If you like to think of yourself as a biohacker, then you’ve likely come across cold thermogenesis before. It’s been written about and tested extensively by people ranging from a NASA scientist (Ray Cronise), famous self-experimenters (Tim Ferriss), world-record holders (Wim Hoff, a.k.a The Iceman), and a controversial neurosurgeon (Jack Kruse). It sounds a little ‘out-there’ or extreme, but you can judge for yourself. If you’re reading this then you probably take your health quite seriously, and like me, are willing to try things that most people would consider quite strange!
Shivering caused by short-term cold exposure (30 minutes) burns fat as a fuel for heat production.
Cold thermogenesis is a fat-burning state induced by exposing your body to the cold. That’s right: exposing your body to the cold. It sounds a little intense; a little uncomfortable perhaps. Certain aspects of it are, but we’ll get back to that. The benefits of cold thermogenesis are too many to ignore however:
- Lowering body fat
- Increasing hormone levels
- Improving sexual performance and fertility
- Lowering blood sugar
- Cutting food cravings
- Improving adrenal function
- Fixing thyroid issues
- Enhancing immune function
- Improving deep sleep quality
- Increasing pain tolerance
- Reducing inflammation
- Increase nervous system resilience and reduce hypersensitivity of stress systems
- Improved lymphatic circulation
- Improved cardiovascular circulation
- Cognitive enhancement
- Happiness: cold showers are an effective treatment for depression
Hormones and Fat
Before looking at how cold thermogenesis works, let’s learn a little more about fat, which is more complicated than just the (hated) rolls on our bellies. There are different types of fat. White adipose tissue (WAT) is what we typically think of as ‘fat’, like the marbling of a steak, or the baked-bean appearance of liposuction fat. WAT fat cells, called adipocytes, are made up of a single droplet of fat. This type of fat is found on your bum, stomach, hips, and legs.
Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is found in all mammals, with higher levels in babies, and often referred to as ‘fat-burning fat’. By no coincidence, it is found in higher levels in those who are exposed frequently to cold; BAT helps to keep you warm by generating heat by burning (WAT) fat. This fat-burning is possible in BAT because it contains mitochondria; energy-producing power plants that are also found in muscles, that burn fat (via beta-oxidation) and produce energy (via ATP synthesis). The mitochondria also gives BAT its colour. BAT is found mostly in the back of the neck and upper chest areas.1-3
Fat cells themselves produce hormones that signal to your body. Adiponectin is secreted by fat cells upon cold exposure. It increases fat burning (the oxidation of fatty acids in mitochondria), and builds your muscles and lowers your blood sugar (increases the uptake of glucose by muscle tissue). I repeat: Fat-burning, muscle growth, muscle repair, and enhanced workout recovery! Leptin is also secreted by fat cells. The more fat you have, the more leptin you produce. It is a ‘stop-eating’ hormone that plays a critical role in weight management and hunger. Once leptin is secreted by your fat cells, it travels to your brain where it tells you to stop eating. When you have less fat, leptin signals the brain telling you to eat. In the overweight and obese, inflammation causes leptin resistance: this means that your brain thinks you have less fat than you actually do, ignoring the ‘stop eating’ signals. This means unchecked appetite and continued fat storage. How is this relevant to cold thermogenesis? Cold thermogenesis helps to reverse leptin resistance by increasing leptin and insulin sensitivity.4,5
How Does Cold Thermogenesis Work?
Shivering caused by short-term cold exposure (30 minutes) burns fat as a fuel for heat production. Shivering also builds your muscles and lowers your blood sugar (by recruiting GLUT-4 receptors to the surface of muscles cells, which allows muscles to take up more glucose). Even at shorter durations shivering also causes increased adiponectin levels.
BAT thermogenesis is the creation of heat by BAT by burning fat upon exposure to cold. This happens even in the absence of shivering. Cold thermogenesis also increases the amount of BAT in your body.
Cold Thermogenesis in Action
Submerging Your Face in Cold Water
Before jumping into the cold shower or the ice bath, making your face cold is a good place to start, and thanks to our biology can still affect the rest of your body. The vagus nerve in your face is connected to the rest of the body; cold exposure to the face translates the effects to the rest of the body via the vagus nerve.
