Are Ice Baths Effective?

June 9, 2023

Water has been used for ages for many different purposes like drinking, cooking or washing but it has also been a vital element in therapies. There are two types of water therapies, Hot and Cold. While we all have heard a lot about saunas and hot water baths, let us today understand the benefits of cold water therapies.

Water is used in therapies and is commonly practised in the form of ice baths AKA cold water immersion1. Ice bath therapy is a method that involves immersing the body in a tub filled with ice and water for a short time. The duration of the therapy can vary, but it typically lasts between 5 to 15 minutes.

The cold temperature of the water helps to reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain in the muscles. This is achieved by constricting the blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the affected area, which in turn reduces the amount of inflammation and swelling. The reduced inflammation and swelling can help to speed up the recovery process and alleviate muscle soreness. Ice baths are commonly used for recovery by athletes and people who engage in intense workouts. Some people also use ice baths as a way to boost their immune system and improve circulation. Cold water immersion is one of the classic examples of hormesis.

What is Hormesis?

Chronic stress resulting from factors such as an endless workload, bad relationships, disturbed circadian rhythm, or financial hardships can severely impact one's health. This is known as harmful stress2.  

On the other hand, Hormesis, or hormetic stressors, are regulated, short-period stressors that activate beneficial adaptive responses in the body. Hormesis is based on the dose-response relationship in the body, i.e., short-term doses of stress activate powerful cellular pathways that benefit overall health. Hormesis is associated with intermittent fasting, heat exposure, high-intensity interval training and even with phytonutrients present in cruciferous vegetables. Long periods of cold exposure can also lead to hypothermia. Hence, regulated cold water immersions are best when taken for a shorter time. Some of the benefits of cold water immersion include the shifting of fluid inside the cells and vessels, reduction of muscle swelling, increased cardiac output, and help with enhanced blood flow, nutrient distribution, and waste transportation. Some of these may be beneficial in recovery from exercise. There may also be an added psychological benefit whereby immersion reduces fatigue 1.


How does this work?

A variety of things come under the umbrella of hormetic stressors and activate similar pathways. To one’s surprise, oxidative stress is one of the underlying pathways.

Methods to achieve hormesis naturally induce a few reactive oxygen species, aka “free radicals”, in the body. The powerhouse of every cell, known as ‘mitochondria’, is responsible for producing the energy for the cells to function optimally. In the presence of a few radicals, it also makes copies of itself. And for a fact, you tend to feel tired more often because you lose mitochondria as you age. By regenerating mitochondria, you can improve your health2.

Hormesis causes short spurts of oxidative stress which impacts several cellular signalling systems. One of them includes the transcription factor Nrf-2. Transcription factors are a type of protein that activate genes by binding to the DNA. Nrf-2 protein breakdown slows down in the presence of free radicals, which leads to more Nrf-2 in the nucleus of cells. It further binds to the DNA present in the nucleus and activates the production of the most powerful antioxidant – glutathione – and enzymes that are involved in phase two detoxification. Phase two detoxification and these detoxifying enzymes help the body neutralize harmful toxins and oxidative stress.

To summarize, activating low levels of oxidative stress now which are neutralized by hormetic stress later is oddly helpful2.

Ice bath therapy for Fitness enthusiasts:

Ice baths are commonly used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts as a post-workout recovery method. After engaging in intense exercise, muscles can become sore and inflamed due to micro-tears in muscle fibres. Ice baths are believed to help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain in the muscles. This can lead to a faster recovery time and improved performance in subsequent workouts.

However, it should be noted that ice baths are not a substitute for proper rest, nutrition, and hydration, which are also crucial for muscle recovery. Let us understand a few benefits of ice bath therapies in post-exercise.

Possible mechanisms of ice bath therapy post-exercise include:

  • Intense exercises cause microtrauma and tears in the muscle fibres. Immersing oneself in ice water constricts the blood vessels, which has been proven to help with post-muscle soreness and pain3.
  • The mechanism of blood vessel constriction is also advised as a mechanism that helps flush waste products, such as lactic acid, out of the affected tissue 1,4.
  • The cold temperature can cause a slowing down of the physiological processes & will reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.

