The relationship between cold showers and testosterone is a topic of much controversy.
There are articles that write off cold shower benefits as complete bullshit while others claim that they can give you damn near superpowers.
I've been taking cold showers for more than three years and if there's one thing I know for sure, it's this:
The days that I start with a cold shower always go more productive than the days that I don't.
But you're not here for my opinion - you want facts.
In this article I'll discuss the science behind cold exposure and how it can help increase your energy levels, improve your mood, fight off inflammation, boost your immunity, speed up fat-loss, and even develop your discipline.
Let's do this.
Cold showers may be all the rage these days but the concept is nothing new. The use of cold water as a therapeutic has been recorded in ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman civilizations.
Hippocrates, aka the "Father of Medicine," often prescribed bathing in spring water as treatment for a variety of illnesses. Spartan warriors submerged in ice cold water as a means to boost their mental toughness and vitality. The Powhatan Indians bathed their babies in the cold waters of Chesapeake Bay to toughen them up. Ancient Russians regularly dipped (and still dip) into ice cold rivers as a means of spiritual cleansing.
With the inventions of plumbing and water heating, however, the practice of cold water exposure became less common. By the 19th century, it had become a lost art until Vincenz Priessnitz, an Austrian peasant, resurfaced what we now know as hydrotherapy.
In 1816, Vincenz broke his ribs and the doctor diagnosed his injury as fatal and crippling. Refusing to accept the diagnosis, Priessnitz took matters into his own hands and healed himself by applying wet bandages to his chest. His full recovery made him confident and he later developed techniques for healing others as well. Soon enough, queues of people were lining up to receive treatment from him and in 1822 he repurposed his fathers house into the first of its kind sanatorium and spa for his patients.
Cold water exposure is an ancient practice that has recently resurfaced and begun making waves in biohacking and peak performance communities due to the plethora of scientific evidence that has come out revealing its many positive side effects.
Cold exposure provides a host of proven health benefits, as you'll read about below.
But what exactly is the link between cold showers and testosterone?
Does this mean that the cold shower testosterone benefits are just a myth?
Not quite. What it actually means is that there are currently no studies that have observed the phenomenon.
An important point to understand about scientific research is that a lot of it is driven by economics. Since cold water is cheap and no one owns the rights to it, there is no financial incentive to drive the research on its testosterone boosting effects.
Also, keep in mind that cold exposure is an umbrella term that includes all types of cold therapies ranging from cryotherapy, ice-baths, cold showers, etc. The benefits discussed below are of cold exposure in general and vary based on temperature and amount of time spent under the exposure. So don't expect the results from cryotherapy, for example, where subjects are exposed to temperatures below -150°F (-100°C), to carry over to cold showers or vice versa.
With that being said, let's dive in to the scientifically proven benefits of cold exposure.
The positive effect of cold exposure on mood is so profound that researchers have been studying cold showers as a possible measure against depression.
What are the mechanisms behind this boost in mood?
Well, it all ties back to a hormone called norepinephrine.
Cold water exposure stimulates your body's fight-or-flight response and your sympathetic nervous system responds by causing a massive release of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine functions as a neurotransmitter and works to enhance your focus, mood, and attention. This is why anyone who's taken a cold shower before can attest to the heightened levels of energy they experience afterwards.
On the flip side, low levels of norepinephrine relate to a lack of focus, low energy, and depression. In fact, part of how antidepressants work is by stimulating norepinephrine up takers in your brain.
In this study, 1-hour of cold water immersion at 57°F (14°C) increased norepinephrine production by 530% and dopamine by 250% - both of which go hand-in-hand to induce a massive lift in energy and focus.
Inflammation is a biological process that serves the purpose of initiating cellular repair.
In the presence of an acute stressor, like lifting weights, inflammation is what signals the muscles to grow back bigger and stronger after a workout. When you get injured, inflammation is what gets rid of the damaged cells and keeps further damage at bay.
But a major problem we face in modern society is that we've developed a dysfunctional relationship with stress, i.e. we're exposed too much to the bad type of stress, aka distress, and too little to the good type of stress, aka eustress.
The result? Chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is the root cause behind aging and almost all age-related diseases. On the contrary, studies observing some of the longest living people on Earth have identified chronic inflammation as the one biomarker that predicts survival and cognitive function across all ages.
Now, you might be wondering:
What does inflammation have to do with cold showers and testosterone?
Well, chronic inflammation lowers testosterone levels and cold showers can play a role in helping to reduce it.
