Cold plunging. Is it appropriate for you? | Point Specifics

Cold plunging. Is it appropriate for you?

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July 4, 2023

Cold plunging. Is it appropriate for you?

A patient asked the other day “So what does Chinese medicine say about Cold plunging if you don’t even like us eating cold foods?”

My answer (and I think I can speak for all of us), “We are all horrified that people do this regularly thinking that it brings them long term benefit. It will, however, mean that Chinese medicine practitioners are kept in business for a very long time, treating people with Cold invasion disorders.”

Zhang Zhong Jing was a Chinese Medicine physician and scholar, who lived (approximately) between 150-220AD, during the Han Dynasty in China. Zhang Zhong Jing wrote one of the most famous clinical textbooks, still studied today, called the Shang Han Lun. This text explained diseases arriving from what he termed as Cold damage, invasion of Cold, or Cold pathology. It explained the nature and symptoms of these Cold diseases, the disease progression should it not be treated appropriately, and the Chinese herbal formulas to treat these Cold diseases. These herbal formulas are still used today in the 21st century in our modern clinics.

The herbal formulas have stood the test of time because human nature continues to expose themselves to Cold, and when vulnerable, they get sick.

So what exactly is Cold damage?

Cold damage arises when the weak and vulnerable body exposes themselves to Cold (Cold wind, Air-conditioning, excessive Cold food, excessive Cold drinks, Ice baths etc). The Cold enters because the body is vulnerable and causes disease, or pathology.

Examples of illnesses are the common cold/flu, lingering cough that won’t go away, digestive disorders such as loose bowels/diarrhoea, bloating, borborygmus, irregular periods, period pain, infertility, arthritis or joint pains, swelling or oedema. These are just examples, there are many more, too many to list in this post.

In Chinese medicine vulnerability is any state in which the body, its meridians, Qi and Blood are not circulating harmoniously.  Qi and/or Blood is in a slightly depleted, or exhausted state, and not quite 100%. In Western medicine, we might make this concept a little easier to comprehend and just label it as a “weakened or compromised immune system”, however, it’s a little more nuanced than this.

Examples of vulnerability are: recovering from an illness, over-worked, over-stressed, not sleeping well/sleep deprived, having a “big” weekend, after a surgery, or not eating properly. For women also it is just before, during or just after menstruation, after childbirth, or if they are breastfeeding.

This list is not exhaustive, there are many more examples of how someone can become vulnerable.

Treatment for Cold damage, as described by Zhang Zhong Jing involves drinking warm or hot natured herbs to drive out pathogenic Cold. Herbs like cinnamon twig, cinnamon bark, ginger, ginseng or mugwort for example.

So back to Cold plunging.

Cold plunging is medicinal and should be used as such. It should be used judiciously and it is not appropriate for everyone. It shouldn’t be used as a blanket approach to treating all-ills.

Cold plunging is appropriate for very few, and inappropriate for the rest. Cold plunging stimulates the adrenal glands to produce, and release, a massive amount of adrenalin, because when plunged into an ice bath it literally thinks its dying, sinking on board the Titanic in frozen water. Your body wants to keep you alive so it utilizes adrenalin to do so.

With every great peak however, comes a massive crash and adrenal fatigue is real. If you are vulnerable, you will suffer worse than most. Adrenal fatigue in Chinese medicine is termed “Kidney depletion”. We see Kidney depletion in older people, when the fire of the Kidneys has started to decline, they have lived a long life and the end is near, because that is the natural way of things. We see Kidney depletion in people who are burnt out. We see Kidney depletion in mothers who have had too many babies too close together without sufficient time to recover and recuperate.

Regular cold plunging puts this Kidney depletion on fast forward.

Cold plunging can be beneficial if you are built like a brick shithouse like Joe Rogan. I don’t want to assume, but I can imagine his stressors, are not our stressors. He has all the money, all the therapists and physicians at his fingertips, he has access to, and can afford to eat good nutrition. He has, what some might describe as, a luxurious life (no doubt well-earned). His every day job is literally sitting down and talking to interesting people on his podcast, so one might not consider him to be “overworked”, or stressed as we mortals might experience.

But we are not all built like Joe Rogan.

