Ever since I learned about the benefits of cold exposure, I've been having cold showers regularly.
But it wasn’t until my first ice bath when I learned how much more intense sitting submerged neck-deep in ice cubes was: that, and of course, the more noticeable positive effects on one’s brain and body.
Because if you’ve been exposed to health and fitness info online, you’ll see that ice baths have entered the mainstream as a way to improve one’s overall health and wellness.
And while we usually see athletes taking ice plunges to maximise their performance in between games, others might be curious into the benefits of ice baths outside the realm of sports.
Those about to take the plunge into the world of deliberate cold exposure might be asking questions like, “Do ice baths increase dopamine?”
Well, the simple answer is yes, ice baths do increase dopamine, however, you can get more details about what conditions affect dopamine release in the brain from ice baths as we discuss later in this article.
We’ll also be including the specific scientific studies that show these effects.
Therefore, read on if you want to be informed about the other positive benefits of ice baths outside of helping the body’s recovery.
Weightlifter Karyn Marshall in an ice-bath for training. Photo by Dr. Dennis Cronk.
So, first we’ll explore the basics of dopamine in the brain, how ice baths affect dopamine levels, the benefits of this cold-exposure related dopamine increase, and then finally, some recommendations for those interested in trying this practice.
Let’s dive right in.
The Basics of Dopamine in Ice Baths
We’ll first discuss the basics of dopamine, as it’s easy for beginners to get it confused with the other neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) like adrenaline, adenosine, etc.
Okay, so first off, dopamine is a chemical that circulates in your body and brain.
It helps with movement, pleasure, as well as motivation.
This is why it’s usually called the “feel-good” brain chemical: it’s involved in the parts of your brain that can make you happy or fulfilled.
A lot of things can affect how much dopamine circulates in your system, like your genes, habits, as well as environmental factors—and yes, that includes cold exposure (like cold showers or ice baths.)
Now that you know the basics of dopamine, let’s move onto how ice baths can affect dopamine production in your body and brain.
How Ice Baths Affect Dopamine: Do ice baths increase it?
Simple Answer: Yes, ice baths do increase dopamine in the brain. Depending on things like the temperature of the cold exposure and how long you do it, dopamine can be increased through ice baths for a long time—even hours after the ice-cold bath. Studies report an increase of 250% higher dopamine after some cold water exposure.
As you might know, in an ice bath, you basically dunk your body in very cold water for a period of time, usually around 5-15 minutes.
A bunch of things happen to your body during this time, including but not limited to:
- Constricting blood vessels
- Increasing metabolism in the short term
- Pumping out adrenaline in the brain and body
- And of course, releasing dopamine
But what do we get out of this?
In the next section, we talk about the actual benefits of the dopamine increase we get from ice baths.
The Benefits Of Dopamine Increase With Ice Baths
Okay, so we know that dopamine is the brain’s “feel-good chemical” and all. But not all types of dopamine release are the same.
Because it turns out that getting dopamine more naturally with the stress we voluntarily put ourselves through (in other words, ice baths,) has a lot of good effects.
Compare this to how harmful addictive substances can also spike dopamine and ruin anyone’s brain reward pathway.
Taking ice baths can make you feel good, as it releases quite a lot of dopamine in our brains—reaching 250% higher (for 2 hours!) in one study.
Since dopamine is associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation, the dopamine released with ice baths can help us feel better even long after we leave the cold environment.
Ice baths can also be a healthy way to cope with addiction, as Dr. Anna Lembke explores in her book, Dopamine Nation, a book about dopamine and addiction in our modern world.
She had a patient that was actually able to stay sober from addictive substances through that healthy release of dopamine from cold water exposure.
Ice baths can also make you think more clearly and have more focus.
Another study explored the effects of short exercise on memory and attention, and from that, we can see that some of those mental improvements came partly from the increase in these neurochemicals connected to self-imposed stress.
Therefore, aside from feeling good from ice baths, people can also benefit from increased focus, clearer thinking and alertness after ice baths because with this release of dopamine comes the release of adrenaline, and noradrenaline (530% in the same study about cold water exposure!)
As you can see, ice baths can do a lot more than help with the body’s recovery.
If you’re interested in trying out ice baths to potentially increase your dopamine levels (and of course reap those other benefits as well,) you can try out our Ice Bath NZ, our complete cold plunge tub package for cold therapy.
Since it doesn’t need any plumbing, you can easily set your ice bath up inside or outside your apartment or home. Just fill the ice bath up with a hose, add ice, and enjoy!
Of course, it’s important to start slow and listen to your body.
You can start with shorter periods of time in the cold water, and gradually increase the time according to your comfort level.
You can also add more and more ice over time.
The typical ice bath session shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. And for your own safety, you shouldn’t be in an ice bath for more than 25 minutes.
It’s also a good idea to speak with a health professional beforehand, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or want to have a hot shower afterwards.
In conclusion, ice baths can increase dopamine in a healthy way that can lead to a host of other positive benefits in your brain and body.
Remember to start out slow so you can safely enjoy the benefits of cold exposure therapy.
Legrand, F. D., Albinet, C., Canivet, A., Gierski, F., Morrone, I., & Besche-Richard, C. (2018). Brief aerobic exercise immediately enhances visual attentional control and perceptual speed. testing the mediating role of feelings of Energy. Acta Psychologica, 191, 25–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2018.08.020
Šrámek, P., Šimečková, M., Janský, L., Šavlíková, J., & Vybíral, S. (2000). Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 81(5), 436–442. https://doi.org/10.1007/s004210050065
Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Anna Lembke, MD. Retrieved from Stanford Medicine: https://med.stanford.edu/profiles/anna-lembke
Ice Bath photo is attributed to Dr. Dennis Cronk under CC BY-SA 2.5