The Cold Water Cure: Gymnastics for the Arteries

Donald NorfolkTonics are not quite as fashionable as they once were. Most of the trendy potions of yesteryear have now been classified by the health authorities as drugs of ‘unproven value’ But not all tonics come in bottles. Certainly one of the finest of all restorative remedies is to start the day with a cold or tepid shower, which it’s safe to do providing you’ve had the go-ahead from your doctor. In a state of health our skin is extremely reactive to changes in external temperature. When it’s cold, the blood vessels contract to prevent excessive heat loss. When it’s hot, they dilate so more blood is brought to the surface for cooling. In this way the internal temperature of the body is kept at a constant level. Nowadays we’re in danger of losing the full effectiveness of this important heat regulating mechanism. We’re constantly bathing our bodies in heat. Our cars and offices are warmed as never before. Our homes are centrally heated, and when we go to bed at night there’s a temptation to exchange the delicious tingle of crisp, cool sheets for the dreary warmth of an electric blanket. Now this is all very cosy, but in the process we’re in danger of becoming hot house flowers – and like all hot house flowers we’re not well adapted to withstand the cold. This means we don’t react so quickly when we’re exposed to a sudden draught.

Now, one of the benefits of taking an occasional cold shower is that it restores the tone and reactivity of blood vessels rendered sluggish by excessive mollycoddling. It makes them work, a stimulus which has been described as ‘gymnastics for the arteries’. But this is not the only benefit of cold bathing. A consultant writing recently in the British Medical Journal suggested that in addition to its circulatory effects, bathing in cold water also provides a strong stimulus to respiration, which whips the lungs into action and helps oxygenate the blood. It also provides a massive stimulation to the peripheral nerves, giving the central nervous system a useful awakening jolt, helping to blow away any early morning mental cobwebs. It’s a good all round tonic which was far more widely appreciated two hundred years ago, when cold baths and cold sea bathing were recommended by doctors for all sorts of maladies from impotence to impetigo. The Romans always ended visits to the thermal baths with an invigorating dip in a cold pool, and no self-respecting Finn today would consider a sauna bath complete without taking a plunge into an ice cold lake, or a roll in the snow. But we’ve neglected the benefits of cold bathing, partly from cowardice, and partly maybe because we consider it more than a trifle cranky.

The Greeks dunked their babies in icy water to make them tough, the monks took cold baths to ‘rid themselves of worldly thoughts’, and in the Middle Ages the insane were plunged into cold water as an early form of shock therapy. As a result we’ve come to associate cold bathing with asceticism, stoicism or just plain madness. But in fact an early morning cold shower is an excellent way to start the day – it just takes a little courage. Mary Anne Disraeli, the wife of the British prime minister, once described her husband as a man of great moral courage but little physical courage, because when he took his early morning cold shower he always had to call on her to turn it on. Taking that initial plunge may be difficult, but the glorious warm glow and feeling of well-being which comes at the end of a cold shower and a brisk rub down, is surely more than ample reward.

This was the transcript of a radio talk I gave many years ago on a BBC medical programme called ‘In Practice’. I remember it well, as one does one’s moments of humiliation and regret. The moment I’d said my three-minute piece the presenter threw me off guard by asking: ‘Did you have a cold shower this morning Mr Norfolk? I remember laughing, and admitting that I hadn’t. I intended to go on to explain that as a dedicated health promoter I always aim to practice what I preach. At the time I was making a habit of lying in a cold bath at the end of every working day, but she didn’t give me the chance to provide this explanation, leaving me feeling a bit of a fraud as she moved on to announce the next speaker. Broadcasts like that can have a dehumanising effect. You go into the studio a man, and come out an ass. But I stand by the basic content of the talk, although if I were giving it today there’s lots I’d like to add. There are so many benefits attached to keeping your cool. Babies grow quicker in lower temperatures. All the great cultures of the world have developed in temperate zones rather than in the tropics. Then there’s the example of the Buddhist monks in the Himalayas, who practice a technique called ‘Tummo’ (Inner Fire) which enables them to generate their own heat. During their training they lie naked on a sheet laid on the snow, radiating body heat until the snow melts. This would lead on nicely to the story of Wim Hof, the Dutchman nicknamed ‘The Iceman’, who has recently achieved international fame for his ability to submerge himself in ice cold water – as low as minus 20 degrees Centigrade – for periods of more than an hour-and-a half. He too practices the ‘Tummo’ method, saying it’s simply a case of mind over matter. There is lots more on this theme, but it will have to wait for another broadcast, blog or broadsheet feature.)

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