Fill a pan or the sink with cold water and some ice. Let the ice almost entirely melt, then dunk your face in the water. Hold it there as long as you can, or as long as you can hold your breath. Record the time and dunk again. Do this for two weeks before progressing to cold showers and ice baths. If you can tolerate it, then use a straw or a snorkel to breath while keeping your face immersed.
Try 5-10 minutes cold showers before breakfast and/or before bed. Use hot water for a couple of minutes, step out of the water and add shampoo to your head and soap to your face. Turn the water to cold and rinse your head and face, then your back, focusing on your lower neck and upper back. Stay here as you acclimatise and wash the rest of your body. Then, rinse off. You will have an intense urge to get out of the cold water. Breathing is the MOST helpful tool you have. Breathe in deeply to your diaphragm, then let it all out. Keep doing this and you’ll notice that as you breathe, you become numb to the cold. This is similar to the pain-numbing effects of breathing.
Once you’ve acclimatised to cold face exposure and cold showers you can move onto the big guns: ice baths. This may sound counterintuitive, but ice baths can be easier than cold showers. You don’t move around in the bath and it becomes numbing quite quickly.
Fill your bath with cold water, putting a couple of bags of ice. Wait until the ice is three-quarters melted, then get in. 15-20 minutes is the aim. You can start by immersing just your legs and half way up your torso, laying down to immerse your chest in the last 5 minutes.
Make sure you’re wearing compression clothes: for your legs and torso. The compression clothes prevent bruising and ruptured capillaries. Keep your extremities (fingers and toes) out of the water. Once you’ve got used to this, you can play around with mixing your favourite nootropic stack with the ice bath for enhanced cognitive effects.
- Never ice bath naked (compression shorts and shirt).
- Toes and fingers out of the water.
It may seem a little crazy to immerse your face in ice water, take a cold shower when you wake up and before bed, or to sit in an ice bath for 20 minutes. It’s certainly out of the norm, and away from the comforting heat of a hot shower. But comfort doesn’t always mean happiness, and there is a certain reward to being able to tolerate discomfort. The key is to start slowly and build yourself up; your body will gradually become adapted to the cold and you will start to enjoy the amazing feeling you get after 3 minutes under the cold water. At first it may seem shocking, but after 2-3 minutes under cold water your body realises that you’re not going to die and your nervous system chiiiiiilllls ouuuuuuutt (excuse the pun).
“Through discipline comes freedom…” – Aristotle
This super-relaxation of your nervous system, plus the reduction in inflammation is responsible for the clarity of mind you get after cold exposure, and the heightened sensory awareness that can enhance the sensitivity of sex and your taste buds. Once you break through the 3 minute ‘I’m going to die’ period, the benefits kick in and you feel amazing. After an ice bath the feeling is even more profound; you can be left with an almost climatic feeling of extreme clarity and comfort (and a lot of shivering!). But enough talk, just remember: don’t get cold feet turning that temperature down in the shower!
Dare you take the plunge into cold thermogenesis? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment using the comments box below.
- Ouellet, V., Labbé, S. M., Blondin, D. P., Phoenix, S., Guérin, B., Haman, F., … Carpentier, A. C. (2012). Brown adipose tissue oxidative metabolism contributes to energy expenditure during acute cold exposure in humans. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 122(2), 545–552.
- Ravussin, E., & Kozak, L. P. (2009). Have we entered the brown adipose tissue renaissance? Obesity Reviews: An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 10(3), 265–268.
- Virtanen, K. A., Lidell, M. E., Orava, J., Heglind, M., Westergren, R., Niemi, T., … Nuutila, P. (2009). Functional brown adipose tissue in healthy adults. The New England Journal of Medicine, 360(15), 1518–1525.
- Friedman, J. M., & Halaas, J. L. (1998). Leptin and the regulation of body weight in mammals. Nature, 395(6704), 763–770.
- Wisse, B. E., & Schwartz, M. W. (2009). Does hypothalamic inflammation cause obesity? Cell Metabolism, 10(4), 241–242.