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Biohacks: Cold Showers

Fathered by Dave Asprey - a New York Times best selling author, founder and creator of bulletproof coffee, and host of bulletproof radio, biohacking is the systematic, DIY approach to hacking our biology and attaining the absolute best, most superhuman version of ourselves. It is a mission towards greater energy and focus, sharper memory and cognition, better athleticism, smarter business performance, a cleaner bill of health, and an overall better you.

Many elements of this practice have stood the test of time and aren’t exactly novel approaches to self-improvement. They are merely re-introduced to us through the now ubiquitous, branded term ‘biohacking’ which as of 2018 is officially part of the English dictionary.

Just like any other fad that tries to sell shortcuts to biology, or any approach to life that claims to shortcut hard work, what the current iteration of biohackers is mostly selling is untested (or “It worked for me!”) health advice that is supposed to upend science. Trying these things tends to result in wasted money and time at best, or makes grand cause and effect conclusions that could be explained in any number of ways. But at the end of the day, if small investments in your health can accumulate to make you feel self-optimized, there's no reason not to partake. Especially, if they're quick, easy, and free.

The first hack we're going to discuss is something my elders have been preaching for years. But of course, I insisted it was an old-wives-tale until it became mainstream. How very millennial of me. Cold Showers. The 'official' practice says to finish your shower with a blast of icy cold water, having it hit you directly on your forehead and the front of your chest where the most cold-receptors are located. This is a painful and excruciating process, for me at least, so start with 10 seconds or as long as you can handle, and increase this length of time every day until your body doesn’t feel as strong a rejection to the process. An infamous Dutchman named Wim Hof, or "The Iceman", practices magnified levels of this cold exposure coupled with deep breathing techniques, and accredits this as the reason why at 60 yoa he is able to run half marathons barefoot and shirtless above the arctic circle, dive under ice at the North Pole and bathe in ice water for upwards of 90 minutes at a time. Echoing the logic behind ancient Lamaze techniques and pranayamic breathing practiced in yoga, Hof claims that oxygenating our bodies under the adrenaline-driven conditions of cold exposure activates our organs in a completely novel way, grants us access to strength we didn't know we had, boosts mitochondrial activity, and simultaneously puts us in a restorative hypometabolic state to counter anxiety and the stress response. Let's break down the most claims of benefit for this practice: 1. Cold showers stimulate weight loss - our body contains brown and white fat. The purpose of white fat is energy storage. It is what we are referring to when we think of ‘body fat’, and it is the result of storing excess calories. White fat gets broken down into fatty acids to be used for energy when our bodies require fuel. Brown fat, on the other hand, is more like insulation for our bodies. It burns calories to generate heat and in turn boosts weight loss. Cold exposure can result in a 15x increase in the concentration of brown fat in the body, translating to a 10-pound weight loss annually, just by taking cold showers. And at the same time, cold water immersion boosts your metabolism through the forced shivering! So not only are we burning fat from our thighs and waistlines but since our body has to work on overdrive to keep itself warm under the direct impact of cold temperatures, we are burning more calories overall as well. There is no substitute for a healthy diet and exercise routine but little aids and supplements do not hurt. 2. Cold showers strengthen our ability to regulate stress & help to relieve depression - lower temperatures help train the nervous system to be more resilient to stress. As the body adapts to the initial jolt at the impact of cold water, the reaction will begin to soften with subsequent exposure. The ability to manage this one small stress will eventually reflect in larger ways in our daily lives. Furthermore, cold immersion stimulates dopaminergic transmission in the mesocortical, mesolimbic, and nigrostriatal pathways. Let’s explain this - Our body is controlled by its nervous system - a giant web of connecting neurons (kind of like wires) that allow us to move, think and feel. Think about how electricity runs through many connecting wires in a device to complete an end task. In these devices, we bind wires together to spread an electrical impulse from one to another. But in the body, once an electrical impulse has traveled the length of one single neuron within a bundle of many which together make up a nerve, chemicals called neurotransmitters are released from the end and travel through a synapse/gap to the head of the next neuron where their uptake triggers the next impulse to begin, and so the impulse makes it from point A to point B. Envision the neurotransmitter as a car that has to travel towards a cliff at great velocity to jump across a valley to the other side. There are many neurotransmitters and each has a different purpose. Some promote elevated reactions, and some subdue them. Dopamine is part of the catecholamines group of neurotransmitters in the brain that promotes focus, enjoyment, and wellbeing. It is what makes you feel pleasure from eating chocolate or laughing or intimacy. One of the dopamine pathways also acts on the prefrontal cortex of our brain to