February 7, 2023
In Part 1 of this comprehensive three-part article series about cold thermogenesis, I told you about how I first discovered how intense cold therapy can actually be.
This was during my early days of cold water swimming, back when I was racing triathlons.
However, it was a few years after doing things like training for triathlons in cold water sans wetsuit and swimming upstream in the icy Spokane River that I finally began to look into the actual science behind the benefits of cold thermogenesis and what it can do for the body. And trust me, you do not have to swim upstream in an icy cold river, or even get into an ice bath for a daily teeth-chattering shiver, to get a host of the benefits from cold temperatures and “thermal stress” (though, after this reading this series, if you *do* want to plunge yourself into an ice bath, I've got you covered on how to get your own setup in the forthcoming article).
Cold thermogenesis provides an array of remarkable health-improving results, many identified through recent research. In the last article, I presented five of those benefits along with the studies to back up the claims. Here's a quick recap:
- Improved brain health. Cold exposure has been found to improve brain health, reducing the risk of depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's. This is due to increased catecholamines such as norepinephrine which enable synaptic plasticity and activate neural precursors. Cold shock proteins known as RNA binding motif 3 (RBM3) are released when exposed to cold temperatures; these promote synapse regeneration in the human brain, decreasing neuron degeneration and preventing neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have shown that sustained periods of cold exposure or even a 2°F reduction in core body temperature can induce these benefits.
- Weight loss. Ray Cronise, an author and former NASA scientist, doubled his weight loss over six weeks when he practiced deliberate regular cold exposure. Wim Hof (The Iceman) has talked at length about the positive effects of cold exposure on weight loss due it increasing metabolic rate by 16%. This is accomplished through shivering as well as non-shivering thermogenesis located primarily in brown adipose tissue which helps break down blood sugar and fat molecules leading to a negative energy balance.
- Enhanced immune system. Research has shown that cold exposure benefits the immune system, as it optimizes the cardiovascular system and increases epinephrine levels. Cold stress can reduce macrophage inflammatory protein (MIP-1), which is linked to conditions such as arthritis and other inflammatory health problems. Regular exposure to colder temperatures may increase lymphocytes – white blood cells necessary for fighting off illnesses like cancer – while reducing inflammation and strengthening immunity overall.
- Increased longevity. Chronological age is not as important to health as biological age, which can be measured by telomere length. A study in Belgium found that fetuses exposed to colder environments had increased telomere length. Cold exposure has been shown to stimulate brown fat and inhibit mTOR pathways, both associated with increasing longevity-associated molecules. Additionally, it stimulates norepinephrine release which inhibits inflammation pathways – with low inflammation a predictor for survival and cognitive capabilities.
- Boosted mood. Cold exposure activates the synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain, which plays an important role in depression and social dysfunction. A potential treatment for depression is cold showers, due to anti-depressive electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain that are activated when cold receptors on the skin are stimulated. Increased physical and psychological resilience, improved energy level and focus, relaxation, and better sleep – all these benefits of regular cold exposure contribute to improving overall mental health.
Unlike some other more fringe biohacking practices, the research on the health benefits of cold thermogenesis is solid, so while I don't tend to get questions about the efficacy, I do get plenty of questions about how to do it. In this article, I'm going to share my five best tips for optimizing the results that you can get from adopting cold thermo as part of your (ideally, daily) routine. Then I'll also go through my own cold therapy routine, which I've tweaked over the years.
My 5 Best Cold Therapy Tips
Cryotherapy clinics seem to be everywhere lately; they're sexy, fancy, and you don't need to worry about any equipment at home.
However, there is a significant difference between cryotherapy and cold water immersion, and I want to give you a quick rundown of what that means before I go into my top tips.
During cryotherapy sessions, you stand or sit in an enclosed chamber while air is circulated at subzero temperatures. While cryotherapy is gaining popularity among athletes, celebrities, and anyone interested in alternative ways to stay healthy or post cool selfie pics on Instagram, it may be less effective due to its reliance on air for heat transfer. With cryotherapy, you just don't feel as cold, your muscles don't get as cold either, and you warm up faster. But cryotherapy is quite convenient. Step in, step out, boom, done, no drying off, redoing hair and makeup, etc. And don't get me wrong: you also get a bunch of benefits from cryotherapy. But cold water immersion (AKA CWI) is the most efficient method as cold water has the maximum capacity to pressurize cold into the tissue and to extract heat from your body, and your head/neck goes under the water, which can activate your mammalian dive reflex and trigger a vagal nerve response that balances your nervous system. Even if you are using a ‘head-in' type chamber treatment with cryotherapy, you will still not get the entire range of neurological benefits compared to CWI.
