The Surprising Benefits of Getting Cold
By Amy Schade, PA-C
It is widely accepted that cold water exposure can help reduce inflammation and soreness after physical activity. Professional athletes are often found in an ice bath after a game. Interestingly, the benefits of cold exposure likely span far beyond this. Research is now demonstrating that cold water exposure may be able to improve immune function, help create new mitochondria in your cells, and help to improve mood through the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Mitochondrial biogenesis is a term that means the mitochondria in a cell are growing in size or total number. Mitochondria are responsible for producing ATP; the energy subunit the cells use to function. When mitochondria are lacking or not functioning well it is termed mitochondrial dysfunction. And this mitochondrial dysfunction is correlated with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Type 2 Diabetes, and other chronic diseases. In Parkinson’s disease specifically, there is an inhibition of mitochondrial biogenesis which contributes to the symptoms associated with the disease. A study published in 2014 demonstrated that cold exposure caused a cascade of events in the body that led to mitochondrial biogenesis. Since we know that mitochondrial dysfunction is likely responsible for many chronic diseases, it is logical that mitochondrial biogenesis may be able to delay or reduce the likelihood of some of these chronic diseases.
Most are familiar with the notion that if you go outside in the cold without a coat, you will get sick. Ironically, it appears that the exact opposite might be true. An article published in 1999 in the Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrates that cold exposure increased natural killer cell activity and IL-6 concentrations. This means that cold exposure can increase both the adaptive and innate immune response to illness. In the study, subjects showed a significant increase in these immune function markers after sitting in a room at 40°F for two hours. This research demonstrates that short periods of cold exposure can boost immune function, but prolonged cold exposure likely has a detrimental impact on immune function. There is likely a happy medium with cold exposure that research will need to tease out.
A class of drugs called serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or SNRIs are widely used today to help treat depression. Duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor) are two types of SNRI drugs that are widely used in the United States to treat not only depression and anxiety but also some chronic pain syndromes. Studies have shown that norepinephrine levels in the body can increase as much as 200 to 300% in response to cold temperatures. Since we know increased levels of norepinephrine in the form of SNRI medication can help to reduce depression and anxiety, there are likely similar benefits to higher levels of norepinephrine from cold exposure.
Getting out of your thermodynamic comfort zone may have a wide variety of health benefits. Not only can cold exposure be beneficial after athletic activity, but it also shows promise in the preventative health aspect of stimulating mitochondrial biogenesis. Although more research will be needed to understand the dynamic impact of cold exposure, it appears that cold exposure can reduce symptoms of depression and improve aspects of both your innate and adaptive immune response.
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