maintain personality, control emotion, mood, perception, and impulses. So when we say that cold immersion stimulates dopamine transmission through its various pathways, we are saying that cold immersion has the ability to upregulate the release of dopamine to lift and stabilize our emotions, limiting impulsivity, promoting drive, reward, desire and pleasure and a number of other factors which when down-regulated present as symptoms of depression. The shock of cold water on our skin also generates an immediate response from our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for fight or flight behavior. The neurotransmitter involved here is Norepinephrine (NE). Now this means that cold exposure would trigger a response of stress/panic/anxiety, but in fact, a study on rats in 2003 (Jedema & Grace) found that chronic exposure to cold temperatures affected the rate at which cells in the locus coeruleus (spot of primary NE synthesis) adapted to the electrical current created by the sudden release of NE. This means that the stress trigger of cold exposure results in the thermal exercise of the locus coeruleus, allowing it to better regulate NE production and helping to alleviate conditions of NE dysfunction. 3. Cold showers boost immunity - People have been practicing cold water exposure since ancient times. In the first century, the Finnish would sweat their bodies in saunas before jumping into frozen lakes or streams. Some Native American tribes do the same as a part of religious ceremonies. Japanese practitioners of Shinto still today stand under icy waterfalls as a part of the ritual of Misogi which is believed to cleanse the spirit. In the 1820s a German farmer named Vincenz Priessnitz started spreading the word of a practice he called “hydrotherapy” which could be used to cure anything from broken bones to erectile dysfunction, just with cold water exposure. This practice drew the attention of the masses and similar practices started spreading from Europe to America. The most famous of which was founded by John Harvey Kellog, the man behind corn flakes. Scientifically speaking, one study found that routine hot to cold showers resulted in a statistically significant reduction of self-reported sick days and sickness-related absences (Buijze., et al). Many articles will tell you that cold exposure therapy can increase your WBC and their supposed reasoning is that the sudden low temperature forces the body to warm itself, boosting the speed of your metabolism, and therefore activating the immune system into producing more white blood cells. But I could not find one reputable study since 1999 which confirmed this in a statistically significant way. What may actually be the case is the following: 4. Cold showers help drain the lymphatic system - The lymphatic system is a network of vessels that run throughout our body, alongside our arteries and veins, and it is responsible for carrying waste out of our cells. It is crucial in defending against infections. Unlike the adjacent blood vessels which are constantly pumped by our heart to move blood along, lymph does not have a central pump. Instead, it relies on muscle contraction to move fluid through the vessels. This means the pump action is driven largely by exercise, movement, and massage. If the fluid is not moved and allowed to stagnate, toxins will build up within us, manifesting in colds, joint pains, infections and disease states. But cold exposure is yet another stimulant to our lymphatic system. It contracts the lymph vessels, and especially when this is done in alternation with heat exposure, it simulates a pumping action of the lymphatic system, therefore increases lymphatic drainage and subsequently boosts immunity. 5. Cold showers boost circulation - In the same way that lymphatic vessels are forced to constrict at the cold impulse, the circulatory system reacts too. Think about how your body reacts to cold environments. You suddenly clench up as an instinctive way to preserve heat. When exposed to the cold our blood vessels well constrict around the peripheries to shuttle as much blood as possible to our core, where our vital organs reside. With so much blood rushing to your heart it is forced to start working more efficiently to keep the blood circulating, thereby improving cardiovascular health, improving blood pressure and the risk of heart attack and stroke, and overall supplying every part of our body with fresh oxygen and nutrients. 6. Cold showers enhance spermatogenesis - The testes thrive in a cool environment and conversely hot baths have been observed to reduce sperm count and fertility. One study found that men who stopped taking hot showers found their sperm count to increase by as much as 491%. A well-cited, albeit outdated study from 1987 studied the optimal temperature for DNA, RNA and protein synthesis in the testes and found that there was a very delicate temperature sensitivity. It concluded that while the heat from warm showers can impair spermatogenesis, overcooling can also suppress testicular general metabolic activity. Maintaining temperatures of between 31 - 37C allowed for optimal sperm production. As you can see, there's certainly some merit to this old-wives-tale. Incorporating a quick burst of cold water into the end of your shower is something almost effortless. And, if all else fails, it will at least flex your discipline muscle, and give you shiny, sealed hair too boot. But THAT is another story. This content is strictly the opinion of Dr. Mashal Khan and is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. All viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Khan nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.


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