What doesn’t kill us… Thoughts on hormesis.

Not your average beach

It’s 6AM. The sound of the alarm rudely interrupts my sleep. I reach out and fumble with my phone trying to turn it off. Throwing off the covers I drag myself into the bathroom. The light is too bright and my eyes refuse to open. I blindly turn the shower tap on, take a big breath and jump in… My eyes open wide, shiver runs down the spine, my body shoots upright – the water is freezing cold. I slowly count backwards from 30 while feverishly rubbing myself warm, cursing my mother and my Russian heritage under my breath. After reaching zero, I decide I can stay another 10 breaths. That’s enough. I jump out, dry myself off and look at my reflection in the mirror. The eyes are bright and have a crazy glint in them, the skin looks pink and glowing, stupid grin on my face.

What is this madness???

In Finland the practice of ice-water swimming is called Avantouinti, in Russia its practitioners are named “morzhi” (“walruses”). The less threatening variation is cold water dousing, an old tradition with roots in asceticism and naturopathic healing, frequently practised with fasting. One of the leaders of the movement in Russia was Porfiry Ivanov, regarded a holy man and a healer to some and heretic to others, born in a small Northern Russian village, not far from where I grew up. Porfiry and his followers believed that if the body can withstand any hardships such as extreme cold and hunger both the body and the spirit will get stronger in the process. “Magical thinking” aside, the idea was not unique to them. The practitioners of ice-water swimming all over the world maintain that exposure to cold improves your immunity and circulation. Footy players use cold baths for recovery, many athletes immerse their tired and injured limbs into icy water. Look up “ice-water swimming” on YouTube or Google and you will find endless shots of scantily clad Norwegians/Finns/Russians/Americans enthusiastically plunging into dark icy waters.

As a little girl in Russia, I watched with fascination as our neighbour, a dainty 40-something lady who worked as a primary school teacher, would go outside in her swimsuit with a bucket of water on a cold winter’s day when average temperatures would plunge to minus 20 Celsius. She stood barefoot on the snow, poured some water over herself then rubbed some snow over her legs, arms and face. Glued to the window, I would follow the 5-minute ritual with a sense of admiration and envy promising myself that one day I will try it.

The [perceived] health benefits of cold water immersion are closely related to the concept of hormesis which originated in toxicology where it described a biphasic dose response. In other words, a substance which a toxic in large doses can be actually beneficial and protective in small doses. In health and medicine it has been defined as “an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.”

Many everyday stressors may be described as hormetic: lifting heavy weights once or twice a week stresses your muscles and forces them to adapt to that stimulus by growing bigger and getting stronger.  Increase the stress dose too much and suddenly your muscles go past the tipping point. Instead of the beneficial effect, your hormetic stimulus has turned toxic and your body starts to play catch up in its attempt to recover.

It has been speculated that alcohol might be classified as a hormetic stimulus: a little is good for you, a little more is neutral, a little more still and you are in trouble.  Antioxidants may fall in the same category: a punnet of blueberries stimulates your body’s defense against the free radicals but a concentrated dose taken in a pill form will overwhelm it.

Five minutes in the icy water might be a healthy training stimulus for the immune system which is ready for it.  Ten minutes might be enough to cause a system shutdown in the same person. I don’t like using the word “moderation” because it reeks of food industry hypocrisy giving us permission to eat their junk. But use common sense (yes, I know, common sense doesn’t seem to be very common).

The major benefits to taking a cold shower that I have personally noticed is better cold tolerance. I used to be THAT rugged-up-to-the-nose person at the meeting who always closed the windows and turned the air conditioner off. This has improved dramatically since I started eating primal, and even more so now. Now I’m frequently the only person in the hospital wearing a short sleeve top. Cold shower also does a great job waking me up in the morning, the short surge of adrenaline firing me up before work or exercise.

So how do you get started?

1. Start with a 10-15 seconds of cooler water after a hot shower
2. Do it daily, otherwise you will feel tempted to feel sorry for yourself and look for excuses to avoid it.
3. Gradually reduce the temperature and increase the time under cold water.
4. Do not take too long to “build up to it”. It will NEVER feel comfortable. After 3-4 days of preparation just turn the bloody hot water off!
5. Immerse your head as soon as possible! It carries the greatest effect and makes the rest of the body feel tingly and pleasantly cool.
6. Enjoy the feeling of discomfort. Ok, that just sounded weird. But trust me, you will know what I mean.

Don’t overthink it. If you are searching PubMed for a study on cold water immersion right now, you are overthinking it. Just do it.