If this method is performed with proper guidance and training, it will benefit those actively participating in physical activities. 

5 benefits of ice baths to keep in mind:

  1. Aids Muscle Recovery & Cellular Energy: Professional athletes who jump into ice baths post-workout are onto something. As shown in a 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine, cold water exposure is beneficial for muscle recovery5.

  1. Reduces Fatigue: It was observed that immersing oneself in an ice bath after an intense workout improved the quality of sleep2. This improved sleep can benefit the Central Nervous System and, thus, makes you feel better, leading to less fatigue. It can help improve reaction time and performance in coming workouts, too.

  1. Reduces Inflammation: Taking an ice bath caps the inflammatory response as the cold temperature narrows your blood vessels. This leads to decreased blood flow to your muscles and may help in reducing inflammation and swelling.

  1. Enhances Performance: An ice bath in hot or humid temperatures before a long race can lower the core body temperature by a few degrees, leading to better performance.

  1. Improves Stress Management: Lastly, ice baths train your vagus nerve, which is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system. Training the vagus nerve can help you face stressful situations better. 

Despite these benefits, there are some things to consider before indulging in ice baths, especially if an individual has cardiovascular conditions, hypertension, or low blood flow. It could lead to hypothermia if not done with proper guidance6

4 tips to harness health benefits:

  1. Encourage yourself to do challenging workouts: High-intensity interval training (HIIT), intense swimming sessions, a boxing routine, or any such workout routine that challenges your body. Also, keep in mind to do slow workouts like walking or yoga. Just like a balanced meal, a balanced workout is also necessary. 

  1. Practise Pranayama daily: While more research needs to be conducted on breathwork and hormesis, it can help increase your lung capacity and better cognition.

  1. Put your body out of your comfort zone: Just like ice bath immersions have a lot of benefits, there are benefits to heat as well. Saunas, hot baths, and working out in a hot environment can help in improving the immune system and reduce mortality risk as well.

  1. Add colourful foods to your plate: Plant foods can help activate a hormetic stress response in the body, via a process called ‘xenohormesis’. A few xenohormetic nutrients are curcumin from turmeric, resveratrol from berries, and allicin from garlic.

It might feel like you are ready to harness the power of hormesis but it is easily possible to overdo these stressors. While eating a lot of colourful foods or doing HIIT is beneficial, it is always important to examine one’s stress levels and make sure you do not overdo hormesis. Make sure you are relaxed and your cup is not overflowing as hormesis is done to defend against future stressors, and not when you are susceptible to more stress. 

Hormesis exists in multiple ways and can be beneficial to us when done in the right situation. Take proper guidance and understand the ice bath technique for beneficial results.


1. Lateef F. Post-exercise ice water immersion: Is it a form of active recovery? J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2010;3(3):302. doi:10.4103/0974-2700.66570

2. 6 Ways To Strategically Stress Your Body Out For Longevity & Immunity. mindbodygreen. Published February 28, 2021. Accessed February 8, 2023.

3. Effect of hydrotherapy on recovery from fatigue - PubMed. Accessed March 21, 2023.

4. Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomised controlled trial - PubMed. Accessed March 21, 2023.

5. Are Ice Baths Worth It? What Experts Say About Their Benefits. mindbodygreen. Published December 16, 2022. Accessed February 8, 2023.

6. Ice Bath Benefits: Research, Tips, and More. Healthline. Published April 9, 2019. Accessed March 22, 2023.

Riya Sugandhi
Functional nutritionist- R & D division

Riya has a Master's in Nutrition and dietetics with a specialization in Public health nutrition. She believes food is a way to one's heart and with the right nutrition, it is the key to mind. With being a Functional nutritionist she also is working in our R&D team to find, re-work and provide knowledge out to the world. "Unlearn to learn the right nutrition" is an expression she works by.

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