The evidence around the benefits of cold plunging is largely inconclusive, according to Dr. Van Dien. “Athletes looking to reduce post-workout muscle soreness, or individuals looking for an experience may find cold immersion appealing,” he says. The practice also serves as a treatment for long-distance endurance athletes who are prone to heat stroke.
Cold plunges may have a positive effect on stress management as well. One recent study in EXPLORE notes the association of winter sea bathing with lower levels of stress and higher overall well-being. The study also suggests that participants who take part in winter sea bathing feel a heightened sense of understanding their health versus those who don’t . Another small 2020 study saw small reductions in negative mood, heightened sense of well-being and increases in positive mood in a group of novice open water swimmers.
An ongoing clinical trial on Sea Swimming for Treatment of Depression and Anxiety further highlights the potential benefits of regular open water bathing on mental well-being, specifically, the impact that cold water swimming may pose for depression and anxiety. The trial suggests that cold water could have an impact on depression, possibly linked to the inflammatory system. Other factors such as the physical activity component and being present in nature are among additional developing evidence.
However, even with these small and ongoing studies, “there is low-quality evidence to suggest that cold water immersion offers benefits in major depressive disorders or enhances relaxation,” says Dr. Van Dien. “This is similar for other purported benefits, including enhanced immune function and improved post-exercise recovery. There is more evidence to support use in muscle soreness,” he adds.
While Dr. Russell also agrees that additional research is needed, it’s possible that cold plunging may also contribute to weight loss, increased libido and improved glycemic control, he notes.