ICE BATHING – IS IT FOR YOU??

Dr. Maz Roginski

BHSc. (Chinese Medicine)

@balanced_with_drmaz


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

Mama Nature.


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).

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