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  • Writer's pictureSara Strachan

The Cold Water Swimming Revolution - why is everyone going bonkers over icy dips?

In every seaside town crazy people can now be seen flocking to the sea on wintery mornings. Travel mugs in hand, dryrobe clad, beanie hat, possibly some cake stashed and a splash of neoprene on their extremities.

What's with this new wave of cold water swimming? Is it just a trend or is it here to stay? Why do people voluntarily get crazy cold in the winter ?

We delve into some of the science behind why this bonkers activity might actually be here to stay.


Mood Booster

Ask anyone who's dipped their toes into chilly seas and I'll bet they tell you about the euphoric feeling they get from their teeth chattering activity.

One clinical trial by Srámek found that cocaine increases dopamine by 2.5x and peaks after 9 minutes. The cold water immersion is the only other behaviour they found to also increase dopamine by 2.5x, however its affects peak after two and a half hours rather than the crash after 9 minutes when comparing to cocaine. So no wonder people are coming back for more icy swims when it gives them a prolonged natural high not even comparable to class A drugs.

The university of Bournemouth did a trial where they took MRI brain scans before & after a 5 minute cold water immersion in water of 20 degrees Celsius.

The findings explain why people often feel more upbeat and alert after outdoor swimming or taking ice cold baths.

Comparing the pre and post immersion scans showed that changes had occurred in the connectivity between two specific parts of the brain.

“These are the parts of the brain that control our emotions, and help us stay attentive and make decisions,” Dr Yankouskaya said. “So when the participants told us that they felt more alert, excited and generally better after their cold bath, we expected to see changes to the connectivity between those parts. And that is exactly what we found.”

The team are now planning to use their findings to understand more about depression and anxiety. These same two areas of the brain "have different wiring when people have conditions such as depression and anxiety,” Dr Yankouskaya explained.

“Learning how cold water can rewire these parts of the brain could help us understand why the connectivity is so different for people with these conditions, and hopefully, lead to alternative treatments". 


Possible Metabolism Benefits

If you mention cold water swimming in a conversation there's always someone who mentions it burns brown fat! So what is brown fat and does cold water have special fat zapping qualities?

Some scientists have found that brown adipose tissue (BAT) has been found to be activated in our bodies from cold water exposure. BAT is considered a ‘healthier’ type of fat, which can help keep us warm by turning glucose and fatty acids in our blood into heat. In theory, this may help the body burn more calories, but more research is needed on this topic.


Pain Relief

There's lots of anecdotal evidence suggesting that cold water dips are beneficial for people living with chronic pain, such as arthritis.

This effect might be because of the reduction of inflammatory markers in the body or may simply be due to a ‘numbing effect’ caused by the cold on our bodies.


Nature

There has to be something said for plopping yourself in nature, being able to see the horizon and removing yourself from modern day screens/infrastructure.

It has been shown that allowing our eyes to relax and view a wider panorama, the body is able to switch off the stress response. So by expanding our visual field we can induce a state of calm and redustress.

There's also the 'Blue Mind Thoery' which is a term used to describe the mildly meditative state of water-associated peace people fall into when they are near, in, under or on water.


Exercise

Everyone knows that exercise releases endorphins that make you feel great so couple this benefit of swimming, with the above cold water and nature bonuses and it might explain why this cold water obsession might well be here to stay.


From a personal perspective, I got into regular sea dips in Brighton from around March until October. On the days I went in, I definitely noted that afterwards had a prolonged feeling of being energised and upbeat. So if you haven't given it a go yet then maybe this is your sign to get chilly and eat cake afterwards !



Sources







Wallace J Nichols, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that shows how being near, in, on or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do



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