In the previous point, we went over how cold exposure initiates a massive increase of norepinephrine production. Along with elevating mood, norepinephrine also plays a role in massively reducing inflammation.
Studies show that norepinephrine fights off inflammation by decreasing the activity of a molecule called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) - a potent inflammatory marker. Increased amounts of TNF-alpha have been observed in people with almost every chronic disease ranging from type 2 diabetes to IBS and even cancer.
The immune system consists of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect your body against infections and disease. There is a lot of evidence surrounding the effectiveness of cold water exposure in boosting immunity.
In this study, researchers brought in 3018 participants between the ages of 18 and 65 and randomized them to take cold showers for 30, 60, or 90 seconds over 30 days. Compared to the control group that did not take cold showers, the subjects taking cold showers had a 29% reduction in illness absence from work.
In another study, researchers found that men swimming in winter had a 40% decreased incidence of respiratory tract infections.
So how exactly does cold water immersion boost your immunity?
Well, in a study on young athletic males long-term cold water immersion (3x a week for 6 weeks) increased lymphocyte numbers. Lymphocytes are white blood cells, and this finding is in line with another study that showed habitual winter swimmers to have a higher white blood cell count compared to men that don't swim in the winter.
The evidence regarding cold exposure and a boosted immunity is still preliminary and more studies are needed to verify the temperature and amount of time at which it is most beneficial, but the current research is promising.
Perhaps the most touted benefit of cold exposure is that of increasing fat-loss. The mechanism behind this is called thermogenesis - the production of heat by the body. There are two types of thermogenesis through which your body burns fat.
The first type is called shivering thermogenesis, which takes place in muscle tissue. In response to the cold, your body increases energy metabolism and produces heat via muscle contractions.
The second type is called non-shivering thermogenesis, which takes place in adipose tissue, aka fat tissue.
Here's a brief overview of the process behind non-shivering thermogenesis:
Once again, norepinephrine enters the picture. An increase of norepinephrine increases expression of a protein called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1), which uncouples the mitochondria - the energy-producing powerhouses of cells.
When mitochondria are coupled, there is a connection between the units of energy (ATP) and the transport of electrons (which are derived from the food you eat). This creates an electrochemical gradient across mitochondria which is negatively charged on the inside and positively charged on the outside.
When cold exposure activates the uncoupling protein, it uncouples the electromagnetic gradient, and there is no longer a negative or positive terminal in the mitochondria. The mitochondria respond to this by trying to re-establish the gradient by transporting electrons, which are derived from stored body fat through a process called fat oxidation, and heat is produced as a byproduct.
The uncoupling also increases metabolism by producing more mitochondria in adipose tissue, which causes a browning effect by converting white adipose tissue into it's more metabolically active counterpart, brown adipose tissue (BAT).
The function of BAT is to transfer energy from food to heat.
In this study, researchers brought in 24 men - 10 who were lean, 14 who were overweight - and assessed their brown adipose tissue activity during cold exposure. BAT activity was increased in 23 of the 24 men with significantly higher activity taking place in the lean men. Researchers also found a significant negative correlation between BAT activity and body fat percentage, i.e. higher BAT activity translated to lower body fat and vice versa.
Now, you might be wondering:
Can taking a 5-minute cold shower really help me lose more fat?
Perhaps but, again, keep in mind that the extent of your results will come down to the temperature of water and the amount of time spent under exposure.
For example, in this study young men exposed to air temperatures between 59-61°F (15-16°C) for 6 hours a day for 10 consecutive days experienced a 37% increase in their brown adipose tissue.
In another study, young men exposed to cold water at a temperature of 68°F (20°C) for one hour experienced a 93% increase in their metabolic rate, while one hour of exposure at a temperature of 14°C (57.2°F) increased metabolic rate by 350%.
Given the context of these studies, it is unlikely that a 5-minute cold shower will affect fat-loss to the same extent. That being said, the correlation between cold exposure and an increase of brown adipose tissue has been clearly demonstrated.
Every second of every day your body is going through anti-oxidation processes to get rid of damaging compounds. One such compound is called reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS damages nearly everything inside cells, including DNA, and it also plays a role in accelerating the aging process.
Cold exposure activates a potent genetic antioxidant system that is exponentially more powerful than any antioxidant you could supplement with.
In this study, young men exposed to cryotherapy for 3 minutes everyday for 20 days experienced a 2x increase of glutathione reductase activity and a 43% increase in superoxide dismutase activity - both of which are amongst the most potent antioxidants in the human body.