Cold water immersion and whole-body cryotherapy have both been found to increase norepinephrine levels, which can reduce inflammation. However, although the time spent in an ice bath (20-30 seconds to begin to reap the benefits) is typically shorter than that of a cryotherapy chamber (3 minutes), what makes cold water particularly appealing is its ability to increase the surface area exposed to the cold as well as create hydrostatic pressure against the skin which minimizes lymphatic fluid backflow – leading ultimately to reduced post-exercise discomfort.
So with that in mind, while the following tips are geared towards optimizing cold water immersion, cryotherapy does impart health benefits and I would certainly not say don't go if your workout partner wants to take you to the clinic with him or her.
Cold Therapy Tip #1: Start With Cold Showers
If you’re new to cold plunging, you may want to start out with cold showers before tackling an intimidating, icy plunge.
Cold showers are easier on your body than an icy bath, as the shock of sudden immersion isn’t as dramatic when you gradually adjust your body temperature by standing under running water, rather than jumping into a tub full of ice-cold water all at once. You can also control the overall temperature when using a shower rather than a plunge; just adjust the faucet until you reach your desired temperature range.
One simple option is to use Ray Cronise’s “Shiver System” technique – a relatively brief five-minute cold shower at the beginning and/or end of the day that involves simply alternating from 20 seconds of cold water to 10 seconds of hot water ten times through. When Ray spoke at my “Become Superhuman” live event in Spokane (yes, years and years ago, I hosted a live event with a bunch of health and wellness superstars, and you can still get the replays here), he shocked the crowd with before-after photos of clients who had decimated over twenty pounds of fat in a month with this five-minute daily technique alone (the best results were actually achieved with two such showers per day). If this sounds boring or monotonous, you can always get a good bathroom Bluetooth speaker or underwater .mp3 player, or learn rollicking shower songs to move the time along. Or just meditate, breathe, and suck it up, buttercup. :)
Another option is to use Wim Hof’s method. Wim, nicknamed “The Iceman” for his ability to withstand extreme cold, has been on my podcast twice (listen here and here). He holds twenty world records, including a world record for the longest ice bath, staying immersed in ice for as long as 1 hour, 52 minutes, and 42 seconds. Wim describes his ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures as “turning his own thermostat up” using his mind.
Wim’s breathing/cold combination program can be adapted to work with whatever sort of cold exposure you can manage. His recommended cold shower protocol (as outlined in his book The Wim Hof Method) is to spend a week with thirty seconds of cold water at the end of a warm shower, then another week with a minute of cold, another week with a minute and a half, and then by the fourth week consistently blasting cold water for two full minutes to finish your shower.
While cold showers are a great start, if you want to go all-in with cold therapy (without jumping into any rivers), the most effective way to incorporate it into your daily routine is with a home cold tub setup (which I'll go over in-depth in Part 3 in this series).
Cold Therapy Tip #2: Incorporate Breathwork
Practicing breathwork can be a viable solution to combat the discomfort of the cold.
The premise is simple – by focusing on rhythmic breathing while exposing yourself to colder temperatures, your body slowly but naturally develops an inner resistance. This can be done with a variety of breathing methods: Wim Hof's, Breath of Fire and box breathing are my favorites.
Over two decades, Wim has been perfecting his technique that promotes improved mental and physical well-being. Through trials and study, his method – which involves 30 to 40 rounds of deep, controlled inhalation and exhalation similar to traditional yogic fire breathing – has been hailed as an innovative way to build cold tolerance in people. And, Wim Hof breath work can do more than simply increase your tolerance for the cold – it can lead you closer to improved concentration and relaxation.
You can also harness ancient yogic wisdom with a technique called Breath of Fire. This practice not only warms your body from within but also increases nitric oxide production and boosts blood flow to your extremities for enhanced protection against extreme cold conditions. For best results, breathe deeply in and out for 30-60 seconds before exposure to alleviate some carbon dioxide levels which can open up vessels, making you more resistant to chillier temperatures ahead.
Finally, through my training in the “Kokoro” program, based on Navy SEALs' notorious hell week but tailored to civilians, I learned the power of box breathing. Box breathing involves four basic steps, each lasting 4 seconds: breathing in, holding the breath, breathing out, and holding the breath. This is another breathing technique to help manage your body's response when dealing with cold conditions – whether that means a cold shower, an ice bath, or Pacific Ocean sits.
