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Deliberate Cold Exposure: how it impacts our mood and focus

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

Ever wondered how cold exposure is actually good for our health?

The popularity of cold exposure for health has gathered a lot of momentum in recent years. Here in the Netherlands, our very own King of Cold - the Iceman, Wim Hof - has demonstrated its application to the extreme, and has produced some preternatural scientific outcomes in the process.

But not all of us have the desire or the fortitude to mimic the Iceman, so how should we best find benefit in this practice?

First, before I dive into this one, so to speak, it's important to illuminate the word 'Deliberate' in the title, as it is an important component to the practice that should not be overlooked. This ties back into one of our previous articles from yestermonth, where we discussed Mindsets, and how they can impact how our body responds to whatever it's subjected to.

In this article, it was explained that:

The total effect of anything is the combined product of
what you're doing and how you feel about it.

Let's take the above quote in the context of cold exposure. If we are simply thrown out into the cold, or dunked into an ice bath against our will, the outcome will likely be one that is negative in nature, despite cold exposure being linked to profoundly positive physiological and cognitive benefits.

So, the only missing ingredient in this example is our mindset. It takes us deliberately approaching the cold exposure, with the understanding that it can elicit powerful health adaptations, for us to truly benefit from it.

Okay, now that we've gotten the house-keeping out of the way, let's tuck into it.

Deliberate cold exposure has been shown to elicit a broad range of changes within our body - from strengthening our immune response, to increasing our metabolic speed, or reducing bodily inflammation. Today, however, we will focus merely on what is immediately noticeable for us - our mood and our focus.

Improving Mood & Focus

Anything that places stress, both negative and positive, upon our bodies creates an internal response. In this situation:

the (deliberate) exposure to cold is the (positive) stress, and the internal response is what promotes an increase in our mood & focus.

The mechanism in which this occurs is through our old and frequently-spoken-of friends dopamine, adrenalin & noradrenalin.

Adrenalin & Noradrenalin: Increasing Focus

These two molecules are primarily involved with our feelings of alertness. They play a key role in our fight-or-flight mechanisms - ramping the bodies processes up to allow for quick, focused action.

Exposure to the cold stimulus causes a release in these two hormones, which results in an increase in both energy & our ability to focus our attention.

Circulating levels of these hormones remain elevated for some time post exposure to the cold, meaning that once we have navigated the difficulties of the stressful cold stimuli, we are able to redirect this increased level of energy & focus to tasks & activities of our choosing.

Cold exposure increases energy & focus.

Dopamine: Improving Mood & Motivation

Dopamine is the primary determinant behind how excited we are, how motivated we are, and how likely we are to endure challenges or obstacles in pursuit of something meaningful to us.

It is the currency of motivation. How motivated & driven we are is directly relative to the amount of dopamine we have circulating within us at that given moment.

Pretty handy molecule, eh?

Now that we know this, we should be looking for any opportunity to influence the release of dopamine. Luckily enough - we need not look any further.

Deliberate cold exposure has an extremely powerful effect
on the release of dopamine in our bodies.

This release in and of itself is a primary reason why people return to the practice, despite its innate discomfort.

The release of dopamine continues to make us feel good - both in respect to mood and motivation - even after we remove ourselves from the cold stimulus.

Cold exposure increases motivation & drive.

Okay, what should I do?

The following is a simplistic cold exposure protocol, which has been summarised from the Huberman Lab Podcast (link to episode found below). This protocol is the culmination of several peer-reviewed research studies on the topic, so you can rest assured that it's all good stuff.

  • Duration (per week): 11-15 minutes spread across multiple sessions

  • Frequency (per week): 2-4 sessions (approx. 1-5 minutes each)

  • Temperature: uncomfortably cold yet safe to stay in for several minutes (use your own discretion)

As for how you should exposure yourself to cold, the hierarchy of potential benefits appears to be:

  1. cold water immersion - ice bath, cold lake/canal/ocean

  2. cold shower

  3. exposure to cold air with minimal clothing

Now that we're entering the colder months I am definitely going to give this a go. It seems like a quick and effective way to improve how we feel and how eager we are to pursue what is important to us.

And that, for me at least, seems worth braving the chill.

Huberman Lab Podcast Episode:

Photo by Tobias Oetiker on Unsplash

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