Health benefits, concerns when taking the (polar) plunge

It’s February, and even in Texas, plunging oneself into a natural body of water doesn’t seem like the most fun activity.

In health terms, this is called cold-water immersion, or CWI, and thousands of people do it every year. Why?

Shards of ice sheets floating on cold waterFor more than 100 years, the polar bear plunge, or polar plunge, has been an event in the U.S. and Canada to celebrate the new year or to raise money for a charitable organization, like Special Olympics.

Though some articles claim there are numerous health benefits, cardiology and psychiatry experts at Baylor College of Medicine say there has not been enough research to determine whether even taking a bath with ice in it is beneficial.

Before taking the plunge, every person should talk with their primary healthcare provider, but especially those with cardiac health concerns.

Dr. Ronald Maag, cardiologist and assistant professor –in the Margaret M. and Albert B. Alkek Department of Medicine, said ice baths or extended cold plunges could have negative consequences for some cardiac patients who take medication. But there’s not enough evidence to know if plunges are beneficial or detrimental to any one person’s health.

“Looking at cardiac patients, cardiologists wouldn’t recommend doing it,” Maag said. “For people who have high blood pressure or other coronary artery disease, this could cause an elevation in their blood pressure and affect their heart rate, which are things we want to avoid in our cardiovascular patients.”

Other concerns to bring to a primary healthcare provider would be a person’s tolerance to the cold, especially for people who have not taken an ice bath or done a cold water plunge before.

Dr. Andrew D. Wiese, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said he has read literature suggesting cold plunges may help with overall well-being, anxiety and stress. But there is not enough research to know about mental health benefits – yet.

A 2022 study suggested “there are significant effects of CWI on various physiological and biochemical parameters,” and it “seems to reduce and / or transform body adipose tissue, as well as insulin resistance and improves insulin sensitivity.”

But Wiese and the study’s authors agree that more diversified research is necessary to determine the positive impacts of “sea-swimming” in cold water. A sudden release of adrenaline and noradrenaline during cold plunges could contribute to feelings of wellness, Wiese said, but that bodily process is not yet clear.

“Large scale research trials are needed before we can start suggesting this is an effective strategy” to help relieve symptoms of mental distress, Wiese said in an email.

Cold plunges should not be used in place of other interventions that are known to be effective for treating anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns, Wiese said. If anything, immersing oneself in cold water may be used as a complementary activity with prescribed mental health interventions.

“I generally tell my patients if they find benefit from it, and it does not interfere with other work we are doing, or with other health issues, then by all means, keep doing it,” he said.

Learn more about cardiovascular medicine and psychiatry and behavioral health at Baylor Medicine. 

By Julie Garcia

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