Published August 9, 2023 In the modern landscape of health and wellness, we find ourselves continuously exploring new avenues to enhance our vitality and well-being. Among these, the practice of cold plunging has emerged as quite the trend amongst credible “biohackers”, promising a rush of exhilaration and potential health benefits through immersion in icy waters. However, when we look at some of the most ancient medicine philosophies like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, and Ancient Mayan Medicine, we notice that they all converge upon a shared principle: the paramount importance of cultivating internal warmth and shielding the body from the chilling embrace of external cold. This emphasis takes on a profound significance, particularly for women, where it plays a pivotal role in both menstrual cycles and post-childbirth recovery. In today’s article we’ll dive into ancient medicine’s perspective on cold, the benefits and drawbacks of cold-plunging, and how to achieve that cold plunge “euphoria” without submersing yourself in freezing waters. THE SHARED EMPHASIS ON INTERNAL WARMTH IN TRADITIONAL MEDICINE Across different corners of the world, distinct cultures have cultivated their unique traditional medicine systems. Despite minimal cross-cultural interactions, these systems share a common thread: an unwavering emphasis on nurturing internal warmth and shielding the body from the encroachments of external cold. This emphasis on warmth is particularly relevant for women, with an integral role in both menstrual cycles and post-childbirth recovery. In TCM and Traditional Mayan Medicine, a 40-day quarantine period following childbirth is a shared practice. This period involves enveloping oneself in layers of warm clothing, seeking refuge indoors, and nourishing the body with well-cooked, warm meals. The objective is clear: to safeguard the vulnerable channels of the body from the infiltration of cold forces, which could disrupt the delicate processes of healing and blood flow, leading to stagnation. This principle extends beyond childbirth to encompass the menstrual cycle, where the maintenance of internal warmth proves essential for the unhindered flow of blood and the alleviation of discomfort. In Ayurvedic Medicine, so much importance is placed on stoking and preserving the “agni,” or “digestive fire” in the stomach — because we all want to digest just as well as kids do! Strong, healthy digestion where there is minimal stagnation, gas, bloating, and constipation is a result of the strong “fire” burning in our belly that can cook, digest, and extract, nutrients from food with ease. COLD FOODS & ITS IMPACT ACROSS CULTURES In China, where TCM principles are still very much a part of daily life and culture, kids are always given a warm breakfast of cooked porridge, soup, congee, or other warm and nourishing foods to ensure their yang energy and digestive fire burn bright throughout the day. In the States, we often start off our days with cold cereal and milk, or sugary breakfast foods (note that sugar is also considered quite cold, or “yin” in traditional Chinese medicine.) Despite much higher rates of pollution, China’s national prevalence of asthma is 4.2%, whereas USA’s median comes in at 8.3% (with some states like Maine at 12.3%). In Chinese medicine in the stomach is the “mother” of the lungs, and when the stomach is too “cold,” it fails to nourish and take care of the lungs, which can lead to respiratory issues such as childhood asthma. I’ve seen it happen anecdotally many times where a parent switches their child’s breakfast from cold cereal and milk to warming oatmeal, and not only digestion but asthma improves. COLD + BLOOD CIRCULATION The constriction of blood vessels induced by cold can disrupt the natural rhythm of blood circulation, contributing to menstrual cramps and discomfort. TCM’s practices, including the counsel to avoid cold showers during menstruation and the emphasis on protecting energy channels from cold, underscore the significance of fostering internal warmth for the optimal reproductive health. As women, warmth is so important for our cycles because it brings ease, flow, calm, and tension release to the body. It’s why when you’re getting a massage and they use a hot compress, warm oil, or hot stones on your back, the tension instantly melts, and your body feels relieved. When you think about tools that help menstrual cramps and pain, you may instantly think of heating pads, hot water bottles, and other warm, teas and foods. This goes back to the constriction of blood flow that cold causes mentioned earlier where the smooth flow of blood is impaired by what Chinese medicine refers to as “cold invading the womb.” When you bring warmth to the womb, you help restore the smooth flow of blood and remove the need for constriction and cramping to push blood out. UNDERSTANDING HORMESIS + THE ALLURE OF COLD PLUNGING While the allure of cold plunging lies in the immediate rush of euphoria it provides, it’s important to understand why this happens and how you can achieve this without cold exposure. Cold plunging DOES have some benefit, sure — but it’s not necessarily unique. Cold plunging “works” because it’s a hormetic stressor. The term “hormetic stressor” comes from hormesis, a process in which your body and cells respond, recover, and improve after mild stress. Many things are considered hormetic stressors: not just cold exposure, but hard exercise and even slight exposure to pollution for a short period of time. But I wouldn’t necessarily do a pollution plunge every morning! Cold exposure sets off a hormetic stress response, flooding the brain with pleasure-inducing chemicals like dopamine and the body with cold shock proteins. While these effects are undoubtedly enticing, TCM introduces an intriguing perspective: the body expends a substantial amount of yang energy (the core of essential warmth) to recalibrate its internal temperature after the extremities of cold exposure. This energy expenditure holds particular implications for women, whose bodies inherently lean toward the colder (yin) end of the temperature spectrum. THE GENDERED THERMAL BALANCE A biological contrast in temperature regulation exists between men and women. Men typically possess a higher quotient of yang energy, leading to a naturally warmer disposition. This gender-based distinction implies that men may experience more pronounced and immediate benefits from cold plunging, thanks to their elevated baseline warmth. In contrast, women, who inherently possess less yang energy and tend to be naturally colder, need to exercise prudence in their pursuit of cold plunging, lest they inadvertently deplete their precious warmth reserves. ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO ‘STRESS’ YOUR BODY The concept around cold-plunging is very valid: You do want to start your day with an exposure to some sort of chosen ‘pain’ in order to balance the “pain and pleasure scales” in your brain, which helps you to be less driven by instant gratification and pleasure throughout the day. This trains your brain to do hard things, and face, the challenges of life with excitement instead of dread. But it doesn’t have to be cold plunging. It can be hard exercise, creating challenging art, meditating, sitting with painful emotions, or even doing chores.