The carnivore diet is all about maximizing your health. While food does play an important role, taking care of yourself is so much more than what you eat. So, let’s take a break from the food banter and talk about a complementary and evidenced based method to boosting your health – inducing cold thermogenesis through cold therapy (also referred to as cryotherapy and therapeutic cold exposure).
What is Cold Thermogenesis?
Cold thermogenesis is the creation of heat in response to cold temperatures. It is one of three survival mechanisms against cold, the other two are shivering and the constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction).
Producing heat is the body’s adaptive response to maintain homeostasis and regulate core temperature. As the body is exposed to cold it works hard to create heat and maintain the core temperature of 98.6 degrees so vital organs will continue to function. The hormones involved in this adaptive response also create additional health benefits in the process.
What Induces Cold Thermogenesis?
Frequent exposure to cold is linked to a number of different health benefits. Professional athletes have used ice baths for years to reduce inflammation and swelling, but the benefits of cold therapy are systemic and can impact the entire body. And, the best part is, you don’t need to be an athlete or have gobs of money to spend at the hip new cryotherapy joint. You can do it at home, for free!
Research shows that humans can elicit this response through a variety of actions including:
- Submerging all or parts of the body in cold water (ice bath or similar)
- Exposing the body to cold water (cold shower)
- Exposing the body to cold outdoor temperatures with minimal clothing
- Controlled cold exposure indoors (cryotherapy chamber)
The Top 3 Health Benefits of Cold Thermogenesis
#1 Cold Thermogenesis Increases Metabolism & Burns Fat
When your body is thrust into cold temperatures, it starts to immediately adapt to maintain homeostasis. The body’s immediate goal is to maintain your core temperature so your heart and brain continue to work to keep you alive. In order to do this, metabolic rate increases to produce heat. As your metabolic rate increases, you burn more calories (aka energy).
Research shows that cold exposure activates and increases a special type of “healthy” fat known as brown fat (*). While we often think of fat as one singular type of tissue, there are actually two types of fat: white and brown. White fat is what carries most of the negative baggage like increased risk for diabetes and heart disease while brown fat is a metabolically active tissue that helps produce heat during times of cold exposure without shivering.
Brown fat has mitochondria (metabolic engines) that help burn calories (sugar and fat). It was once thought that only babies had brown fat as a means of protection during their growing years and that adults had very little. What is now known is that the body seems to adapt to regular cold exposure by creating more brown fat (*).
Because brown fat is metabolically active, it uses circulating sugar and fat from the bloodstream for energy to fuel its activity. Therefore, it plays a beneficial role in controlling blood sugar, fat and insulin levels (*, *).
The below diagram illustrates the key effects of cold acclimation on the activation of brown fat.
Image Credit: Diabetes
The more brown fat you have, the better off you are. The cold temperatures won’t bother you as much and you’ll be a fat and sugar burning furnace. One study showed increases in brown fat in as little as 10 days of regular, consistent cold exposure. This study exposed individuals to cold for around an hour a day(*).
You may be wondering what type of increase you may get from cold exposure. It most certainly depends on frequency and duration. One study investigated this question in young men immersed in water for one hour. There were three groups:
- Group 1: 32°C (89° F)
- Group 2: 20℃ (68°F)
- Group 3: 14°C (57°F)
The group in warmest water experienced no change in metabolic rate. But, the group in the 68°F water increased by 93% and the group in 57°F water by 350% (*).
#2 Cold Exposure Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is an immune response meant to protect and repair the body. It is the body’s process of identifying pathogens, removing damaged cells, and reducing likelihood of fatal blood loss or additional injury. However, chronic inflammation is connected with a whole host of western diseases like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Cold exposure reduces circulating inflammatory proteins known as cytokines and aids in recovery by reducing swelling and increasing blood flow to remove metabolic waste products.
How? When the body is exposed to cold temperatures it releases norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It is released in response to stress whether that stress is a tiger or extreme cold. Norepinephrine causes blood vessels to constrict to retain core temperature and conserve blood. Research shows norepinephrine can exhibit anti-inflammatory properties at high concentrations in the body (*).
One study found that immersion in cold water was effective for relieving pain and enhancing healing of muscle tissue (*). Another found that exercising in the cold can dampen the acute immune response typically associated with intense or prolonged exercise (*).
Outside of athletic recovery, immune benefits have also been noted in the scientific research including a study looking at the inflammatory response to injection of endotoxin (*). Study participants had lower circulating levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It should be noted that this study was done on volunteers following a multi faceted protocol known as the Wim Hof method of deep breathing, cold exposure and meditation.
#3 Cold Exposure Improves Cognition and Mental Health
As previously mentioned, the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine is released in response to the physiologic stress of cold exposure. Research shows that norepinephrine regulates the state of the brain and elevated circulating blood levels positively impact mood, concentration, energy levels and attention span (*). And not surprisingly, lower levels or the absence of norepinephrine result in the opposite effects: low energy, difficulty concentrating and poor mood (*).
Because of its positive impact on the nervous system cold therapy, and more specifically cold showers, have been documented as a potential treatment for depression and mood disorders (*).
In addition to mood and concentration, norepinephrine also plays a role in regulating the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning (*). Norepinephrine is important for maintaining neural plasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and change throughout life.
Combined with beef liver, there’s nothing better in the world for your brain.
How to Start Cold Therapy
You may think longer, colder experiences are better but that is not necessarily the case. One study showed the same benefit between adults in two groups, one group swimming in winter water for 20 seconds 3x a week at 28.4°F and the other participating in whole body cryotherapy for 2 minutes at -166°F. Both showed an increase in norepinephrine to the tune of 200-300% (*).
So, what is the most practical way for you to get started literally, right now? Wim Hof, one of the leading proponents of cold therapy and the subject of many scientific studies, recommends incorporating a cold shower every day using the following process (*):
Step 1: Step under the warm shower and wash yourself
Step 2: Turn the water to cold, set your intention and enter the cold shower
Step 3: Remain relaxed, control your breathing and do your best not to tense up
Step 4: Smile, enjoy and never force it
Try this for 30 days to start. During week one for 15 seconds, week two for 30 seconds, week three for 45 seconds and week four for 60 seconds. Then continue daily to maximize benefits from your own home, for free!
By the way, if you want some motivation, Wim Hof is the holder of many world records including climbing part of Mt Everest in shorts, check out his story and more science here.
If you’re interested in changing your diet, check out my guide to getting started with the carnivore diet below.