The magical health benefits of getting cold
By Barbara Pierce
Yes, that’s right.
Jumping into the snow is good for you, especially if you’re naked. So is taking a cold shower, a cold-water plunge, or running shirtless through the cold.
Most of us spend the winter trying to stay warm, but a little bit of exposure to cold may not be such a bad thing. Exposure to cold kicks our metabolism into high gear, helps reconfigure the cardiovascular system, combats autoimmune malfunction, and is a pretty good way to lose weight.
Investigative journalist Scott Carney was in his mid-30s, overweight, and suffering many body aches and pains from spending long hours over his computer. As he hunched over his computer “the internet coughed up a picture of a nearly naked man sitting on a glacier somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. Whatever this guy was into, it wasn’t comfort. And yet I couldn’t deny that he projected something vital that I’d recently noticed was missing from my own life,” Carney says.
Carney’s curiosity was sparked. The result is his book “What Doesn’t Kill Us.” His findings:
It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside. We can wake up in a home the temperature of our choosing, take a hot shower, eat a breakfast of fruits flown in from halfway around the globe, head to work in a heated car, spend the day in an office and come home without feeling the outside temperature.
Our technological prowess has become so powerful that it broke our fundamental biological link to the world around us. Indoor plumbing, heating, grocery stores, cars, and lighting let us control and fine-tune our environment so thoroughly that many of us can live in a perpetual state of homeostasis.
Yet comfort’s golden age has a hidden darkness. With no challenges to overcome, no frontier to gain, no threat to flee from, we are overstuffed, overheated, and under stimulated.
Sure we can build skyscrapers, fly airplanes and run up the thermostat to combat the cold, but it turns out the technologies that we believe are our greatest strengths are also our crutches. The things we have made to keep us comfortable are making us weak.
If we came up against one of our prehistoric ancestors, we would undoubtedly be fatter, lazier, and in worse health. The developed world no longer suffers from diseases of deficiency, but diseases of excess. There is an explosion of obesity, diabetes, chronic pain, and hypertension. Millions suffer from autoimmune ailments where the body literally attacks itself.
Link to weight loss
There is a growing consensus among many scientists that humans were not built for eternal, effortless homeostasis. Human biology needs stress — the sort of stress that invigorates our nervous systems.
No environmental extreme causes as many changes in the human body as the cold. A plunge into icy temperatures triggers a number of processes to warm the body, and also heightens mental awareness, tweaks insulin production and tightens the circulatory system.
Exposure to cold has been proven to cause weight loss. This is because there are two types of fat in the human body: white fat and brown fat. Brown fat is the good, calorie-burning fat; adults who have more brown fat tend to be slender and have normal blood sugar levels.
Brown fat controls weight. White fat is the one we have most of. Exercise in the cold and you’ll generate the growth of brown fat and burn white fat.
Each of us has vast wells of inner strength. The secret to cracking it is leave our comfort zone and seek out just enough environmental stress to make us stronger. Make yourself a little uncomfortable, and you might not just reap the benefits, but discover that it isn’t nearly as bad as you imagined it might be.
You don’t have to roll around in the snow naked to reap the benefits of cold. All you need to do is get a bit outside your comfort zone and try something new.
Start by setting your thermostat to 62 or less. Don’t wear layers to insulate yourself. Get used to being cold and suppress the urge to shiver. The body shivers to warm up, but relaxing and taking calm breaths will quell this impulse, forcing your body to burn white fat to get energy.
Try taking 30-second cold showers — turn the knob low and let cold water cascade over you. The immediate sensations are rarely pleasant. You’ll start breathing fast, your pupils will dilate, and you’ll want to start moving to keep yourself warm.
While you’re in this moment of shock and pain, control your breathing and keep calm. The burning sensations will dissipate if you focus your mind on the pain and relax, instead of tightly clenching up every muscle. Then suppress your impulse to shiver so your body generates brown fat.
Try it; you have nothing to lose and much to gain.
• Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.