By the time you leave your 20s and 30s behind, the fountain of youth sounds like an increasingly appealing concept. But where to find it is the age-old question. The answer? There is no single way to lock in youthfulness but if you give your body everything it needs to support optimal function, you’ll at least be in the same zip code as that proverbial fountain of youth and you’ll look good and feel good to boot.
If you want to live well longer, the classics of good sleep, good food, plenty of movement and relaxation are absolutely foundational. Building on that solid base, you can get a little more creative with this powerful anti-aging, vitality-enhancing health hack, cold exposure, incorporating brief periods of exposure to cold temperatures into your daily routine.
Why? In simplest terms, it may help make you one of the physiologically youngest people you know. Sound good? Here’s a topline on tapping into the therapeutic benefits of chillin’ with a purpose:
Small “stresses” make you stronger
When it comes to nurturing your longevity genes and aging well, one major, common theme is labeled hormesis. Hormesis is your body’s response to small healthy stresses—say, fasting for a short time, or biking up a brief, steep hill. These short periods of adversity stimulate the body’s defenses against aging without doing harm. Creating small, manageable challenges with regard to food, exercise and, yes, temperature is a playful, proactive way to approach wellness. And, not the least of its virtues, the hormesis mindset gives you a way to reframe what used to be unpleasant obligations, like stepping outside on an ice-cold morning to walk the dog (skip the coat). Everyday life offers up plenty of opportunities for “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Big cold, small, beneficial stressors.
The technical term is “cold thermogenesis,” basically any exposure to cold temperatures for short periods of time. Unlike long-term exposure to cold which overtaxes the immune system and erodes health, these brief doses of temperature stress stimulate your cells’ ability to repair themselves, promoting autophagy, the body’s self-cleaning system. Over the course of a lifetime, your body is continually breaking itself down and building itself back up at the cellular level. Regular shots of cold help make the process more efficient and robust, just what you need to counter the natural wear and tear of aging.
Cold therapy helps kick longevity gene pathways into gear.
One high-tech way to amp up hormesis is cryotherapy. Typically, for two to five minutes, you stand in a specialized booth where liquid nitrogen pushes the temperatures down to sub-Artic levels. Originally used as a clinical therapy to treat rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, cryotherapy has since gained traction with pro athletes and now it’s a routine treatment for the rest of us to help with work-out recovery and pain relief. You may have noticed (in the pre-pandemic days) the proliferation of cryotherapy spas and studios. Whether you’re an athlete or civilian, this short exposure to extremely low temperatures stimulates longevity gene pathways, increases mitochondria production, and helps tamp down inflammation. Even better, you don’t have to go the high-tech, ultra-low-temp route to get comparable health effects. Cold showers, ice baths and ice packs work just fine.
Get comfortable with cold.
The thing about cold is that most of us have been raised to hide from it or bundle up against it – and if your winter’s been anything like the one we’ve had this year in the Northeast, that’s not an unreasonable response. But controlled exposure to cold is like time spent in the sun, which, in managed doses, also confers health-boosting benefits that are tough to access when you’re buried in clothing layers 24/7. Contrary to what your momma might have told you, some cold exposure, sensibly done, is good for you; you likely won’t likely catch a cold because of it. (Cold doesn’t cause colds, viruses do.)
In fact, getting cozy with cold, however you choose to get yours, is credited not only with anti-aging effects, it’s showing promise as a preventative treatment for dementia by taming inflammation and oxidative stress. In the near term, other benefits include improved immunity, sleep quality and an increased fat-burning. That’s because a dose of cold causes the body to shiver, which activates reactions inside the brown fat cells, the ones that our bodies burn for fuel to keep our bodies warm (versus the problematic white stuff our bodies store). Cold exposure is also thought to tame migraine symptoms (try ice packs on the neck) and soothe irritated nerve endings that can cause pain. For those struggling with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, it can boost mood by triggering the release of the body’s feel-good endorphins.
Get off to a warm start and a cold finish.
One of the easiest ways to embrace the cold, and one of our favorites, doesn’t even require stepping outside. Instead, finish your hot morning shower with a 30 to 60 second blast of cold water. It takes a little getting used to but at a gut level, you can feel that this is good for you — instantly invigorating. It gets the chi (aka energy) flowing. And now Western medicine is coming to view it as healthy practice. Research shows that the cold exposure ups the production and health of your mitochondria, the energy factories inside your cells which drive life and longevity. They transform food and oxygen into ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, the molecule that powers biochemical reactions throughout your body. ATP molecules are especially abundant in the cells of your heart, brain, and muscles. With a cold finish to your hot shower, you’re giving yourself an energizing, anti-aging boost, literally in seconds, cheaply, easily, no nitrogen required.
The hot-to-cold approach works in reverse too.
Swim in a cool pool, then bask in a hot tub. Go back and forth between a sauna and a cold shower. Or just step outside in winter for a few minutes without a coat. It’s so refreshing, especially after hours in an overheated indoor environment. The same hormesis principle applies to other light stresses on the body, like short periods of fasting or bursts of intense physical activity.
Before you embark on your own DIY cold therapy program or step into a cryotherapy chamber, keep in mind, there are a few caveats. People with conditions such as diabetes, heart issues and/or high blood pressure (controlled or not) should be especially careful and first get the all clear from a medical professional.