Geriatrician Weighs in on the Ice Bath Craze and Its Health Implications

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The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014, where individuals poured ice-cold water over themselves to raise funds for ALS research, is a memory many recall. Fast forward to today, and a new icy trend is making waves on social media: ice baths. Celebrities like Harry Styles and Lady Gaga have popularized this trend, where individuals immerse themselves in ice-cold water, claiming benefits such as anti-aging, stress relief, and recovery. 

However, before diving headfirst into this chilly trend, it’s essential to understand its implications, especially when it comes to health and wellness. According to Parade, Dr. Marzena Gieniusz, MD, an internist/geriatrician with Northwell Health, emphasizes the importance of examining reliable evidence supporting the claims of such trends. She notes that the risks or harms often become evident only after they gain popularity and people experience complications. Ice baths, also known as “cold water immersion” (CWI), involve individuals submerging themselves in water typically around 50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

The primary goal? To reap health benefits, ranging from pain relief and decreasing inflammation to boosting the immune system. Dr. Gieniusz elaborates that when one steps into an ice bath, blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow, lactic acid build-up, swelling, and tissue breakdown. This process also induces stress, activating the body’s natural defense systems. Dr. Matthew Kampert, a Cleveland Clinic staff physician, adds that cold therapy releases endorphins, leading to mental clarity and elevated mood. 

Research has also delved into the benefits of ice baths. A 2018 study suggested that cold stimulation might aid in stress reduction. Furthermore, a systematic review in the Journal of Sports Medicine in 2022 indicated that ice baths could assist in recovery after high-intensity workouts. Dr. Kampert mentions that while ice baths can be beneficial for athletes seeking to decrease inflammation from acute injuries, they might also inhibit pathways essential for the body’s repair and long-term adaptation processes. 

However, not all claims surrounding ice baths have been substantiated. Both experts interviewed were skeptical about the assertion that ice baths can reverse aging. Dr. Gieniusz highlighted that while cold exposure might reduce systemic inflammation, a factor in chronic diseases accelerating aging, these claims remain unconfirmed. Dr. Kampert concurred, emphasizing the need for more evidence. But like all trends, ice baths come with their set of risks. Dr. Gieniusz warns of significant dangers, including hypothermia or immersion hypothermia, a perilous drop in body temperature.

Cold shock, another potential risk, can lead to loss of breathing control, impaired mentation, and cardiovascular issues. Dr. Kampert also points out that if the goal is to build strength and muscle size, exercisers might want to reconsider ice baths post-training sessions, as they could reduce long-term muscle mass and strength gains. In conclusion, while ice baths might seem like a refreshing trend, especially with celebrity endorsements, it’s crucial to approach them with caution. Ensuring one is well-informed and consulting with health professionals can make all the difference in safely navigating this icy trend. 

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