Cold water bathing — a Victorian craze that really is good for your health

    7 September 2015

    Flinging someone into a freezing pool might not sound like the best cure for a panic attack. Yet recent research would seem to suggest otherwise. The energising effect of cold water has long been known. Be it a short sharp shower to start the day or an exhilarating midnight dip in an icy sea, chilly water is a sure-fire way of waking us up. And it was ever thus. Throughout human history, mankind has celebrated immersion in water: from the ancient Greek fresco of the diver at Paestum, through Jesus’s full-body baptism in the river Jordan, to today’s fashion for ‘wild swimming’.

    Hydrotherapy is an ancient practice. Hippocrates recommended bathing in spring water to ‘allay lassitude’ and the ancient Egyptians turned it into an art form with essential oils and flowers. The practice of medically sanctioned treatments was revived in the 18th century, when Dr Hahn’s book On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly Applied was published in Germany. The craze reached Bath, where there had been a spa since Roman times. Interest reached a peak in the Victorian era: cold baths were frequently prescribed for all manner of complaints from bruises to hysteria. Clinics sprang up all over England, particularly in Malvern where Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle and Florence Nightingale all went for treatment.

    It is only in the last few years, though, that scientists and doctors have really begun to investigate why it is that cold water makes us feel so incredibly well. On a cosmetic level, cold water tightens the pores and flattens hair follicles — hence the long-held hairdressers’ mantra of a final rinse with cold water for optimal shininess. Cold water also promotes lymphatic drainage, leading to improved circulation, and helps stimulate brown fat which can result in weight loss. A 2009 study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that a cold shower a day could make you lose up to nine pounds a year. Given that this costs next to nothing, how long before it’s available on the NHS as an obesity cure? So far, so physical.

    Much more extraordinary is the effect of cold water immersion on mental health. In the mid-1990s, doctors in Germany discovered that swimming in cold water reduced levels of uric acid and resulted in a ‘hardening’ of the body, meaning that patients were better able to cope with stress in the long-term. Sitting in cold water also decreases the heart rate by nearly 10 per cent, lowering blood pressure and inducing calm, according to a 2002 study.

    More recently still, research has shown that cold water can be an effective treatment for depression, decreasing panic-kindling cortisol levels and increasing cheering norepinephrine and beta-endorphins. So next time you’re near someone having a freak out, don’t just advise them to sip some cool water: get them to jump in, too.