Ice baths: What are the benefits? Here's the lowdown on the trendy wellness practice

Ice baths are having a bit of a moment in the wellness world, and while bathing in ice sounds mildly unpleasant and somewhat counterintuitive, the concept itself is thought to offer a plethora of benefits, particularly for exercise enthusiasts. 

The activity is hardly new: ice baths and cold therapy have been favoured by professional athletes for many moons, and claims about the purported benefits date back centuries. The theory is that exposure to cold helps to combat microtrauma in the muscle fibres and soreness caused by intense or repetitive exercise, making it a perfect practice for marathoners, football players, and the like.

However, bathing in an icy cold tub has become something of a trend, touted for its supposed transformative 'healing properties', such as mental clarity and boosted immunity, among social media's legion of health and wellness buffs (the advice of whom should often be taken with a pinch of salt).

On TikTok, the hashtag #icebath has racked up more than 2 billion views at the time of writing and earlier this week, English comedian Russell Brand shared a clip of himself submerged in a outdoor ice bath with his 1.7 million followers, alongside the hashtags #wellness and #breathwork. 

Ice baths have also become a stalwart of the spa industry, with many day spas and wellness facilities encouraging their patrons to dip their toes in the water, so to speak. In Auckland, premium spa and wellness space Hana has built a loyal clientele for its private infrared saunas, red light therapy, contrast therapy and ice bath services. Due to high demand, the spa recently expanded to include two additional rooms, one of which includes a large ice bath to offer more of their sought-after therapies. 

At Hana, guests can pair the infrared sauna with a two-minute immersion into an ice bath, which sits at six degrees.
At Hana, guests can pair the infrared sauna with a two-minute immersion into an ice bath, which sits at six degrees. Photo credit: Supplied

At Hana, guests can pair the infrared sauna with a two-minute immersion into an ice bath, which sits at six degrees. Called contrast therapy, the treatment is said to offer numerous benefits, including reducing inflammation, constricting the blood vessels to redirect circulation towards vital organs, and boosting the metabolism to support weight management. While traditional saunas raise the air temperature to very high levels, infrared saunas heat the body directly, meaning only around 20 percent of the heat is used to warm the air. Instead, infrared waves penetrate the body, which helps activate the body's sweat glands and eliminate toxins.

And yes, the benefits of cold water immersion have been backed by experts. Mike Tipton, a professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth and the editor-in-chief of Experimental Physiology, told ABC the short-term psychological benefits can be attributed to our stress hormones.

"That sudden change in skin temperature evokes the fight-or-flight response... so you'll see cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline increasing," Professor Tipton said.

"And of course they are alerting, they are awakening, they do make you feel alive, because they are intentionally preparing you to fight or run away."

Of course, there are some caveats. While Tipton noted there is evidence of the purported benefits, they still need to be followed up with definitive studies. He also warned there are risks associated with getting very cold, very fast. Cold water is known to trigger a shock response - setting off the instinct to gasp and hyperventilate - which can be dangerous. It can also increase cardiac arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats. 

With ice baths arguably having more visibility than ever before, Newshub spoke to Hana's owner and director Sara Higgins to get the lowdown. With a background in pharmaceuticals, Higgins founded Hana in trendy Grey Lynn in 2020 as a wellness haven for busy Aucklanders, and is a proponent of the polar pastime.  

Hana director and owner Sara Higgins.
Hana director and owner Sara Higgins. Photo credit: Supplied

What are the benefits associated with ice baths, both mentally and physically?

Ice baths have many benefits ranging from lowering inflammation and pain, supporting post-workout muscle recovery, boosting immune system function and aiding lymphatic drainage for healthy detoxification. Exposing the body to extreme cold on a regular basis also activates brown adipose tissue (BAT), which through a process called thermogenesis, burns free fatty acids and glucose from the bloodstream to generate heat. An increase in BAT improves our metabolic health by increasing glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity.

As for the mental health benefits, cold exposure stimulates a branch of the nervous system that can lead to an improvement in mood and help you adapt to the stressors of life. 

Are ice baths beneficial on their own without pairing it with an infrared sauna?

Yes, absolutely. However, when paired with an infrared sauna, there is the added benefit of sweating out toxins in the sauna and an enhancement of lymphatic drainage and circulation benefits. 

How does the heat of the sauna supercharge the benefits of an ice bath?

The heat from the sauna causes dilation of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels near the surface of the body, whereas the cold from the ice bath causes these same vessels to constrict, directing blood flow to the internal organs. The contrast between hot and cold creates a pump-like action on these vessels that helps with circulation, the flow and drainage of lymph and flushing out toxins and lactic acid after an intense workout. 

Due to high demand, Hana recently expanded to include two additional rooms. Photo credit: Supplied

How long does one have to be immersed in the bath to reap the most benefits?

How long to stay in the ice bath will depend on the temperature of the ice bath and your experience with the cold. I recommend slowly building up your tolerance to the cold - starting with a 30-second dip and working your way up to two to 10 minutes. 

For ice bathing enthusiasts, how often can you do it/should you be doing it for maximum payoff?

There is no set number of ice baths you should be doing per week. For the ice bath enthusiast, at least three to four per week should start to provide some of the benefits, but I can't see why you can't ice-bath daily if you can manage it!

Are there any dangers associated with ice baths alone, and with contrast therapy?

The changes in blood flow induced by ice baths and contrast therapy and stimulation of the fight-or-flight stress response that increases heart rate and blood pressure, may pose a risk for those with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. There is of course also a risk of hypothermia with ice baths, though you need to be immersed in ice cold water for over 30 minutes - so sticking to two to 10 minutes is ideal. 

What are the challenges of ice baths?

The challenges of immersing yourself in ice cold water are mainly to do with the mind and the thoughts that arise from fear and discomfort. By bringing your awareness to your breath and focusing on slow and steady breathing, you can calm the mind and make the experience more tolerable, and perhaps even enjoyable.