As I felt firsthand the multiple physical, mental, and emotional benefits box breathing offers, I quickly became an advocate for its merits. Now, I'm implementing box breathing drills into my children's daily lives so they too can benefit. It's fulfilling to see them come away from a few minutes of regimented deep breathing feeling more relaxed, energized, and focused than before. And my close parental bond only gets strengthened when we discuss how effective slow breathing can be in controlling emotions effectively throughout our day-to-day lives. For much more about how I've incorporated intentional breathing into my family's daily routine, you can read this article.
For example, three to five times a week, my sons and I now do a 15-45 minute breathwork session in the infrared sauna (these days we are using the Othership app), followed by marching out through the snow while drenched in sweat and proceeding to jump into forty-degree cold water for several minutes. I never feel better physically than I do after finishing that session and/or my morning post-workout cold shower or cold plunge.
Cold Therapy Tip #3: Time & Dose Properly With Exercise
You've probably heard over and over (including from me) that there are big health benefits to be had from going back and forth between hot and cold.
That is true. However, going right from a hot, sweaty workout into an ice bath is not something I universally advise.
The right timing of your cold exposure depends on your workout and your goals.
If you're looking to increase strength or muscle mass, allow two hours for the body to mount an inflammatory response before taking an ice bath. Now, if you're pitting out at the office after a strength training session and need a quick cold shower to cool your body down, that's fine. Just don't do long ice baths (10+ minutes) for at least two hours until after you finish.
However, if you must do an ice bath post-workout, there are certain instances where that's okay. It can reduce muscle pain and soreness after training sessions and competitions, according to a 2010 study. Aside from using ice baths post-workout as a means of recovery, you should also have a separate recovery plan of action, such as sufficient resting, stretching, a cool-down period vs. stopping abruptly, adequate fluids, etc.
But let me break it down just a bit more.
Right after exercise, you produce pro-inflammatory cytokines which are involved in tissue repair. These macrophages are the type of immune cell that can get produced and activated in response to inflammation including, you guessed it, exercise-induced inflammation. Now, what happens is that when these macrophages get released, they can increase satellite cell migration. Satellite cells are basically like stem cells, and they're associated with the same type of muscle hypertrophy that you get from strength training.
So, you exercise and you get inflammation. There's an anti-inflammatory response, and then anabolic hormones get released. But what's more important to realize here is that a lot of people are under the impression that if you do hefty amounts of cryotherapy you're going to shut down that satellite cell migration, the mitochondrial proliferation, and the IGF-1 (protein synthesis stimulant) response that should occur in response to exercise because you're getting cold and you're decreasing the amount of some of these inflammatory molecules. If you actually dig into the research, you need a 3% to 8% drop in muscle temperature in order for that to occur (learn more in the video at the end of this section). That's the equivalent of about 10 minutes of pretty cold water immersion. I'm not talking about a cold shower, I'm talking about a 10-minute ice bath, and doing that in an acute post-exercise state.
So, if you're doing super-duper cold stuff right after you exercise, there may be a blunting of the hypertrophic response, even though the blunting is pretty slight. You see a small decrease in muscle mass and a small drop in performance. But again, that's acute exposure to really, really cold, like ice baths or cryotherapy chambers.
Mitochondrial biogenesis is the process by which your body creates more mitochondria, and it is regulated in part by the protein PGC1-alpha. When exposed to cold conditions after engaging in physical exercise like running or playing tennis, there may be an increase of PGC1-alpha – resulting in larger muscle size with better cellular survival. If you look at, for example, runners, 15 minutes of exposure to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not super cold, following running can increase PGC-1alpha in muscle tissue. Cold therapy has also been seen to blunt inflammation from cytokines such as TNF-alpha; not only leading towards improved performance but overall health too.
If you're looking to reap the benefits of cold therapy without taking extreme measures, there are many alternatives for post-exercise. A long swim in a pool kept cool or walking outdoors during cooler weather can provide similar effects with minimal discomfort. Rather than subjecting yourself to an icy tub every day, you may find that short bouts of colder temperatures strategically timed throughout your regular workout routine yield beneficial results.
Cold Therapy Tip #4: Supplement Wisely
By now, you're hopefully convinced that cold thermogenesis is a trusted method for upgrading your physical and mental well-being.
But why stop there? By strategically introducing certain supplements, intentional cold exposure can be even more effective.
Supplements are a great way to enhance the effects of cold thermogenesis and increase its effectiveness. By taking specific supplements, you can target key areas of your body to improve fat burning and increase overall health. They can also work to increase your metabolism, which helps burn fat faster and reduce inflammation. They can also help to improve your immune system and increase your energy levels, allowing you to exercise more and burn even more fat.
