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Can Ice Baths Fight Depression?

Updated: May 27

Depression is a bitch. It can come on quickly and linger for weeks, months, and even years. It’s energy sucking at its best and debilitatingly scary at its worst.

So it’s no surprise that we’re trying to conjure more unique (side-effect free) ways to combat depression. 

Cue cold exposure.

Reconnect ice baths in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

As someone who experienced a rapid shift in mental health (specifically depression and suicidal thoughts) as soon as the ice baths started, I can safely say I believe in their power. When we facilitate our ice baths here in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, we’re very fortunate to have a Caribbean view as we enjoy the cold effects.

The sunshine and ocean views can really help with symptoms of depression. But the cold itself is a powerhouse for boosting our ability to fight back against the 21st century’s most menacing ailment.

Depression and hypoarousal

For many experiencing depression, individuals can often drop into a state called hypoarousal. Also known as the freeze response, hypoarousal can be triggered by feelings of being threatened, trauma, or specific negative life-events. During this state, the body and mind can shut down, which is an adaptive response to trauma in order to conserve energy and prevent further harm. 

Our parasympathetic (rest and digest) completely takes over and we’re unable to turn on our sympathetic (fight or flight). We need the sympathetic to take care of ourselves, exercise, work, and complete many of the, otherwise mundane, tasks on a day to day basis.

We lack the energy to socialize, get out into the community, and we tend to lose our passion and purpose. Things don't seem exciting and ideas that once excited you, don't seem very interesting anymore.

So, when we enter the cold, the sympathetic kicks into hyperdrive, whether we want it to or not. Our breathing increases, our heart rate goes up, and our blood pressure spikes. It can be intense the first time. But as long as you control your breathing and take slow breaths, the ‘hurt’ fades after a minute. 

Your mammalian dive reflex kicks in and your heart rate decreases, your blood pressure goes down, and your breathing returns to normal. This is the moment when you realize you’re in control. And this shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic helps you realize that your brain is a tool that you manage, not something that manages you.

Norepinephrine: the anti-depressant hormone

Unlike white fat, which stores extra calories in the body, brown fat takes in sugar and white fat and converts them into energy. It does so by increasing our metabolism.

For this reason, when we experience depression, anxiety, or ADHD, doctors often prescribe drugs called norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (NRIs), which increase the amount norepinephrine in the brain by preventing its reuptake in the synapses, or spaces, between nerve cells. 

Yet, instead of taking a medication to increase your norepinephrine levels, why not just try ice baths instead? The water doesn’t even have to be that cold. Research has shown exposure to water at 14C (57F) can increase as much as 500%.

Oxytocin and self worth

Oxytocin is an interesting hormone that plays a number of roles in the body. The first of which is related to child birth. Oxytocin stimulates the muscles of the uterus to contract, and boosts the production of prostaglandins, which also increase uterine contractions. 

Women whose labor is slow to proceed are sometimes given oxytocin to speed the process. Once the baby is born, oxytocin helps to move milk from the ducts in the breast to the nipple, and to foster a bond between mom and baby.

​​Our bodies also produce oxytocin when we're excited by our sexual partner, and when we fall in love. That's why it has earned the nickname "love hormone.” Oxytocin has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety levels. Research suggests that oxytocin can have a positive impact on social behaviors related to relaxation, trust, and overall psychological stability.

So just imagine that for a brief moment. If you’re feeling symptoms of depression you might be  experiencing low levels of oxytocin. So instead of feeling relaxed and willing to trust another human, you’re feeling stressed and skeptic about everyone. Maybe you’re feeling skeptic about yourself and your own self worth. Sound familiar?

We should also point out that this connection of low oxytocin and depression is not a theory. Research has actually shown numerous times that low oxytocin levels have been linked to symptoms of depression, including postpartum depression, and anxiety.

It’s unclear exactly how much oxytocin increases, but numerous studies concur that it is markedly elevated upon exposure to the cold.

Feeling the hormone rush in an ice bath

Hormetic Stress

In 1887, German pharmacist Hugo Schulz was experimenting with yeast in an attempt to uncover improved disinfectants that could be used during surgery. He discovered that when he treated the yeast with high doses of toxic substances, the yeast would perish. However, If he injected a slightly smaller dose of toxins, the yeast’s metabolism increased and they would grow in size.

This experiment gave way to Shulz’s concept of hormesis. When you apply small amounts of stress to a living organism, the organism will grow in order to overcome the stress, and therefore build resilience to it.

So for us, hormetic stress is not allowing yourself to go throughout the week unchecked, unchallenged, and unstressed. It’s about applying small stressors in ways that allow you to grow stronger so that when real stress comes into your life you aren’t overwhelmed by it.

You can practice these stressors via ice baths, but exercise and saunas are also great forms of hormetic stress. Two less common forms of hormesis are breath holds and public speaking.

We shared an article about why breath holds are so healthy for you. But public speaking is one of those overlooked hormetic stressors that can not only help you overcome low confidence, but will help you to become more of an expert in your field as you prepare for each presentation.

I try and speak about different topics related to breath and cold therapy each time I do it so that I increase my knowledge and question any old beliefs.

Do ice baths cure depression?

Do we believe ice baths can help with depression?

We believe, and have seen, that yes in fact they can. Will it work for you? There’s only one way to find out. Search if there’s a community cold plunge in your area. If not, there are loads to purchase online that you can set up in your own place and invite your friends to join.

If you happen to find yourself in Playa del Carmen, Mexico you can swing by our beach-side ice baths and try out a “cool” new experience. If you really want to dive deeper into this knowledge, you can join one of our upcoming instructor certifications.


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