I was running a breathing and ice bath workshop about 2 years ago, when one of the participants said she wasn’t going to do the ice bath because she had her period. I thought, fair enough and asked her more about it. She told me that her mum, who is a yoga teacher, said cold exposure wasn’t great around the time of the month.
This got me thinking!
Up until then I had no information about how cold exposures affected women differently than men. All the training and information I had read was presented by men, and there was never any mention of contraindications for women.
Because of this, it led me down the path of finding out as much information (which currently is not much) as possible around whether cold exposure is good for women, and when to stay away.
I called upon some of my colleagues to contribute to this and as a result have so much great information, I will be splitting this into 3 parts.
What is cold exposure about
How cold exposure affects women from the Eastern Medicine point of view
Cold exposure and sport performance
Just to note, this blog is a collection of opinions based on our experience and professional training and is not intended to be medical advice. I suggest you talk to your medical professional if you want personal medical advice.
When I was first introduced to ice bathing in 2019 I was eager to try it, mostly to help me with the tolerance of my mind and stress management. With my history of PTSD, I felt I had done enough internal healing and it was time to stop hiding in my comfort zone and start taking on some challenges. I have to say that the first one was my biggest challenge and definitely brought the panic to the surface for me. I enjoyed the space of concentrating on my breathing to manage the discomfort, but it took a bit of work.
It wasn’t until I started doing more research that I took women's bodies and our hormones into consideration. Women’s hormones fluctuate throughout the month. The dance between oestrogen and progesterone is a delicate balance, which can be disrupted by many things, including cold exposure.
Coming from someone who has a condition of the uterus called Adenomyosis, I was intrigued when I realised the cold influences the drop of progesterone. I take herbs to help my hormones stay balanced, but I was potentially sabotaging this by jumping in an ice bath at the wrong time of the month. This left me with some thinking to do. I liked the way an ice bath made me feel emotionally during and afterward, but a lot of the emotions I feel are partly due to my condition. This needs love, understanding and attention to allow my body to function in a way which reduces pain and discomfort.
To understand this further, let's look at the pros and cons of cold exposure for women, and let you decide if and when it is the right choice for you.
The following is taken from the podcast Endurance Planet - episode 29
What is Cold Exposure or Cold Thermogenesis?
Thermogenesis is the process the body goes through to keep the body warm and alive when exposed to cold.
The body will do whatever it can to keep the core temperature at 98.6 degrees and in homeostasis.
When exposed to the cold, the body uses metabolic processes to keep going such as muscle activity, fat burning and energy production to keep warm.
The 3 mechanisms for keeping warm are:
Non-shivering cold thermogenesis, which is the burning of brown fat
Pros of cold exposure are:
Increases immune function
Improves mood and mental focus
Relieves depression symptoms
Increases calorie burn
Increases mental resilience
Cons of cold exposure:
Can overload a compromised system or pre-existing conditions
Can increase symptoms of Hypothyroidism (low thyroid)
The release of Norepinephrine is good for anti-inflammatory effect, but constricted blood vessels may be too much for some people with certain conditions
Can add too much stress for those who are already prone to a nervous system which is constantly in Sympathetic (fight/flight)
Can alter hormone levels by dropping progesterone, due to the stress response
Conditions to consider when using cold exposure:
Severe HPA axis dysfunction (including cortisol issues or amenorrhea - no period)
High stress, where the added stress of cold exposure in some situations may be too much for the body and the mind
Menstrual cycle timing - may need to avoid 8-10 days before the period, when the body is working hard to create progesterone
Any chronic conditions - think about will the ice bath be of help or hindrance. Think about healing from the condition first and use the ice bath as a way to regain a stable health.
Avoid using the cold as a body hack. This may become addictive at first when you feel changes, but too much of a good thing is never good in the long run.
For me it comes to this
I looked to the alternatives of allowing my body to feel the cold, but in different ways. I mean there are millions of women's around the world who experience the cold.
Sitting still in an ice bath is very different from other types of cold water exposure. Swimming in the ocean/creek etc. on a fresh morning, connecting with nature and relaxing into the movement of the water is energising and grounding. I always follow this up with a warm shower and a hot cup of tea or bone broth.
When I am not able to jump in the ocean, splashing water on my face or even immersing my face for a short time in the water is a great reset, plus it can activate the mammalian dive reflex which slows the heart down.
Being outside when it is cold, windy or even raining gives me a sense of freedom. Yes, I am wearing appropriate clothing, but it is liberating to be in nature when it is throwing something challenging at us. I always say to my kids, our skin is waterproof, we can wash our clothes and have a warm bath afterwards, why not just do it!
As there is very little scientific research on how cold exposure affects women's bodies, it really comes down to how you feel. If you are fit and healthy with no conditions and it feels right, then give it a go. If not, then work on healing your body and mind first, and use the cold as a rehabilitation tool.