Can cold water immersion help cut body fat, prevent diabetes? - study

Cold water immersion may may help lose bad body fat and provide some measure of protection against heart disease and diabetes. But other benefits of cold water may not hold water.

 A woman is seen immersed in cold water. Cold water immersion may be able to cut body fat and prevent diabetes (Illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
A woman is seen immersed in cold water. Cold water immersion may be able to cut body fat and prevent diabetes (Illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Immersing yourself in cold water can help cut out bad body fat in men and help prevent diabetes, according to a new study, though the full possible health benefits of doing this are still a matter of fierce debate.

The findings of this study, published in the peer-reviewed academic periodical The International Journal of Circumpolar Health, are based on a vast array of previous studies on cold water immersion and winter swimming in an attempt to see the possible benefits of this practice.

What is cold water immersion and what good does it do?

Cold water immersion is very popular, though what exactly that entails can range.

For some, cold water immersion refers to winter swimming, when people swim in cold water, or ice swimming, which is even colder and takes place in bodies of water where the frozen ice was removed manually.

And for others, cold water immersion is a therapeutic practice used to recover from strenuous exercise.

Floating ice as seen during the expedition of the The Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise ship at the Arctic Ocean, September 14, 2020. (credit: REUTERS / NATALIE THOMAS)Floating ice as seen during the expedition of the The Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise ship at the Arctic Ocean, September 14, 2020. (credit: REUTERS / NATALIE THOMAS)

Just as the definition of cold water immersion can vary, so too can the range of how cold the water has to be. This can range from anywhere from -2° Celcius to up to 20°C. 

In terms of health benefits, there has long been speculation about the good cold water immersion can do, but this is all a matter of debate. Research on the matter has been stymied by a number of different overly specific studies and can be influenced by popular stories and anecdotes about cold water immersion benefits.

So, what's really going on?

To figure this out, the researchers behind this study went through a detailed review of the scientific literature on cold water immersion to narrow it down to specific relevant physiological studies on cold water immersion found in academic publications.

In the end, the researchers narrowed it down to 104 studies.

Correlation does not imply causation

Based on these studies, the researchers concluded that there may indeed be some health benefits to cold water immersion, but more evidence is needed.

The reason for this is that many of the benefits associated with cold water immersion might not necessarily be caused by it. Rather, it is possible that other factors, like maintaining an active lifestyle, could be behind them.

But the most promising of these possible benefits, which seems to hold the most water, is that cold water immersion can help lose bad body fat and provide some measure of protection against heart disease and diabetes.

So why does this happen?

How does cold water immersion make you lose body fat and prevent diabetes?

The reason for this is that cold water immersion seems to either reduce or transform adipose tissue, also known as body fat. There are actually two kinds of adipose tissue, white adipose tissue (WAT) which stores energy and brown adipose tissue (BAT) which burns calories to maintain body temperature.

As such, given the exposure to cold water in cold water immersion, it makes sense that the "good" body fat, BAT, is stimulated, burning calories as a result, which in turn means it can reduce the energy stores of "bad" body fat, WAT. 

However, it is worth noting that this was seen more prominently in men, who tend to burn these calories more while women felt the cold less.

In addition to this, though, it seems that exposure to the cold, either in water or the air, can help adipose tissue produce the hormone protein adiponectin. This helps protect the body against insulin resistance and increases insulin sensitivity, which in turn protects the body from diabetes.

What other possible benefits does cold water immersion therapy have?

A number of other possible benefits of cold water immersion therapy have been put forward over the years. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased libido
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mental health
  • Treating chronic autoimmune inflammation
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Enhanced blood circulation
  • Less muscle soreness
  • Reduced pain

However, cold water immersion also comes with risks, like hypothermia or lung issues due to shock from cold exposure.

Ultimately, more research into these various aspects is needed to better determine the truth of cold water immersion's health benefits. Only time, and many more studies, will tell if the stories about cold water actually hold water.