Dr. Maz Roginski
BHSc. (Chinese Medicine)
As a health professional, I am often asked for my thoughts on ice bathing. Is it helpful? Does
it have any drawbacks? And, is it appropriate for everyone? There are several different
perspectives from which I’d like to discuss these questions: a biomedical perspective, a
traditional medicine perspective, and, my personal favourite, looking to the wisdom of
From a biomedical perspective, we can observe that the physical and mental challenge of ice
bathing releases the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are
associated with the sympathetic nervous system - our “fight-or-flight” response - which is so
vital in getting us to safety in times of perceived danger. This “fight-or-flight” response
prepares us for escape by improving circulation to the cardiovascular and respiratory
systems, and priming the muscles for a fast getaway. These can be helpful responses, but
they come at the cost of shutting down any functions that are not immediately essential to
survival. This includes digestion, wound repair, healing, and balancing hormones - functions
that are facilitated by the parasympathetic, or “rest-and-digest”, nervous system.
Additionally, in order to facilitate a quick escape from danger, any existing pain signals may also be suppressed, which is why engaging in activities or behaviours that keep us in “fight-or-flight” dominance can leave us feeling invincible and pain-free, and craving more of the same. However this relief comes at a potential cost, particularly if we spend too much time stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode, as is common in our modern lives*. Spending too much time in sympathetic dominance means that there is not enough time in parasympathetic mode for rest, digestion, repair and healing. The parasympathetic system is the Yin to the sympathetic Yang, and we need a healthy balance of both. This can explain why people who are experiencing chronic fatigue or dysregulation is some of their systems may actually
experience the opposite of the positive effects that others claim to receive from ice bathing;
instead of increased immunity & energy, for example, they may feel exhausted and more
susceptible to chronic colds and malaise.
One important function that gets bumped down the list when we are stressed is hormone
production and regulation. Women have an intricate rhythm of cycling sex hormones, an
ever-shifting dance of progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. Interestingly, these
hormones share a common building block with the stress hormone, cortisol. This building
block is called pregnenolone. When we are stressed and creating higher amounts of cortisol,
our bodies preferentially give the pregnenolone towards making more cortisol, and the sex
hormones miss out. This can lead to a situation called “pregnenolone steal”, which by
disrupting hormones, can be a factor in many presentations, from PCOS to endometriosis,
painful periods, mood disruptions and fertility changes.
From a Chinese medicine lens, the answer is a lot simpler! Basically, we worship the sun and
its life-giving warmth, and we also listen to our own body wisdom, which will guide us
towards practices that feel good while doing good for us. Putting a heat-pack on generally
leads to a sense of softening and ease, while we have to brace ourselves when applying an
ice pack. Similarly, a warm soup leaves us feeling cozy and nourished, while ice cream
freezes our bellies so much that we can get an infamous “ice cream headache”. Heat
therapy is generally seen to super-charge healing, metabolism and whole host of body
functions. On this point, it is also worth noting that the sports doctor who is credited with
bringing ice therapy to the world, Dr. Gabe Mirkin, has now acknowledged that icing slows
healing, and is on a mission to correct the record.
In Chinese Medicine, we strive for a dynamic balance between Yin and Yang, cold and warm.
This means that if you are a particularly robust, “hot” person (rather rare in the modern
world!), your constitution might be able to handle the odd ice bath, but if you are a “cold”
type - who experiences fatigue, sluggish digestion, low moods, hypothyroid, most types of
painful periods, etc. – ice bathing is likely not your friend.
Finally, I am always being guided by Mama Nature’s wisdom - and as a practitioner of a
medicine that is thousands of years old, I also look to what wellness practices have stood the
test of time across the globe. From this perspective, while we often see animals in nature
basking in warmth, like the snow monkeys of Japan in their hot baths, or so many members
of the animal kingdom who sun themselves at any opportunity, we don’t see animals
choosing to sit still in freezing water. In the human realm, while we have many documented
practices of saunas, sweat lodges, moxa, hot poultices, warming sore joints, steaming and
even “smoking” women postpartum, we don’t see many instances of freezing ourselves. Yes,
there is the example of plunging into icy water after a sauna, but this is generally fleeting
and doesn’t involve sitting still in freezing temperatures.
If you are practicing ice bathing, or still keen to try it, I invite you to observe how you feel
not just immediately after, but also in the longer term post-bathing. What might feel
amazing initially can lead to exhaustion in following days, or a change in cycles or moods. Or
not: every one of us is unique, and what feels great for one might not feel so amazing for
another. Similarly, life ebbs and flows, and we are not the same person today we were a
week, a month or two years ago: there may be periods of your life where ice-bathing might
be beneficial for a time. As always, I invite you to drop in, connect with your mind and body
and listen in to your own deep wisdom.
*As a side note, in my opinion, modern life over-stimulates our sympathetic nervous system,
at the cost of the parasympathetic – i.e. hustle culture, multi-tasking, the glorification of
busy-ness, fear and drama across all media, cramming our schedules, traffic, bills, family
worries, excess caffeine, etc. This has created an unconscious addiction to stress hormones
in many of us, which can drive us to crave the very behaviours that stress us out further (but
we get that little hit of stress hormones to make us feel good in the short term, before we
need to get another fix).