Similar results were found in this study on elite kayakers who were exposed to 3 minutes of cryotherapy everyday for 10 minutes after which they experienced a 36% increase in superoxide dismustase and a 68% increase in peroxidase.
Submerging in ice cold water was common practice amongst Old-school Soviet powerlifters. As it turns it, those guys were on to something.
In this study, whole body cryotherapy 1 hour after plyometric exercise improved performance measures for up to 72 hours after the treatment. Exerted power at the start of a squat jump and pain measures at rest during the next jumping session were also improved.
An important point, though, is that cold exposure should not be engaged in directly after a resistance training session as this could actually reduce long-term muscle growth. This was demonstrated in men that performed sets of leg press and squat jumps, immediately followed up by going into cold water. The men exposed to cold water directly after a workout had only a third of an increase in muscle mass and strength 10 weeks later compared to the men that did no cold water immersion after training.
After reading about the benefits above, it should be clear how cold exposure can drastically increase the quality of your health and life.
But here's the caveat:
The cold exposure research that revealed the best results was performed in either cryotherapy chambers or in subjects that submerged in ice cold water for hours at a time. Your home shower is unlikely to reach temperatures below 57°F (14°C) nor do you have the time to take hour long showers everyday.
As such, it is unlikely that 5-minute cold showers will induce benefits to the same extent.
That being said, even if every single benefit listed above was found to be completely unrelated to cold showers (which is unlikely) I would continue to have them as part of my daily routine.
How come? Because cold showers strengthen my mental resolve.
In the smithy of life, cold exposure is the anvil against which your character is shaped and resolve is hardened.
- Aubrey Marcus in Own The Day, Own Your Life
The difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful one is that the successful person does what needs to be done regardless of whether he feels like it or not, i.e. he is not a slave to his emotions.
Let's say you decide to try out cold showers. You start with a relaxing warm shower and intend on ending it with 30 seconds of cold. As soon as the time comes for you to turn the knob to "C", however, you hear a voice trying to talk you out of it. What you decide to do at that moment will make all the difference.
Will you succumb to the voice of your lower self or will you do what you said you were going to do, despite the fact that you don't feel like it?
The voice that tries to talk you out of turning the knob to "C" is the same voice that talks you into hitting the snooze, skipping your workouts, and reaching for those cookies when you're on a diet. Even after 3 years of taking cold showers, I hear this voice - it's more of a whisper at this point - but I refuse to listen to it. Turning that knob to cold is a very effective way to in overcome that lower part of myself and set the momentum of taking right action.
At every moment you have a choice. A choice to step forward into growth or back into comfort. Starting your day with a cold shower is uncomfortable, yes, but growth can only occur in a state of discomfort.
Learning to become comfortable in discomfort is an essential part in the journey of growth and development that we, as men, should always be engaged in.
Alright, so if you've read up to this point you're at least considering to try out cold showers.
But where do you start?
Well, if you think you've got what it takes then just hop into your shower, turn the nozzle to "C" and will your way through for at least 5-minutes. I remember the first time I did that - my entire body swelled up, became red, and was steaming. Since then, my body has adapted and the response is not as dramatic.
That being said, there are better ways to start your cold shower journey. The following is 6-week plan you can use to slowly build up your tolerance to cold water and become a disciplined badass in the process:
Week 1 - Take a nice warm shower for as long as you'd like and end it with 30 seconds of cold.
Week 2 - Start your shower with 30 seconds of cold, transition to a warm shower for as long as you'd like, and end with 30 seconds of cold once again.
Week 3 - Same as week 3, but end with 1 minute of cold.
Week 4 - Start with 1 minute of cold, transition to warm shower, and end with 1 minute of cold.
Week 5 - Same as week 4, with one 5-minute cold shower.
Week 6 and beyond - 5 minute cold showers, working your way up to 10 minutes.
If you've been taking warm showers all your life, your body's response to the cold will be extreme. Focus on your breathing during this time and try to take control of your breath. This will further strengthen your ability to maintain your calm during times of high stress.
The journey isn't easy but it's definitely one worth taking.
There you have it - more than 3,000 words on the benefits of cold showers and testosterone.
Will taking a cold shower boost your testosterone?
Perhaps, but the effect is not likely to be dramatic. Even if the increase is 20-30%, it's not like your T will remain elevated at this point forever because your levels will return to baseline within a few hours.
That being said, the indirect benefits of cold showers have the potential to completely change your life.
All I ask is that you try the experiment of starting your next 30-days with a cold shower. Follow the progression model as I've laid out in the previous section. Do so, and you'll never look back to cushy, soft, warm showers again.
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