extreme temperature exposureHere in the Midwest winter is definitely upon us, and the cold weather will not be going away any time soon. Many people do not enjoy this weather and prefer to hibernate inside during the colder months sipping on a warm drink by the fire or taking a hot bath. The last thing they want to do is to take a cold shower or embrace the cold in other ways! 

Today I want to talk to you about the benefits of embracing the cold weather and engaging in extreme temperature exposures. You may be surprised to learn that practices like taking a cold shower have many health benefits.

I invite you to come into this discussion with an open mind, no matter how much you would prefer to live in a sunny, warm climate year-round! 


Our Ancestors

If you have been following me for a while, you may know that I often look at how our ancestors lived as a guide.  There is a huge discrepancy between how our ancestors experienced the weather and how we experience it. Our current society does not have the exposure to the elements that people did in our ancestors' time. 


We wake up in temperature-controlled homes, take warm showers, and even drive to work in comfortable cars that have been in the garage all night. Most of us work, live, and spend our time in buildings that maintain a very comfortable temperature. This is much different than what our ancestors did.

There were no grocery stores for our ancestors to pick up their food, but they still had to eat in the wintertime. This meant that they had to be out in the elements finding food to survive. While they may be able to stay sheltered during a storm, their food reserves could not sustain them throughout the entire winter. Even in their shelter with the fire going, they didn’t maintain a perfect 70 degrees temperature throughout the winter months. 


Why it Matters? 

We often think that colder temperatures are not good for our immune systems and can cause us to get sick. But is this really true, or is that just a myth?

Our bodies have lots of systems in place to regulate our temperature - shivering, goosebumps, sweating, changes in metabolism, etc. I think it is good for our bodies to practice using these systems. While I am not suggesting we put ourselves in danger (frostbite, heatstroke, etc), we do not want these systems getting too lax either. If our bodies never have to challenge these systems, they likely won’t work as efficiently and effectively as in someone who uses them regularly. 

We all know that engaging our muscles by moving our bodies is extremely important. When we expose ourselves to colder temperatures we engage a whole different set of muscles called the arrector pili muscles. These muscles give us goosebumps. In order to engage these muscles, we must have a bit of cold exposure. 

Our bodies benefit from exposure to both cold and warm temperatures. Benefits are seen with more “extreme temperature exposure” in terms of mitochondrial function,  immune system, how we store fat, inflammatory levels, hormone production, cardiovascular system, improved blood sugar regulation, and detoxification.  Here is a great article as well as a scientific study with more details about hot and cold temperature exposure. 


How to Experiment with Extreme Temperature Exposure


• Listen to Your Body 

There is a difference between being slightly uncomfortable and experiencing pain. If you begin to feel pain, you are likely pushing yourself too far. When you are getting started, small doses and less extreme temperatures are definitely the way to go. Just as a pale person who hasn't been exposed to much sun would burn if they got a large dose of direct sunlight, a person who hasn’t spent time getting in extreme temperatures can suffer if they jump into this too quickly. 

• Talk to Your Doctor

Check with your doctor if you are interested in trying this. There are many potential health benefits, but it is important to be careful. If you are suffering from any health concerns or chronic disease, it is wise to be even more cautious with this. 

• Go for a Walk

Simply try to go for a walk outside on a cold or a hot day. I don’t want you to get frostbite, but you’d be surprised at what your body can handle (and actually enjoy). Your tolerance for these extreme temperatures will increase the more you experience them. Start small, and try longer walks as you gain confidence in your body's ability to handle it. Obviously, you can dress for the weather, but don’t let the winter weather completely deter you from moving outside! 

• Give Yourself a Burst of Cold Water

Try turning the temperature down right at the end of your shower. To begin with, start by turning the water to a slightly cooler temperature for a short duration of time. As you get used to doing this, turn the temperature down even more and extend the duration of the experience. Over time, aim for the coldest temperature that you can handle for 45-90 seconds. 

• Air Dry

When you get out of the shower, don’t grab the towel immediately. Let the water evaporate off of your body for a while. You will likely get goosebumps and shiver a bit. This is a good thing! 

• Turn the Temperature Down at Night

In their podcast about Healing Chronic Disease Dr. Hyman and Dr. Lepine discuss the benefits of extreme temperature exposure (36:37-39:00). They say that cold temperatures can actually help you get a better night's sleep! 

• Stimulate Your Diving Reflex

Submerging your face in cold water stimulates your diving reflex. Filling up a sink with cold water is the easiest way to try this at home. The diving reflex optimizes respiration by distributing oxygen to the brain and lungs. 

• Enjoy a Sauna

You may not be ready for a cold temperature immersion experience. That’s okay! Maybe you are open to heat exposure. If so, a sauna may be more your style. There are many benefits to spending time in the warmth of a sauna including cardiovascular health, immune support, and detoxification. Check out a more thorough explanation of the benefits of using a sauna here


Have you tried any of these extreme temperature exposure techniques? Do you enjoy the cold temperatures or do you tend to hibernate during the winter? What small step could you take today to embrace an extreme temperature exposure that your body can handle?

In addition to the benefits of extreme temperature exposure, the benefits of simply being outside are HUGE! I don’t want you to have to wait until spring to get back outside again! 


Dr. Jamie