Current science review indicates that an icy swim may reduce “bad” body fat, but other health benefits are unclear.
Taking a bath in cold water can reduce “bad” body fat in men and lower the risk of conditions such as diabetes. These are the results suggested by an important scientific review published on September 22 in International Journal of Circumpolar Health, a Peer-reviewed journal.
According to the authors, many of the 104 studies they analyzed demonstrated significant effects of cold water swimming, including also on brown fat, also called “good” fat, which helps burn calories. They say it may protect against obesity and cardiovascular disease.
However, the review was inconclusive overall on the health benefits of cold water bathing, an increasingly popular pastime.
Much of the available research involved small numbers of participants, often of only one sex, and with differences in water temperature and salt composition. Moreover, it is unclear whether winter swimmers are naturally healthier, according to the team of scientific experts comprising authors from the UiT journal The Arctic University of Norway and the University Hospital of North norway.
“From this review, it is clear that there is growing scientific support that voluntary exposure to cold water may have beneficial health effects,” says lead author James Mercer, of the Uit.
“Numerous studies have demonstrated significant effects of cold water immersion on various physiological and biochemical parameters. But whether or not these are beneficial to health is difficult to assess.
“Based on the results of this review, many health benefits claimed from regular exposure to cold may not be causal. Instead, they may be explained by other factors, including a active lifestyle, trained stress management, social interactions, and a positive mindset.
“Without further conclusive studies, the subject will continue to be debated.”
Weight loss, increased libido, and improved mental health are among the many health and wellness claims made by regular cold water immersion enthusiasts or derived from anecdotal reports.
Exposure to cold also appears to increase production of the hormone adiponectin by adipose tissue. This protein plays a key role in protecting against insulin resistance, diabetes and other diseases.
This activity is the subject of growing interest around the world and takes many forms such as swimming in cold water during the winter.
Determining whether intentional exposure to cold water has any effects on human health was the main objective of the review. The methodology involved a detailed survey of the scientific literature.
Studies in which participants wore wet suits, accidental immersion in cold water, and water temperatures above 20 degrees centigrade were excluded from the review.
Topics covered by studies eligible for review included inflammation, the immune system, adipose tissue, blood circulation, and oxidative stress.
Immersion in cold water has a major impact on the body and triggers a shock response which includes an elevated heart rate.
Evidence that cardiovascular risk factors are in fact improved in swimmers who have adapted to the cold has been provided by some studies. However, other research suggests that the workload on the heart is further increased.
The review provided information on the positive links between swimming in cold water and brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of “good” body fat that is activated by cold. BAT burns calories to maintain body temperature, unlike “bad” white fat which stores energy.
Exposure to cold in water – or in the air – also appears to increase the production of the hormonal protein adiponectin by adipose tissue. It plays a key role in protecting against insulin resistance, diabetes, and other diseases.
According to the review, repeated immersions in cold water during the winter months significantly increased insulin sensitivity and decreased insulin concentrations. It was for inexperienced and experienced swimmers.
However, the researchers point out that the profile of the swimmers participating in the studies varied. They included a wide range of people from elite swimmers and established winter swimmers to those with no winter swimming experience.
Others weren’t strictly ice bathers but used cold water immersion as a post-exercise treatment.
According to the authors, education is also needed about the health risks associated with swimming in freezing water. These include the consequences of hypothermia and heart and lung problems that are often linked to cold shock.
Reference: “Health Effects of Voluntary Exposure to Cold Water – A Constant Subject of Debate” by Didrik Espeland, Louis de Weerd and James B. Mercer, September 22, 2022, International Journal of Circumpolar Health.
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