Ice Baths and Immune Function: Can Cold Therapy Boost Your Body's Defenses

Timothy Munene Timothy Munene
Ice Baths and Immune Function: Can Cold Therapy Boost Your Body's Defenses

Did you know your immune system is the body’s core defense against destructive invaders? Of course, your immune system hardly keeps all illnesses and germs at bay. However, you can adopt various practices to boost it and keep it at its optimal performance. Some standard methods of improving the immune system include eating right, exercising, and taking vitamins. But have you considered incorporating ice baths into your regimen to improve your immune function?

While this concept might be counterintuitive, evidence shows that cold water immersion can help you boost your immune system. Ice bathing has been said to offer long-term positive changes to the immune, circulatory, and lymphatic systems. These systems promote immunity and overall health, reinforcing the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. So, how does this concept work? To find out more, let’s discuss various terminologies, as seen below. 

Exploring Hormeosis and Cold Shock Response

Do you catch colds fast? If you answered yes, that means your body has various acute physiological responses, also known as cold shock. The objective of the cold shock response is to lower heat loss from your body while stimulating heat production. Instinctively, humans avoid getting overly hot or cold because extreme temperatures can negatively impact the body.

You can exploit hormesis by immersing yourself in cold water under controlled doses. Cold water hormesis is a form of hormetic stress that’s triggered whenever your body undergoes physiological shock after immersing yourself in an ice bath.

Generally, hormesis states that small amounts of stressful and harmful agents can be vital for your health and prolong your lifespan. Small doses of stress, for instance, can initiate your longevity switches, enabling you to be more efficient and stronger amid environmental stressors. How do hormesis and cold shock response impacts your immune system? Let’s discuss.

·       Norepinephrine and Immunity

We cannot discuss hormesis and the cold shock response without mentioning norepinephrine. The discharge of norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter, is vital to the cold shock response. This hormone is produced in various parts of the brain and the adrenal glands. Norepinephrine narrows blood vessels, reducing heat loss, activating thermogenesis, and increasing heart rate, modulating immune function.

The sympathetic nervous system is activated when you immerse yourself in an ice bath. This section of the nervous system regulates your flight or fight response, an auto-physiological reaction to a situation regarded as frightening, stressful, or dangerous.

Once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, a neuroendocrine effect increases cortisol and noradrenaline levels. Researchers believe this response increases blood pressure and heart rate in cold water immersion enthusiasts and is associated with improved immune function and overall health. Studies suggest that cold exposure therapy can increase norepinephrine by up to 300%, inhibiting inflammatory cytokines, which are small proteins that propel inflammatory response. 

·       Immune Cells

Studies have demonstrated the effects of ice bathing on the microscopic level of the human immune cells. One study in England revealed that engaging in ice baths increased disease-battling white blood cells in the body. The study suggested that as your body attempts to warm itself during and after an ice bath, your metabolic rate speeds up, activating the immune system.

As a result, more white blood cells are released. These findings were supported by another study that sought to establish whether cold water therapy, a non-infectious means, can activate the immune system. According to the research, some cell types are positively affected by bouts of cold. The discharge and stimulation of NK cells, also known as Natural Killer cells, increase with short sessions of cold-water immersion.

NK cells are core effectors of tumor immunity. Other studies have shown an increase in T-lymphocytes, or cytotoxic T-cells, remarkable adaptive immunity effectors. Daily exposure to short sessions of cold stress in mice showed enhanced resistance against intracellular Toxoplasma gondii, a constant phenomenon with improved cell-mediated immunity. 

A different clinical study evaluated the impact of six straight weeks of cold-water therapy on the immune system. It established that the process activated B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes in the participants. It also increased CD8, CD4, CD3, and IL-6 levels, indicating an improved and more active immune system. Increased NL cells and IL-6 levels on the immune system demonstrate the immunostimulating impact of ice bathing. 

Can Ice Baths Lower Inflammation and Improve Immunity?

Proponents of ice bathing opine that the practice has many benefits for the mind and body. Let’s discuss the impact of ice bathing on the immune system and inflammation. 

·       Inflammation

Previous research suggests that ice bathing can lower biomarkers linked to inflammation. Biomarkers are a group of medical signs that assist doctors in understanding their patients' health better. They are molecules available in tissues, bodily fluids, or the blood that can be quantified and reveal a disease, medical condition, or abnormal and standard processes. Various biomarkers are used to determine inflammation.

A study published in the Reumatologia journal analyzed the impact of ice bathing on inflammation, determining biomarkers such as C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein produced in the liver to counter inflammation. Increased CRP levels can indicate chronic or acute inflammation or infection. On the other hand, Extreme levels can suggest a severe condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease.

Researchers suggest that individuals with rheumatoid arthritis who engaged in regular ice bathing recorded a higher reduction in CRP levels than those who opted for normal rehabilitation therapy. In yet another study, it was revealed that male athletes who participated in ice bathing had reduced interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β) levels. The interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β) is a biomarker affiliated with inflammation. 

·       Enhanced Immune Function

Researchers say that ice baths can promote the production of white blood cells, helping the body battle infections. These revelations are backed by other studies in PLOS One, which discovered that individuals who took ice baths for at least 90 seconds for 30 consecutive days had a minimal chance of calling out sick at work compared to those who took warm showers. 

·       Anti-Oxidising and Antioxidants 

When antioxidants are mentioned, many people think about supplements or diet. But did you know your body can generate antioxidants with the ideal tools? One study suggested that individuals who swim regularly in ice-cold water recorded a high level of low glutathione, an essential antioxidant for fighting oxidative stress and detoxifying the body.

The cold generates improved anti-oxidative cellular defenses. These include the internal superoxide dismutase and antioxidant glutathione and superoxide, which enhance immune cell function. Experts opine that ice bathing can improve your antioxidant status, allowing you to manage free radicals effectively. It is worth mentioning that ice baths can trigger oxidative stress in the body initially. However, if you do it correctly, ice bathing produces an adaptive antioxidant response associated with hormesis. 

·       Proteins

Immersing yourself in cold water can significantly impact proteins, the building blocks of your body. First, cold water therapy can stimulate heat shock proteins, which help untangle and fold cellular proteins, minimizing the effects of inflammation. Further, ice bathing often activates cold shock proteins, which are gaining popularity regarding neurodegeneration. Cold shock proteins play a huge role in various sage-associated diseases such as chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic liver disease, atherosclerosis, and cancer. 


You don’t have to be a seasoned ice-bathing enthusiast to enjoy the benefits of cold-water therapy. Remember, even shorter doses of ice bathing can help alleviate symptoms of common diseases, controlling and boosting your immune response. Read this article to establish why cold-water immersion is an effective way of maintaining stable immunity. 

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