In recent years, the health benefits of cold exposure have been receiving increased attention, largely as a result of the pioneering “Ice Man” Wim Hof.

Now a new meta-study reveals that taking a cold dip may help to reduce unwanted body fat, as well as lowering the risk of contracting certain illnesses, including diabetes.

The scientists behind the study took 104 previously published studies and analysed the data in them to reach their conclusions.

“From this review, it is clear that there is increasing scientific support that voluntary exposure to cold water may have some beneficial health effects,” states lead author James Mercer, from UiT.

Cold exposure: metabolic and health benefits

Practitioners of cold-water immersions claim a number of benefits, including weight loss, better mental health, and increased libido.

This activity takes many forms such as swimming in icy water during the winter or taking cold showers or baths.

The principal aim of the meta-study was to determine whether voluntary exposure to cold water has health effects in humans. The methodology involved a detailed search of the scientific literature.

The scientists in charge made sure to exclude studies where participants wore wet suits, accidental cold-water immersion, and water temperatures greater than 20 degrees centigrade.

A variety of themes were covered by the studies that were eligible to be included in the meta-study. These included inflammation, adipose tissue, blood circulation, immune system, and oxidative stress.

Immersion in cold water has a significant impact on the body and triggers a shock response which includes an elevated heart rate, as anybody who has tried it can readily attest.

The review provided insights into positive links between cold water swimming and brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of ‘good’ body fat that is activated by low temperature. BAT burns calories to maintain body temperature unlike ‘bad’ white fat which stores energy.

Cold exposure in water, and also air, appears also to increase the production of adiponectin by adipose tissue. Adiponectin plays a vital role in protecting the body against insulin resistance, diabetes and other diseases.

Repeated cold-water immersions during the winter significantly increased insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin concentrations, according to the review, a result that applied to both inexperienced and experienced swimmers.

The authors point out that the profile of swimmers participating in the studies did vary, ranging from elite swimmers or established winter bathers to those with no previous winter swimming experience.

Others did not bathe in ice water, but used immersion in icy water as a treatment post exercise.

The researchers caution that education is also needed on the health risks associated with this practice. These include the consequences of hypothermia, and of heart and lung issues which are often related to the shock from the cold.

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