold showers for the last five years. They have to be as cold as the cold water tab gets (I live in Northern Europe), so I do not mix any warm water with it. I don’t suffer from depression and never have, but I did suffer from recurring sinusitis and colds during the winter season that would only subside with antibiotics. Since I started taking cold showers I have not had a single cold or flu. I can now take cold showers for five to ten minutes in mid-winter and in the gym, I use the ‘sauna shower’, which is the only one that is really cold. I have become completely addicted to it and look forward to my shower when I wake up or finish my workouts. My friends all say that I am crazy!
    An additional perceived benefit is that my hair looks much thicker and darker, but I guess there is no scientific reason for this, so I guess this is just in my own mind.

    Erkan

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  24. Erkan,

    The cold shower affects so many organs – literally all! – that I am not astonished that it also affects your hair! Good observation.

    The hair is one very good sign of overall health – there is good reason behind it when people worry about their thinning hair. Apart from male baldness pattern which is due to testosterone’s influence – one should be proudly flaunting it instead of getting a hair piece! – thinning hair often connotes declining health.

    A better diet – vegetables, vegetables, vegetables! – would be my first cure for poor hair quality (and let your doctor check your thyroid function). But a cold shower on the scalp is a good idea indeed – if it doesn’t make any existing sinus problems worse (which might happen – in you, it seems to have healed the condition!).

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  25. collin

    I have hot showers in summer and cold showers in winter.I feel great after cold showers- I feel warmer in winter doing this and don’t need heaters on all the time. It takes a little getting used to, and mental discipline, but after a few seconds the cold water feels warmer when the skin surface cools down a bit.I started this therapy once by accident when my water heater broke down.

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  26. Dear Collin,

    Of course, I like the “mental discipline”! But here is how you make the cold easier on yourself: Breathe out when you get into the cold – it tells your body that this is ok. If you breathe in, or hold your breath, on the other side, you tell your body that this is a danger situation.

    Good for you that you found the cold shower!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  27. You start with hot water, and reduce the temperature little by little, until u can endure, Day after day you get used and can lower the temperature more,
    Is excellent for nervous system, Is an old way of curing people from depresion too

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    • europeannaturalmedicine

      Dear Adam Dizdari,

      There are two way to learn to do a cold showers: To start right away with really cold water – but do only the feet, the hands and the face – and slowly increase the amount of skin you are exposing to the cold water. Or, you do the whole body, with slowly decreasing water temperature. until the water is as cold as possible.

      The first way is the way Natural Medicine prefers because the effect of the cold water on the body is the greater the greater the temperature difference is.

      And you are right: The cold shower is an incredible mood booster. Other ways to fight depression: Any kind of movement (I like rowing in front of TV, and biking outside), and a diet high in fresh vegetables and low in sugars and white starches.

      Thank you for your interest!

      Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

      Like

  28. lisa

    Cold showers work!!! Such a simple way to improve your mood. Before I felt like crying every day, so I suppose I was depressed. Now I feel harmonic and strong. I started running 5 months ago and now I run every day: I even participated in a 10 km run recently. But the total change came with the hot-cold showers: I finally feel like myself again, hurra it all works!!! Just do it!

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    • Dear Lisa,

      Thank you for sharing your experience! Water has an amazing effect – we mostly are using way too little. So good for you that you feel better!

      So sorry that it took me so long to answer – I am writing my book about diabetes, and the deadline is coming near …

      Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

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  29. eLynne

    Any thoughts on how cold? I have never gotten the dial all the way to cold; I would guess the temperature is somewhere in the 60’s. I’m wondering if that temperature is sufficient, per the studies.

    Per my own experience, I can attest that the effect is just amazing! After the cold shower, I have an immediate feeling of physical well-being, a sense of vibrancy and peacefulness at the same time. And it definitely results in an elevated mood, which I can measure in the improved quality of thoughts.

    Just this morning it occurred to me that I hadn’t gotten a cold this year, which I often do in the fall when the weather changes. Such a minor thing, a cold shower, and really profound benefits.

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    • Dear eLynne,

      If you reap the benefits, you probably have the water cold enough. If I remember right from the top of my head – we are traveling in Japan and I can’t access my folders – the difference in temperature from warm to cold had to be at least 14 degrees Celsius. But you are describing all the right results: Splendid mood, and no colds.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

      Like

  30. Kenda Dermody

    There is a lot of research currently being done in the field of natural anti-inflammatory foods and whether or not they really affect a person’s overall quality of living. From the results being shown, it seems as though eating anti-inflammatory herbs and foods is a pretty decent way of increasing a person’s overall health and wellness over a long period of time. In the modern world of medicine and medical technology, people are starting to live longer and longer.`

    My favorite online site
    <'http://www.healthmedicinelab.com/inner-ear-infection-symptoms/

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    • Kenda Dermody, You are right about the anti-inflammatory potency of herbs and vegetables. In my new book about Diabetes (and obesity) that will come out soon, I write about these and other anti-inflammatory modalities.

      Thank you for pointing this out!

      Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

      Like

  31. It is very tested & effective approach to treat depression. I tried it too..it is really effective.

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    • Dear Hema Chawla,

      Thank you for confirming my view!

      For me, that is so exciting: It used to be that I was writing and teaching about the old methods. But now we have the science to back up the claims – and for all of them: water, movement, food, herbs, balance – they all are know have healing properties!

      Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

      Like

  32. Cold Showers have been proven to increase Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) which in turn promotes release of beneficial adipokines (good fat hormones) whose target tissue is the brain. In layman’s term, they tell you to be satisfied and not crave anymore for your hedonistic desires (including appetite). Just saying it may have some relationship (Cold Shower & Depression) though it is yet to be scientifically proven. On the other hand, accumulation of White Adipose Tissue (WAT) promotes release of harmful adipokines (bad fat hormones) which makes you sick (heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, hypercholesterol) w/c aggravates Depression. Cold Showers have been proven to decrease WAT by burning of BAT

    Incidentally, good fat hormones have anti-inflammatory effects. Not sure if this improves the immunologic response. So this can explain the “testimonial” improvement in asthmatic patients and other specific diseases. At the same time, when White Fat is converted to Brown Fat, epinephrine secretion is enhanced (with uncoupling of cellular energy in the mitochondrion) which explains the “extra ordinary vigor” felt after a Cold Shower. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is stimulated which makes you “Fight or Flight” where you prefer to go outdoors & be active. In depression, its the other way around where the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is stimulated which makes you “Rest & Digest” or “Feed & Breed” where you just want to stay indoors & be inactive.

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  33. Thank you for sharing so useful information. For me it really works! For a long time I have too much stress and no strength to live a normal life. And cold water became to me as a shock therapy – I feel a freshness after cold shower and my brain cleared. It is difficult to explain feelings… but it is cool).
    I really hope it will help somebody else!

    Like

    • Dear Saira19,
      Thank you for telling us about your positive experience! I know what you describe – that exhilarating feeling when you stepp out of the shower after a short cold gush – all your senses are alive, your breathing is deep, your skin glowing, and your mind is clear and ready for a new day!

      Like

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