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When Is The Best Time To Be Taking Cold Plunges? Is Cold-Water Immersion Recommended For Improved Menstrual Symptoms In Women?

In the current climate of trends, quick cures, and self-improvement, cold water therapy is at the heart of holistic health and wellness. From ice baths and sea swims to cold showers and cryotherapy chambers, cold water is an emerging tool for those looking for mental, physical, and physiological benefits. However, the science behind cold-water therapy steers this conversation towards the argument as to how the effects differ in both women and men. 


What is cold water immersion and what are the benefits?

With origins dating back to ancient Greece, cold-water immersion is essentially a method of therapy whereby water of 10-15 degrees Celsius is used for multiple different reasons. Those benefits can range from mental, physical, and physiological reasons, with the most common use being for athletes after training or competition in the hope that it will aid muscle recovery and help decrease pain. 

There are plenty of ways to introduce cold-water therapy to everyday life. With portable ice baths now costing around £95, the colder months producing significantly colder seas, and the cost-of-living crisis providing incentives for reducing the number of hot showers, it is the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Something as small as splashing water on your face is enough to gain the benefit, although specialists recommend implementing a 30-second cold shower at the end of your shower routine to get a feel for this type of therapy, as it’s not for everyone. Cold water therapy has been proven to decrease stress and improve blood pressure, blood flow, and metabolism. For athletes, it can aid muscle recovery and help reduce joint pain. Secondary effects include things such as aiding in caloric expenditure, improving insulin resistance, and helping to regulate hormones. 

To give some perspective, a 24-year-old woman with anxiety and depression had been treated and on medication since she was 17. Following the birth of her child, she aimed to stop medicating completely, so she began a trial program consisting of weekly open-water swimming. As time passed, her symptoms decreased significantly to where she was able to stop taking medication, and, a year later, she was still regularly swimming, and her symptoms were still suppressed. 


What are the potential risks?

Leading on from that point, this form of therapy is not right for everyone. If you are someone who prefers warm baths and finds that to be more relaxing and beneficial then this will not be for you. Additionally, if you are someone who struggles with a particular condition, specifically heart and stroke-related, then seeking guidance from a professional before undergoing this form of therapy is strongly advised. 

The American Heart Association claims that the first 60 seconds are the most risky and unsafe as this is when the breathing and heart rate attempt to regulate and settle. If, for instance, you are someone who struggles with high blood pressure, asthma, or even Raynaud’s syndrome (restricted blood flow in the hands and feet causing numbness), then this risk is heightened even further. Those who should also seek guidance before participating in cold-water immersion are people who have had a stroke, those with brain injuries, or autoimmune conditions, and those who struggle with anxiety and panic disorders. Most experts recommend that anyone pregnant refrain from cold-water therapy altogether due to the potential harm that can be caused by vasoconstriction (muscles tightening blood vessels) and therefore, shivering. This motion raises the heart rate which can cause potential problems for both the mother and the developing fetus. Leading on from this 


Why is cold water immersion different for men and women? 

Recent research uncovered significant differences in how both men and women respond to cold water therapy. Manuela Fortunato, a registered clinical dietician, and nutritionist with a specialty in metabolism and hormonal health, stresses the importance of biological rhythms and what women should be aware of before attempting cold water immersion. Both men and women experience the circadian rhythm, this being the 24-hour cycle following the sun, however, women uniquely also experience an infradian rhythm which is a full monthly biological cycle. 

This means that even though the benefits of cold-water therapy are generalized, women and men may react biologically differently. Specifically, female biology is considerably more sensitive to temperature shifts than men, especially during their cycle's luteal and menstruation phases. Where they are different in male biology, this means that cold-water therapy during these phases can have potentially detrimental and harmful effects on progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol levels. 

The four different stages of a menstrual cycle: the menstruation phase (the beginning of the period), the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase respectively bring different physiological differences that can be impacted during cold-water therapy. So, it is clear that men and women must approach this differently, but what should women be doing to ensure they are doing the right thing for their bodies, at the correct time in their cycle?

When should I participate in cold-water therapy? What stage of my phase is most beneficial?

Chinese Traditional medicine states the importance of yin and yang, the power of Qi (life force energy), and the balance of hot and cold energies. The belief and practice of this type of medicine is that pain which is typically cold in an energetic nature, like cramps or muscle and joint pain, should instead be treated with heat therapy. 

During the menstruation, ovulation, and luteal phases of a menstrual cycle, there are hormonal fluctuations that differentiate within each phase and can influence a woman’s physical and emotional well-being. In the menstruation phases, for instance, a woman may experience sensitivity and discomfort as the uterine sheds its lining, and so therefore, cold exposure may exacerbate these symptoms and cause further discomfort.

Manuela recommends only partaking in ice baths during the follicular phase, avoiding them altogether in the ovulation, luteal, and menstrual phases. Although this leaves a small window in which to participate in cold-water immersion, that is not to say there are not huge benefits to utilizing this form of therapy.  


Cold-water therapy can not only help reduce inflammation which will, in turn, benefit cramping and other muscular pain during the cycle, but it can also stimulate circulation and blood flow. Inadequate circulation in women can result in hormonal imbalances, which can lead to irregular menstrual cycles or other period problems, cold water immersion will aid blood flow to improve and regulate hormones during a phase where it is heightened. Additionally, other secondary effects involve improved skin tones, impacting quality of sleep and better energy levels which, as a result, leads to reduced stress levels and an overall better experience during those tougher phases. 


So how do you implement this into everyday life? Well, there are three main points to keep in mind before throwing yourself in at the deep end. Firstly, stay safe. Cold-water immersion comes with its risks, and those with health conditions should always seek professional advice before undertaking any activity with cold water. Secondly, and leading on from that, gradually increase the duration and temperature of the water. Again, full immersion from the get-go could potentially be harmful, and also completely useless. A gradual increase will not only be beneficial for the enjoyment aspect, but it will also allow you the opportunity to see whether this form of therapy suits you. Finally, results will only be uncovered if the method is consistent. Begin with a quick 30-second shower at the end of your daily shower and see what improvements you find! Happy cold plunging!

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