Benefits of Cold Water Swimming

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

For those of you have been following me for a little while you will know that before lockdown I started swimming in my local lido. IN WINTER? IN JUST MY SWIMMING COSTUME? ARE YOU CRAZY? Quite possibly.

I know Covid-19 has done crazy stuff to my brain but I am no crazier than I was before (ask my children). What I am though is DESPERATE. Desperate for exercise I can manage with POTS and PEM. Desperate for relief of my long covid symptoms; muscle wasting, chest pain, brain fog, poor memory, breathlessness to name a few. My 2 loves, walking the dog and running, are out of the question. You will also know that I am 100% convinced that my autonomic nervous system (especially the vagus nerve) has somehow been damaged by all this, so I started researching.

I found a local professor, Mike Tipton, an environmental physiologist at the University of Portsmouth who’s leading the research into cold water swimming. An open water swimmer himself, he studies how people react to sudden immersion.

He says that the benefits of cold water swimming can be divided into 2 phases: initial ‘cold shock’ and then ‘adaptation’, which happens over a longer time.

In cold water shock you gasp involuntarily and then hyperventilate. Adrenaline increases and your heart races. Your blood pressure goes up and glucose and fats are released into your bloodstream, providing an energy source. This is the classic ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released from your adrenal glands and this state lasts for minutes to hours.There is a surge of endorphin hormones in the brain providing pain relief and a sense of euphoria. The post swimming high - believe me it’s good. Tipton noticed that it only takes six immersions to halve the cold water shock response. Your body learns to adapt: your heart and breathing rates only rise 50% and your breathing is controlled. This adaptation makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water but it also make you less reactive to everyday PHYSICAL and PSYCHOLOGICAL stresses.

So if adapting to the stress of cold water can decrease our general stress response and reduce inflammation, it follows that it could potentially reduce our risk of chronic illnesses:

  • Reduces stress and releases endorphins: proven benefits in depression, anxiety, burn out, low self esteem, chronic pain

  • Boosts your immune system: stimulates white cell production and activates the body’s defences, reducing chronic inflammation.

  • Triggers your parasympathetic nervous system: helps with IBS, chronic diarrhoea/ constipation, increases libido, improves sleep, aids detoxification and cell repair.

  • Improves circulation: flushes blood through the blood vessels, helps with Raynauds

  • Burns calories: heart and muscles have to work harder in cold water

  • Safe exercise for people with weight bearing difficulties and dysautonomia.

  • May help in the perimenopause

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