Supplements can also help to increase your body’s ability to use fat as a fuel source, allowing you to burn more fat and lose weight faster. By increasing your body’s ability to burn fat, you can improve your overall health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. In addition to these benefits, supplements can also help to improve your cognitive function and mood, as well as reduce stress and anxiety. This can help you to stay focused and motivated during cold thermogenesis, ensuring you get the most out of the process.
Adequate sleep and paying heed to your circadian rhythm are ways of encouraging brown fat thermogenesis (covered in Part 1). Alternatively, small doses of melatonin have been shown to produce the same results – albeit at the risk of making you sleepy (although, as I discussed in this comprehensive melatonin podcast with Dr. John Lieurance, if light is hitting your eyes after you take melatonin, it is far less likely to make you sleepy).
To further optimize the effects of thermogenesis, I advise opting for a cold caffeine source like an iced coffee over a piping hot cup. This prevents your body from having to re-cool from previously heated beverages. (And coffee has plenty of health benefits on its own, which you can read about in this guide.)
Studies have revealed that the ingestion of natural ingredients, such as capsaicin from red pepper and piperine from black pepper combined with ginger, cinnamon, and Citrus aurantium can accelerate thermogenesis. Furthermore, bile acids may be used to optimize thyroid hormone function by taking care of liver health so the intake of digestive enzyme supplements containing these acids can help to stimulate brown fat thermogenesis.
Forskolin is one of the most popular supplements when it comes to upleveling cold thermogenesis. Forskolin is a plant-based supplement that has been used for many years to help with weight loss. Studies have shown that it can help increase fat burning while also decreasing fat storage. It can also help to regulate your body’s core temperature, allowing you to stay warm even in cold temperatures.
There is also promising potential for a fish oil and cold combination increasing metabolism while reducing fat accumulation by up to 20%. Furthermore, the pairing of elements such as ketones, caffeine, and polyphenols can be an effective weight-loss tool. The efficacy of this method has been particularly successful with beta-hydroxybutyrates, which help convert white fat cells into brown ones.
Finally, green tea is a great supplement for cold thermogenesis. Green tea contains a powerful antioxidant called EGCG, which can help to boost your metabolism and fat burning. Studies have also shown that green tea can help to reduce inflammation, which can help improve your overall health.
Some other helpful supplements to enhance your cold thermogenesis experience further include:
- Thermal burners (EGCG, Bioperine, cayenne, embrocation creams, ginger, cinnamon, hape, etc.).
- Brown adipose tissue converters (bitter melon, L-Baiba, cayenne, Grains of Paradise, forskolin, bitter melon, etc.).
- Blood flow (niacin, sildenafil, beet, etc.).
Incidentally, many of these supplements act as blood glucose disposal agents, and can be useful for keeping blood glucose stabilized or metabolism, elevated when consuming things like carbohydrates or alcohol.
Cold Therapy Tip #5: Try Cold Thermo Gear
A big advantage of cold thermogenesis as part of your daily health routine is that you can do it without any cost or special devices.
That being said, you probably already know that I'm also a fan of gear…as long as it gets you big results. And there are several “cool” options out there that provide the same health benefits as plunging without even having to get wet.
A favorite of mine – a device that I've been talking about and using for years – is Eric Grove's Cool Fat Burner vest. By donning a vest filled with cold packs, you can target your brown adipose tissue, that area of the body where rapid calorie burning occurs, and you can do it during a typical workday, as you sit in your office chair or stand at your office workstation amping up your metabolism with little cold packs around you gut or neck. Unlike any other commercial cooling vest or stomach wrap, the Cool Fat Burner vest has been proven to triple calorie burn as well as freeze fat cells away. In Eric's Indirect Calorimetry Experiment, overweight people showed concrete signs of physical improvement from the synergistic combination of wearing a Cool Fat Burner vest and his Gut Buster, combined with chilled water. Oxygen uptake was drastically increased as well as fat utilization for energy supply – suggesting higher caloric burn throughout the evaluation process.
Then there's the Cryohelmet, which is exactly what it sounds like…a helmet that delivers long-lasting cooling therapy to the head, which has been found to reduce or eliminate pain from migraines and other headache disorders, manage concussion symptoms, soothe minor head injuries, promote sleep, and cool you down in the heat. The Cryohelmet comes in four sizes for the perfect fit, and given that it's priced at less than a hundred bucks, it's a great way to tap into the benefits of localized cryotherapy without a hefty investment…or without sticking your head into a bucket of ice. The helmet is also highly recommended for those with a TBI (traumatic brain injury), as research has shown that acute levels of hypothermia can be a great treatment option.
