Now that we’ve entered the depths of winter, you’re probably tempted to stay hunkered down inside your toasty home, sitting in your favorite chair by the fire, drinking a hot beverage. But I recommend stepping out of your comfort zone, and into the cold, every once in a while.
I’m not suggesting you sit in an ice bath or give yourself frostbite. But, as I’ve reported before, natural healers have always thought that regular exposure to the cold is highly beneficial.
And now, modern science confirms this insight, as I’ll explain in a moment. But first, let’s talk about how your body actually adapts to colder temperatures over time…
The body adapts to the cold over time
Back in the 1960s, the U.S. Army conducted some interesting research on the human body’s response to cold. They put men in a 50° Fahrenheit (F) chamber for eight hours a day to see how they reacted. Initially, they shivered uncontrollably. (When you shiver, your body performs involuntary muscle contractions to generate internal heat.)
But after two weeks, the men’s bodies adapted and the shivering stopped.
In a more recent study published in PLOS One, healthy men spent up to three hours a day sitting in tubs of 57° F water. Again, at the beginning of the study, they shivered uncontrollably.
In addition, their blood vessels became constricted. (This shifts blood flow away from the skin and deeper into the body to keep the body’s organs and core warm.) In fact, the researchers noted that the men’s blood vessels actually retracted, or drew back, from the surface of the skin.
Of course, this retraction deprives the extremities, including the fingers and toes, of blood, oxygen, and nutrients, which can cause them to go numb for hours. And eventually, the cells in your extremities die and frostbite sets in.
But, here again, after continuous exposure to cold temperatures over 20 days, the men’s shivering stopped. In addition, their heart rate and metabolism sped up, their blood vessels were no longer constricted, and skin temperatures didn’t drop as dramatically. The men also reported less physical discomfort. Not to mention, their blood samples showed fewer markers of cold-induced stress and immune system reactions.
So, how do our bodies make these adaptions to the cold? Well, researchers think brown fat plays a role…
Brown fat isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be
In the 1980s, brown fat was blamed for just about every health condition on the planet.
But it turns out, this type of fat can help the body generate more heat when exposed to the cold. In fact, newborns actually have a lot of brown fat to help them stay warm. (They lack the muscle development to shiver, since they float in fluid for nine months before birth.)
It was once thought that human adults lose most of their brown fat. But actually, most adults still have some brown fat in their upper spine and neck. And regular exposure to cold weather can actually activate—and even prompt the production of more—brown fat in these areas.
Putting on a warm scarf works in the same way as brown fat…they both warm the blood flowing to the brain. So, you “trick” the brain into thinking you’re warmer than you actually are. (And on the flip side, when you’re overheated, putting a cool cloth on your neck can help your body feel cooler.)
The problem is, most people now live in a very temperature-controlled world, which prevents the body from performing these helpful adaptations. (Speaking of which, you should know that you’re not doing yourself any favors by keeping your home’s thermostat at 80° F, as the microbes that cause viruses, like the flu, actually prefer warmer air!)
So it’s time to start embracing the cold. Because regular exposure to cold temperatures can be really therapeutic…
The benefits of stepping out into the cold
As I mentioned above, people have been using exposure to the cold as a therapeutic approach for thousands of years. In fact, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which dates back to 3,500 B.C. and is the most ancient medical text known, made numerous references to the use of cold as therapy. (While studying for my Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked with Trudy Van Houten to publish a translation of this Egyptian papyrus. She is now a Professor of Anatomy at Harvard Medical School.)
Plus, if you’ve ever visited Monticello, you know that Thomas Jefferson believed that putting his feet into an ice bath every morning would get his heart pumping and improve his longevity. (And indeed, he lived to be 83 years old, dying on July 4, 1826—the same day as 91-year-old John Adams, which was also the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Quite a feat for their day!)
Likewise, in 1786, Benjamin Rush, who was an acquaintance of Jefferson’s, said bathing in cold water could, “wash off impurities of all kinds from the skin, and thereby to promote a free and equal perspiration.” He also credits bathing in cold water with preventing diseases.
Now, modern research is finding cold therapy helps:
- Reduce chronic inflammation, the No. 1 hidden cause of aging and disease
- Boost metabolism and burn fat
- Regulate blood sugar
- Improve sleep
- Combat oxidative stress
- Reduce pain
- Improve anxiety and depression
There’s even some emerging science suggesting that “cold therapy” can add years to your life!
Tips to get your blood pumping this winter
So, while your natural inclination may be to turn up the heat or stoke the fire this winter, try to follow these simple tips for some gentle, regular exposure to cold…
1.) Go for moderate walks outside
I’ve always encouraged you to take moderate, brisk walks out in Nature. Even in the winter. You may shiver some at first. But, as the new research suggests, your body will gradually acclimate. Just make sure to start out slowly, with moderate walks.
2.) Consider cold showers
You can really get your blood pumping by finishing up your morning shower with a few seconds under cold water. It really is invigorating. And it may even help you fight off colds and the flu this winter.
3.) Dial back the heat
Try to keep the temperature in your house a few degrees cooler than what you may have normally. Especially at night—since research shows colder temperatures improve sleep. Again, you may not like it at first, but your body will eventually adapt. And as an added bonus, your monthly heating bill will be noticeably lower!
4.) Stay hydrated
The cold air outside at this time of year is naturally drier than during the warmer months. So make sure you stay hydrated…perhaps by enjoying a big bowl of my whole Russian Bear Chicken Soup. Or by supplementing with rooibos, which keeps you hydrated on a cellular level. (Browse the “shop” tab of my website for rooibos options!)
5.) Dress in layers
Help your body adjust to the cold weather by dressing in layers and shedding them as you warm up. And always keep your extremities covered!
Now a word of caution…
If you’re not well-acclimated to the cold, your blood vessels will constrict and your blood pressure will rapidly increase. This action could help trigger a heart attack or other problems in older people, especially if you have heart disease. So, you should always be cautious at first when going out into the cold.
(You can learn more about how to protect your heart this winter—and year-round—with the steps outlined in my online Heart Attack Prevention and Repair Protocol. To learn more, or to enroll today, click here.)
You should also moderate your alcohol consumption, as it’s a vasodilator—meaning it increases blood flow to your extremities and makes you feel warm while actually increasing heat loss.
So, be cautious, start slowly, and follow the above five tips to gain some regular, gentle exposure to the cold.
“How to Help Your Body Adjust to Colder Weather.” Time, 10/29/19. (time.com/5712904/adjust-to-cold-weather/)
“Cold as a therapeutic agent.” Acta Neurochir (Wien), 2006 May;148(5):565-70. doi.org/10.1007/s00701-006-0747-z
“10 Benefits of Cold Exposure & Cold Showers + Precautions.” Self-Hacked, 12/16/19. (content.selfdecode.com/12-reasons-embrace-cold/)
“Bathing.” Monticello, 1/6/20. (monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/bathing)
“A Cold Splash–Hydrotherapy for Depression and Anxiety.” Psychology Today, 7/6/16. (psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inner-source/201407/cold-splash-hydrotherapy-depression-and-anxiety)