Sustainability Chronicles: Hacking the Cold
The growing popularity of cold exposure means more and more people are giving it a try. That's great! But how do beginners practice safety while exploring cold therapy and meditation? Here are a few hacks I've learned through experience:
Preparing to Embrace the Cold
Talk to your doctor before beginning cold therapy to make sure it is right for you and your health needs. Certain conditions and medications might not be compatible with cold therapy.
Practice breathing exercises before getting in the water. Make sure you are comfortable with breathing exercises such as those suggested by Wim Hof or yoga practitioners. I use a combination of Wim Hof and Kundalini breathing techniques. Wim Hof recommends taking deep, somewhat fast breaths in, and then only partially exhaling the breath before beginning a new inhale so as to retain increased amounts of oxygen in the body. This is done for about 30 breaths, and on the final exhale, ALL the air is expelled from the lungs. Wim then suggests refraining from inhale (not breathing or "retention") for as long as possible. Experienced practitioners can often go 3 minutes or more, but the average is 45 seconds to one and a half minutes. Breaking the two-minute barrier is a commonly seen goal. This cycle of breathing and retention is done anywhere from three to six times. For Kundalini, I find breath of fire helps me in the water by building body heat. Breath of fire consists of rapid breaths in and out, focusing on the exhale, all through the nose. The longer the breath of fire is maintained, the more internal heat that can be generated, the more toxins expelled. In the water, I often do thirty breaths of fire, followed by Wim Hof breathing cycles. Again, it is important to practice these daily, and be comfortable with the techniques before getting in the water. Sometimes, practitioners feel light headed, and so will need to modify breathing in the water to ensure they maintain consciousness.
Prepare a spot to dip. Make sure that if there is ice, you carefully remove the ice shards from the dipping area to prevent getting cut. Make sure your area is close to your vehicle or a place to warm up.
Prepare a hot beverage and have it ready for when you get out of the water. I prefer an infusion of ginger, citrus rind, citrus juice, and raw honey for an additional immune boost.
Have a towel and warm, dry clothes ready.
Get a spotter. If you are in open water, make sure there is someone on the shore who can spot the signs of hypothermia and act quickly if assistance is needed.
Taking the Plunge
I personally do not recommend dipping on an empty stomach. Try a small, reasonable portion of hot food or broth before getting in.
Warm up! Go for a hike, do vigorous yoga, or even some calisthenics before dipping to increase your core temperature and get your blood circulating. I also enjoy skin brushing sometimes before I get in to give my lymphatic system a head start.
Many people worry about time. I often do not focus on time, preferring to immerse myself fully in the moment. However, you can have your spotter or a stopwatch function on your phone going on the beach. The most important thing is to be present in your body. Many ask when they will know it is time to get out. I've heard certified instructors say that you need to get out when you no longer feel the urge to get out of the water; when the cold becomes comfortable. Typical signs that it is time to get out include slurred speech, cognitive impairment, and loss of mobility. It is best to get out before that happens and have your spotter pay close attention to these signs.
Do not drink or use substances before dipping. Alcohol can hasten frostbite and hypothermia by thinning the blood. Cannabis can slow your heart rate and blood pressure causing dangerous drops. Resume use of substances only after your body has regained it's post-dip equilibrium. Using substances can also hamper your ability - and your spotter's ability - to accurately detect hypothermia.
Stay close to shore, preferably where you can touch, until you are able to handle the cold on a consistent basis.
Submerging to your chin is advisable. One of the touted benefits of cold therapy is the development of brown fat, which the body burns to create heat. The brown fat factories are located mainly in the neck and shoulder area of the upper back, meaning cold exposure of these areas is desirable.
Submerging your head requires additional precautions. Exposing the inner ear to extreme cold can cause exostosis, or surfer's ear. This is a condition where bone begins to form inside the ear to protect it from the cold. It can be a painful condition. Therefore, if you plan to submerge your head, ear plugs to protect the inner ear and/or a neoprene cap are advisable to prevent exostosis.
If you wish to practice Wim Hof breathing while fully submerged underwater, such as for free diving, an important modification to the retention portion is necessary. In the traditional retention, you expel all air from your lungs. However, this can be potentially dangerous when diving. Some air needs to be retained in the lungs so that the body's natural CO2 mechanisms are triggered, which signals when we need to come up for a breath. When all air is expelled from the lungs, some reports suggest that our body's CO2 mechanisms are impaired, and could result in drowning. Free diving and breath retention underwater should only be undertaken with the supervision and assistance of a skilled trainer or coach.
To swim or not to swim...some say that swimming causes the body to lose heat quicker, rather than to generate it. You may have to experiment in order to determine whether this is true for you. Everyone is different, and whether cold water paired with swimming generates heat or steals it is highly individualized and depends on numerous factors.
If your hands or feet feel unreasonably sensitive to cold, consider investing in a set of neoprene gloves and boots to make your dips more enjoyable.
I often wear a stocking cap while dipping to retain heat and keep my ears warm!
When you're ready to get out of the water, first and foremost, dry off. If you can, get out of the wet garments completely and put on layers of warm, dry clothes. Start with your extremities first (socks, gloves, hat, etc.).
Begin sipping on your hot liquids to warm up your core.
Exercise! Walk, jump, do yoga, anything to get the body moving. Getting into the hip joint with your physical activity can assist in a quicker, natural warm up.
Allow the shiver! Shivering is a way our body warms itself up. Shivering can also help the body release emotional trauma stored in the muscles and joints, so allow it to happen!
Warm up naturally and gradually. Jumping into a hot bath or hot tub immediately following cold exposure can cause cardiac arrest. Go slow, allow the process to occur naturally, and you will build a stronger acclimation to the cold. If you like to warm up using water, go slow. Start with only warm water at first, gradually building in heat. It is better to warm up by a fire, with space heaters, blankets, and warm drinks and broths.
After Drop is to be expected. After drop happens about ten minutes after cold exposure. This is when the body's core temperature is at its coldest. It won't last long, and the measures explained above will assist the body in returning to its normal core temperature.
Special Considerations for Women
If you are pregnant or nursing, please consult your doctor or midwife before experimenting or continuing cold therapy.
Many women take a break from cold therapy during their monthly cycles, finding it more difficult to tolerate the cold. Chinese medicine does not recommend cold therapy during this time, recommending instead cultivating heat within the body. Other women find that cold therapy relieves pain and cramping during their cycles. Talk to your healthcare provider and experiment to figure out what may work best for you, as every woman is different.
Cold therapy has been noted anecdotally to help women with menopausal and peri-menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. I've personally found this to be true as all my hormonal symptoms are beginning to disappear and regulate themselves. Again, talk to your healthcare provider and figure out what may work for you.
This isn't comprehensive; everyone is different and each journey into cold exposure is unique! Keep a log of your dips and be mindful and present within your body to discover what works best for you and share those with others embarking on their own cold exposure journeys. The more we share, the more we learn, and the greater our capacity will be to heal!