Now, while I don't go so far as to recommend sleeping in a pile of ice, you have probably heard me talk plenty about the importance of temperature during sleep. By cooling down your body in the evening and warming it up again early morning, you help trigger melatonin and cortisol release respectively – hormones regulating your natural daily cycle of rest.
My wife Jess and I have a Dock Pro System from SleepMe (formerly ChiliSleep Systems), which allows for different temperature settings on different sides of the bed, gives off zero EMF, and is so comfortable and easy to clean. The rest of SleepMe's devices – including their Ooler and Cube Sleep System – all control the temperature of your bed in various ways, depending on what your body needs for the best quality sleep.
The companies above have generously extended discounts to my readers, so if you do decide to invest in a cooling device, take advantage of these codes: 10% off coolfatburner.com with Ben10CFB; 10% off Cryohelmet with BENGREENFIELD; 25% off SleepMe with BEN.
Finally, if you want to hear even more about cold thermogenesis, fitness, recovery, and plenty of other great content, here's a presentation I did last month for The daVinci50 Mastermind: The Highest Level Mastermind on Age Reversal:
My “Cool” Thermogenesis Routine
I get a lot of questions about how to do an ice bath or a cold soak “properly.”
I've discussed some of the benefits of cold thermogenesis/cryotherapy already, such as increased nitric oxide production which is like viagra for your whole body; decreased levels of inflammatory cytokines; decrease joint pain; increased stimulation of the vagus nerve, which helps to regulate your nervous system; and an overall buildup of cellular resilience that even has an anti-aging and a longevity effect.
The trouble is they can suck – they can absolutely suck for a lot of people. You get in (and often quite quickly, out) of the water, you’re breathing fast, your fingers are tingling, you're freaking out, and you don’t know what to do. That’s because most people think a cold soak means just getting into cold water and figuring the rest out intuitively. Well, there’s a proper way to do cold so it does not entirely suck, and I’m going to share a few tips.
There are certain preparatory steps that can ensure you make your cold trek feeling as comfortable as possible – albeit never entirely so. As with other physical activities such as hard-care exercising, it's important to understand that it may be difficult at times in order to yield the intended effects.
The first step in my routine is warming my body from the inside out with breathwork. I like to get in my cold tub as I'm holding an exhale because I feel like my parasympathetic nervous system is more activated – resulting in an ability to hold my breath for a longer period of time which allows me to get through that initial what's called mammalian dive reflex where you want to breathe in quick as soon as you get into the water. You don't have do breathwork, and you'll want to be careful that if you do, you're not getting into the water while dizzy or lightheaded, but a fire breath, Wim Hof-style, pranayama-type of breathing can help warm the body quite a bit from the inside out.
Then, once I get in, I dunk my head. For example, you can do a few light face dunks, lean back, and open up your body which will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and this can be calming versus just being hunched over in a fetal, curled-up position trying to keep your head dry. You can see an exact replica of how to do that in this video here.
Finally, and especially if you're just getting into a cold routine, starting with a sauna or a hot shower or hot bath (or even a workout!) can help to ease the transition into the cold, though since you're starting off warmer, you'll likely need to stay in longer. Related to that point, it's best to allow your body to burn calories to naturally warm itself (or to do things like burpees or jumping jacks) after you do your cold treatment, vs. hunting down a hot tub, a sauna, a fireplace or a warm room, which will reduce the amount of post-cold-thermogenesis benefits you get.
Ultimately, cold therapy is a highly effective way to reduce inflammation, speed up recovery time, and boost cognitive function and energy levels…
…but keep in mind that one size does not fit all when it comes to cold therapy. Duration and temperature should be tailored to each individual’s needs, abilities, and comfort level.
With that in mind, here are my five best cold therapy tips to get you started:
- Start with cold showers. Cold showers are an ideal way to start cold thermogenesis as they allow gradual temperature adjustment and control.
- Incorporate breathwork. Practicing breathwork while exposing the body to colder temperatures can help develop inner resistance.
- Time and dose properly with exercise. I advise waiting two hours after a strenuous workout before taking an ice bath, but a quick cold shower is fine immediately afterward (and may be beneficial for endurance training).
- Supplement wisely. Supplementation such as melatonin or caffeine in small doses can further optimize the effects of thermogenesis.
- Try cold thermo gear. You can do cold thermogenesis without any cost or gear; however, there are also options available that provide similar health benefits without getting wet.
I predict that cold thermogenesis will continue to steadily gain attention due to its solid research backing. In Part 3 of my series on cold therapy, you'll find out how far your icy plunges can be taken with five DIY home tub blueprints.
What does your cold thermogenesis routine look like lately? Any tips to share? Leave your comments below. I read them all!