Why You Should Take Cold Showers

young_woman_under_the_showerWe all enjoy the comforts of modern life. There’s just no getting around the fact that modern transportation, electricity, and technology have made our existence better in many ways. However, if you’ve been reading this blog or stayed up-to-date on the research on nutrition and health, you know that the western lifestyle also comes with some “hidden” costs.

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how the hyper-rewarding and super-sized nature of the modern life impact us. We’ve been able to create drugs, foods, gadgets, and other products that were not a part of human life just a couple of centuries or even decades ago. If there’s one thing that many of these modern devices, foods, and drugs have in common, it’s that they provide a stimulus that is super-sized compared to what we’re adapted to handle.

Just think about all the people who essentially become addicted to junk food – and who can blame them? While lack of willpower certainly plays a role, the fact is that these foods contain a combination of ingredients that are not present in natural, whole food. Westernized foods are not really food, but rather products that are designed to be as rewarding and palatable as possible. These same mechanisms also apply to drugs, smoking, and other things people essentially become addicted to: They overwhelm our brain.

At this point you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with showering. Well, what is it that all of these things, including hot showers, have in common? They provide instant satisfaction, but there is always a downside.

Do you prefer instant pleasure over long-term wellness?

Just think about the dopamine rush that occurs when you eat a delicious doughnut. The immediate pleasure is great, but the “sugar crash” shortly after, addictive symptoms, and long-term health consequences aren’t. It might sound far-fetched to compare junk food to hot water showers, but bear with me here…

While clearly not as extreme as a food or drug “addiction”, many of the same principles apply to other areas of modern life, such as hot shower vs. cold shower, couch vs. exercise, and driving vs. walking.  While the immediate pleasure you get from a hot shower is great, there is no doubt that the “long-term” benefits of a cold shower far outweigh that of a hot one. Hot showers dry out your skin and hair and sometimes make you feel even more groggy a couple of hours later, but a cold shower wakes you up, makes you more alert, provides long-term health benefits, and “toughen you up”.

This is not to say that you should never check your twitter feed, take a hot shower, or chill out in the couch. All I’m saying is that you have to find a balance. If you’re one of those people who always prefer the instant satisfaction over the long-term benefits, chances are your health and well-being will decline fairly rapidly.

That’s the thing about modern life, contrary to our ancient ancestors, we have so many possibilities. This is in many ways a great thing, but it can also be challenging in the sense that we can pick the “easy” route. If we want, we can be sedentary our entire lives, we can eat junk food every day, and we can spend every night surfing the web or watching TV.

So, the question really becomes? Do you want to be one of those people who always prioritize short-term satisfaction, or do you want to belong to the group who prioritizes long-term health, well-being, and happiness? The answer on paper seems simple, but in real life it often isn’t. If you choose the latter, there are many ways of achieving this. Dialing in your diet, exercise routine, and sleeping patterns is high on the list of things to do. I don’t think being obsessive about these things is the way to go, but establishing good routines is clearly important. Another change you can make is to switch from hot showers to cold ones….

Acute stress vs. chronic stress

Over the last several years, I’ve probably only taken about 1-4 hot showers every month. That’s not to say that I don’t shower every day (no need to take the caveman thing out of proportions), but I use cold water. What started out as the occasional shower in mildly cold water has now turned into daily “ice-cold” showers. I typically jump in right away in fairly cold water and sometimes finish by turning the temperature down to almost as cold as it gets for the last 30 seconds or so.

So, why do I stick with this “crazy” routine? Well, first of all, if we really think about, cold showers aren’t crazy at all. During most of our evolutionary history, perfectly temperature regulated water was clearly not available. This  comes back to what I’ve talked about a lot on this blog: the discordance between our genes and the modern environment. While the occasional bouts of acute stress our ancestors faced, such as fleeing from a dangerous animal and swimming in an ice-cold river, are generally considered a good thing (unless you end up as food or drown of course), the chronic stress so many of us experience in the modern world isn’t.

With a few exceptions, we’ve basically eliminated acute stress from our lives and replaced it with chronic stress in the form of demanding jobs, school, and complicated family lives.

It’s no doubt in my mind that adding back some acute stressors is a good idea.

Benefits of cold showers

Personally, I didn’t start to shower in cold water because of the health benefits that are associated with cold water therapy. Rather, I started taking cold showers because they wake me up, give me more energy, don’t dry out my skin, and “reset” my body and mind. Also, they are great for the occasional headache. The great thing about taking a cold shower is that it’s so “easy” and convenient. Most of us have probably experienced the “brain fog” that accompanies long hours in front of the computer and noticed that the productivity slowly declines as you get fatigued and tired. What to do? A hard training session is definitely high up on the list of things that can get you back in the groove, but what if you’re already fatigued from your earlier workout that day, or what if you don’t have the time to go for a whole training session? A cold water shower is a great option. It only takes 5-15 minutes, and it leaves you feeling fresh and rejuvenated.