The patients I see in my clinic don’t eat very well most of the time. They don’t eat red meat because it’s too expensive/they don’t like the taste, or they’ve hopped on the vegan bandwagon. They eat way too much shit, carbs mostly, and don’t drink much water. They don’t sleep well because they have kids, or they don’t prioritise sleep because they’re too busy watching Netflix, or scrolling on their phone late into the night “winding down and having time to themselves”. They are stressed up to their eyeballs because Sydney is fucking expensive. Often they are sick with regular colds, flus or sinus infections, picking up everything their kid brings home from daycare/school. Or their periods are shit, heavy and exhausting.

In other words, these patients are all vulnerable.

Medicine for these patients is to build resilience through good nutrition of a wide variety of good quality animal protein and good healthy fats, good hydration, adequate sleep that prioritises an early bedtime. Waking early and getting outside for natural sun exposure and fresh air. Moderation of stress through fostering healthy relationships with partners, kids and family. Mindful, appropriate exercise that makes one feel good and not too exhausted. Finding a purpose or a passion in their lives which ignites their fire and gets them out of bed and living life.

When fully resilient, Cold doesn’t make you weak or sick.

What about Wim Hof?

Some might know him as the Iceman. Wim Hof has rose to fame through his displays of mind-blowing tolerance for cold, sitting on ice, or plunging himself into ice baths. What is being overlooked here is his daily practice of breathing exercises, he calls it the Wim Hof method, but in Chinese medicine we know it as Qi Gong, which has been around far longer than Wim Hof or his ancestors.

Qi Gong is a Chinese medicinal practice, utilizing breath to bring heat energy into our core, or more specifically into our Kidneys, to help stoke our Kidney fire, restoring Kidney depletion. Qi Gong is mindful breathing and we use it to keep our Qi, and our bodies strong. The practice of Qi Gong generates intense amounts of energy and heat.

He practices these breathing exercises daily and regularly.

He has built and nourished and stored so much Qi into his Kidneys he can afford to fritter his heat energy into an ice bath.

It’s why he can tolerate cold.

But if you’re not practicing Qi Gong daily, or you’re vulnerable, and you expect to jump into an ice bath without consequence, think again.

If you’re looking at cold plunges to try and discipline the mind, why not try something else first? The discipline of going to bed early and rising early is hard for some, so is regular exercise. If you really want a challenge, why not try the mental and physical discipline of holding horse stance for half an hour?

“But I’ve heard people who cold plunge report a lessening of their pain”

Yes, for now. Cold tissue is dead tissue and you don’t feel anything when you’re dead. Only time will tell if this long term regular exposure to cold is medicinal or pathology, and I’ll hedge my bets on the latter.

Take Teja’s great grandfather for example. He was exposed to two freezing German winters as a prisoner of war. When he was finally able to live a normal life he had so much intolerance for cold he couldn’t eat any cold foods, let alone have his body be exposed to cold. Even in summer he had to eat soup and rug up. Any exposure to cold wind, cold food or air-conditioning made him deathly ill. Jumping in an ice bath in search of a dopamine hit would have literally killed him.

I’ll make an argument that rather than believing it’s the cold therapy that is “healing” people of their pain, it’s actually the sauna afterwards that is doing the healing for them, not the ice.

A Finnish study looked at the risk of death and cardiac events in more than 2000 Finnish sauna users over 20 years. The study showed that those who used a sauna 2-3 times a week had 24% lower risk of death, and those who went 4-7 times a week had a 40% reduction in death compared to those who went one time a week.

Spending 20 minutes vs 10 minutes in the sauna gives you 52% lower risk of cardiac death.

Dr Mark Hyman quotes “Heat therapy works by increasing the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs). HSPs activate our internal antioxidant and repair systems. They prevent damage to proteins from oxidative stress and reduce AGEs, the advanced glycation end products formed from too much sugar binding to proteins and creating inflammation

Heat therapy also:

Improves cardiovascular fitness, Increases heart rate variability, supports insulin sensitivity, regulates blood sugar and blood pressure, increases endorphins, reduces stress hormones and improves sleep”.

*If you are male trying to conceive, exposure of the testicles to extreme heat will damage sperm affecting your fertility. Please refrain from saunas, spas, hot baths etc while you are trying to conceive.

I have a feeling that, if Zhang ZhongJing were still alive today, he would shake his head in disbelief at the naivety of fellow man to think that willingly jumping into frozen water is a smart and clever thing to do.