Do ice baths strengthen your immune system?

May 30 | Tom Harvey

Research has suggested ice baths can strengthen your immunity by stimulating the immune system through the shock of cold water immersion. Your body will go into a state of shock as your body temperature plummets, releasing white blood cells to fight off infection. As your body temperature increases and the immune system realises there’s nothing within the body to fight off, it will stabilise again.

However, this time spent getting itself ready to fight illness can be considered exercising the system, improving response time and effectiveness. The idea is that this ‘exercise’ strengthens the immune system, so the next time you have something for it to fight off, it will complete the job quicker.

Studies on the effectiveness of cold water immersion and immunity are limited, but the initial findings look promising to indicate a positive outcome.

How many ice baths promote boosting the immune system?

It’s been indicated through limited research that repeated use of cold water immersion can help boost immunity. Most participants saw an improvement in immune function after around six weeks of three ice baths per week. This is thanks to the active hormesis the cold exposure creates within your body, which is the biological reaction to a stressful environmental change. This kicks your body’s immune system into gear, possibly improving its efficiency in combating pathogens.

What are some of the potential immune system boosting benefits of ice bath use?

Can activate hormesis in the body

The body is clever and has a number of potential responses to fire when it goes into shock, such as sudden cold water exposure. The cold shock response is designed to reduce the heat loss in your body while also increasing heat production from within. This is a state of hormesis, otherwise known as the ‘what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger’ process. In short bursts of controlled body shock, you can spark your body into acting more efficiently to fight illness and disease.

The mild shock releases more immune cells

Research suggests that as the body attempts to warm itself during a cold shower, your metabolic rate increases and activates the immune system. This releases more white blood cells into the body, which can exercise them and make them stronger for next time. The more you ‘work out’ your immune system and white blood cells, the quicker they should become in fighting off infection.

May be detoxifying for the body

The body can detoxify itself from the inside out, provided you give it the right tools to utilise. One study showed that people who often partake in cold water immersion have relatively higher levels of glutathione, which is an essential antioxidant used for detoxifying the body. Cold water immersion has also been shown to help our bodies deal with free radicals more easily, too.

Can activate heat and cold shock proteins

The act of immersing yourself in cold water can positively impact the proteins within the body, otherwise known as our building blocks. Cold water therapy can activate heat shock proteins, which help manage proper cellular protein folding and can reduce inflammation in the body.

Cold therapy can also activate cold shock proteins, which are indicated to help with acute and age-related diseases, such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and more. There’s even research to suggest it helps prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. While more research is needed on cold shock proteins, the initial findings could mean an incredible medical breakthrough in the future.

Scientific evidence and findings on the impact ice baths have on boosting the immune system

Through initial findings of research into the link between cold water immersion and immune system boosting, researchers are confident in saying that regular ice baths can improve immunity. One study found that, despite cold exposure originally being considered a driving force behind precipitating a viral infection, brief exposure to cold water can mobilise cells and improve cell activity.

Another study concluded that the stress caused by cold water immersion techniques could increase the metabolic rate due to the shivering and elevated levels of catecholamines in the blood. This response activated the immune system slightly, which would only improve and strengthen over the continued use of ice baths.

A randomised control study found that the process of going from hot water to a cold shower over 30 consecutive days reduced the number of self-reported sickness absences from work. This indicates that the shock induced by the temperature change had a positive effect on their immune systems.

It’s worth noting that with all of these studies, all researchers noted that they’d need further testing to support their initial findings.

Are there any potential risks or precautions to consider?

There are certain risks associated with cold water immersion, which might affect your ability to use it as an immune system booster. For example, sudden immersion in cold water can send your body into shock. While we’ve mentioned the benefits of this mild shock above, it also has the potential to increase your heart rate and blood pressure, and rapidly quicken your breathing. These side effects can put extra strain on your heart, which could be a problem if you have pre-existing heart or lung conditions.

It’s advised that you talk to your healthcare provider before starting cold water immersion therapy, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions concerning your heart or high blood pressure.

How often should you consider using an ice bath to boost the immune system?

Research has indicated that repeated use of ice baths can make a small yet significant increase in immune system response, being spotted after continued use of three cold water immersion sessions per week for six weeks. To continue strengthening your immune system after this initial improvement, it’s recommended that you continue with three ice baths a week at a minimum.

Most people can only withstand ice baths for a couple of minutes, but the optimal time spent in one for maximum efficiency is between 5 and 10 minutes. You can work your way up to this by either starting off with ice bath plunges first or beginning your journey with tepid water immersion instead. These two alternate methods won’t be as effective at helping your immune system, but they might be a gentler method of easing yourself into longer ice baths.

Our in-house experts’ tips for using an ice bath to help with boosting the immune system

Greg Spurgin, co-founder and co-director of TH7 says:

Final thoughts

Research indicates that immersing yourself in cold water for between 5 and 10 minutes, three times a week, might improve your immune system’s functionality. Cold exposure can induce a mild state of shock throughout the body, which can kick the immune system into gear and ‘exercise’ it, strengthening it for when you actually need it to work.

There are benefits and drawbacks of cold water therapy, so make sure you weigh these up and talk to a professional before taking ice baths as a way to boost your immune system.