But what about the scientifically proven health benefits? Although there aren’t that many studies directly investigating the effects of normal cold water showering (e.g., 5 minutes every morning), there are promising data which show that cold water exposure could

  • Boost weight loss (1, 2, 3)
    Brown fat, “the good fat”, is activated when we’re exposed to extreme cold in order to generate energy and keep our body warm.
  • Relieve depressive symptoms
    “A lifestyle that lacks certain physiological stressors that have been experienced by primates through millions of years of evolution, such as brief changes in body temperature (e.g. cold swim), and this lack of “thermal exercise” may cause inadequate functioning of the brain” (4).
  • Speed up recovery after training (5)
  • Strengthen immunity (6)
  • Increase testosterone levels and fertility (6)
  • “Harden” the body
    E.g., by resulting in an increased tolerance to stress and cold (7, 8, 9).

Despite these impressive possible benefits of taking cold water showers, I think it’s important not to overestimate the effects. Good sleep, nutrition, and exercise are the things that lay the basis for a healthy life, and cold water showers are more like the icing on the cake. I also think it’s important to note that it has to be cold. You have to be uncomfortable!

Cold water showers toughen you up

I saved one of the most important benefit of taking cold water showers to the end: They teach you how to be uncomfortable. Check out this excellent TED Talk for a good description of what I’m talking about.

Bottom line: Don’t always choose the comfortable route.

What about you? Are you going to start showering in cold water? Or are you too fond of the comfortable hot water?


  1. Maybe so, but I do warm then cool. I see no need to shock myself into a heart attack at my age:P

    Great article, though. For you youngsters. Hahaha!

  2. What about the association between cold showers / ice baths and cortisol elevations? Cortisol ain’t bad in moderation, but daily elevations are counterproductive to my goals (strength / lean body mass). Maybe I’m overthinking things, but I dropped this method due to my own anecdotal experience with it. Study: Kauppinen, K., et al., Some endocrine responses to sauna, shower and ice water immersion. Arctic Med Res, 1989. 48(3): p. 131-9.

    • Hi Mitch! This comes back to what I discussed in the article about the distinction between acute and chronic stress. It’s chronically elevated cortisol levels that you should fear, not the “spike” in cortisol that occurs during exposure to an acute stressor like a cold water shower.

      Like the authors of the study you refer to note:

      “The tendency toward enhanced ACTH and cortisol secretion and sympathetic activity shown by increased catecholamine secretion suggest that the winter swimming practice may raise the pain threshold and develop a potential for improved cold tolerance, possibly by nonshivering thermogenesis.”

  3. Nan Deardorff-McClain says:

    Hi Eirik, I loved this piece and the TedX talk was also inspiring. Have you ever watched the film, “My Dinner with Andre”? Your blog post brought it to mind. I recommend it if you have not seen it.

  4. I’ve done cold showers for a while now and read about them a fair bit, and I have to say I think people are rather exaggerating their value. There seems to be very little empirical evidence for the health claims (I see the same blogs cited again again rather than studies; I am sick to the back teeth of seeing that Art of Manliness article), particularly those related to testosterone and fat burning. I think the fat burning effect of cold showers, if any, will turn out to be like the much overstated EPOC of interval training, negligible. Psychologically, I guess this depends on the individual, but I don’t really see how forcing yourself under cold water for a short period is any different from forcing yourself to keep running in order to make your time or to keep lifting to make your reps, both of which have proven effects.

    They do make my hair look better though.

  5. I have heard that in Japan they take cold showers from time to time to strengthen the autoimmune system but I didn’t know it also increased testosterone and fertility.

  6. where are any scientific studies? this is just a loaded bunch of crap with references to another websites instead of empirical evidence, most of the claims are false and anyone can check it by searching google scholar

  7. Thank you for writing this Erik! I’ve been taking cold showers for the past 3-4 months and the benefits are amazing.

    It’s interesting how you make the connection between cold showers being a way of delaying gratification. I’ve noticed that in an effort to delay gratification, I’ve actually obtained more gratification than I could’ve ever imagined.

    Do you by any chance have any more articles on the subject?


  1. […] palatable, and safe foods rich in starch, sugar, and/or fat, and we take hot showers instead of cold ones because cold showers provide an intermittent burst of stress and are more costly in terms of energy […]

  2. […] given at higher doses. Basically, he approaches myopia just like you would strength training or cold water showers. To cause an adaptation to strength training, you have to lift heavy weights and work at the edge […]

  3. […] take a very cold shower about 1-3 hours before going to sleep. This is something I recently started doing which I feel has […]

  4. […] a very cold shower about 1-3 hours before going to sleep. (This is something I’ve found to be very […]

  5. […] I’m here to tell you that you should forget all of that – and instead opt for a cold shower, either shortly before going to bed or a couple of hours prior to hitting the […]

  6. […] 6. Garnas G. “Why You Should Take Cold Showers.” Darwinian Medicine. 1 Aug 2014. http://darwinian-medicine.com/why-you-should-take-cold-showers/. 7. Lira FS, Pimentel GD, Santos RV, Oyama LM, Damaso AR, et al. “Exercise training improves […]

  7. […] to Eirik from Darwinian Medicine, taking a cold shower can cause what is referred to as “acute stress”. This means that […]

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