This summer and fall the outdoors were a welcome respite to the isolation that came with the pandemic. You could go outside, feel the sunshine on your face, get some movement, and be around others at a safe distance.
Now that the weather has turned colder, you may prefer to stay inside where the temperature is well regulated. However there are so many benefits to embracing the cold weather and engaging in extreme temperature exposures that you may want to reconsider the great outdoors.
You may be surprised to learn that that exposure to the cold has many health benefits, especially if you really dislike the cold. But 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!
A Look At History
I often look at how our ancestors lived as a guide to what is natural for the human body. When it comes to cold exposure there is a huge discrepancy between how our ancestors experienced the weather and how we experience it today.
Most of us work, live, and spend our time in buildings that maintain a very comfortable temperature. We wake up in temperature-controlled homes, take a warm shower, and drive to work in comfortable cars that have been in the garage all night.
But our ancestors had to be out in the elements finding food to survive. They may have been able to stay sheltered during a storm, but their food reserves could not sustain them throughout the entire winter. Even in their shelter with the fire going, they didn’t maintain the kind of comfortable temperatures we do throughout the winter months.
Why is it Important?
Our bodies have systems in place to regulate our temperature - shivering, goosebumps, sweating, changes in metabolism, etc. It is good for our bodies to practice using these systems! 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.
Benefits that are seen with more “extreme temperature exposure” include mitochondrial function, immune system, how we store fat, inflammatory levels, hormone production, cardiovascular system, improved blood sugar regulation, and detoxification.
By exposing ourselves to colder temperatures we actually engage a whole different set of muscles called the arrector pili muscles. These muscles give us goosebumps, but in order to engage these muscles we must have a bit of cold exposure.
A Word of Caution
First of all, it is important to listen to your body. There is a difference between feeling slight discomfort 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.
You should also check with your doctor before 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.
How to Experiment with Extreme Temperature Exposure
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!
Drive without the heat on - When you get in your car, resist the urge to turn the heat on right away. Choose to embrace the cold for a couple miles at first and gradually build up to more.
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.
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!
Do you enjoy the cold temperatures or do you tend to hibernate throughout the winter? What small step could you take today to embrace an extreme temperature exposure that your body can handle?