Embracing discomfort strengthens us and improves our tolerance to stress, and Mother Nature rewards us for these efforts. Just as a tough workout leads to a stronger, functional body upon recovery, it is the adaptation to a tough environment that occurs over time that allows us to build ourselves up. These adaptations are buried within our genes, but we have to face the right stress and the right stimulus consistently to tap this beautiful biochemistry for wellness.
Can you activate this biochemical pathway outside of winter? Of course you can. We are designed to activate this pathway year round as long as we follow Mother Nature’s rules. There is an entirely different way to activate this exact pathway utilising sunlight but that will be another blog series in its entirety. We do not always have the privilege of strong sunlight year round, but when we do not, we have the cold. Today, even when we do have sunlight, modern living keeps us indoors, and humans also control the thermostat to avoid discomfort. The lack of sun and the lack of cold as the ideal stimulus is a double-edged sword to prevent wellness by blinding us from this pathway.
Why have I chosen to focus my attention on the effects of cold prior to discussing the sun? Because you can create this environment for yourself any day, any time at no cost, and no pills required. How you ask? Simply fill up your bath tub with cold water and hop in.
Everybody knows you should apply ice to an injury because it reduces swelling. Why do athletes take ice baths after their games? It enhances recovery, no? It reduces inflammation and pain. It increases blood circulation and enhances immune function. It lowers blood sugar, blood pressure, increases metabolic function and fat burning, and optimizes body composition. Did you know it also decreases depression, anxiety and improves wakefulness and sense of wellbeing? Did you know it improves sleep? Did you know it decreases hunger?
Now you understand why: cold activates the leptin melanocortin pathway which is explained in part 3. This pathway can be activated via cold on the skin, and cold water works best, because heat is lost much faster in water vs air. Introducing the concept of cold therapy or CT. Believe it or not, it is an ancient practice for wellness, and with good reason. Most of the time, these rituals are passed down from generation, and the audience does not concern themselves with “why” or “how” this works, they simply trust the messenger, employ the ritual, and reap the benefits.
As a young child, I always enjoyed playing outside in the snow. I would get warm quite easily, and find myself de-layering, especially if I was playing ice hockey at the local rink, or performing some form of intense exercise. I remember even as a teenager, I had a strong desire to jump in the snow with next to no clothing on. The thrill of the cold on my skin got my heart raising, and I could feel my dopamine receptors become activated. It turns out that cold water immersion has the ability to substantially raise dopamine levels. Now you may understand why dogs love to roll around in the snow and cool their skin. It is instinctive behavior, just as you see dogs or cats finding a sunny room to lay in your home. They know what is good for them intuitively, and I believe humans do too especially as children. Modern living however, blinded me of my instincts in favor of living for comfort; that is, staying nice and warm in the winter, avoiding the cold and living indoors. On the contrary, the hot summers kept me indoors with the AC cranked up. When I reached my epiphany that Mother Nature was simply trying to help us out, I began to erase my modern beliefs and embrace the temporary discomfort of the cold, and my human instincts returned quickly as my dopamine levels rose high.
Waking up in the deep dark cold of winter and hopping into a cold shower, or plunging into the snow was my new way of life allowing me to thrive in this tough environment. It worked better than a coffee and fake bright lights for waking up and improving my sense of wellbeing. Driving to and from work with the windows down in -20 C conditions became the norm, and in the early spring driving over the bridge that overlooked a local river where the ice had just began to melt always drove intense desires to take a plunge into the freezing waters.
If you would like to learn more about our ability as humans to tolerate the cold, I encourage you to google search “Wim Hof” aka the iceman. He is the posterchild for cold adaptation, and his abilities would simply leave you floored.
Just as it can take weeks, months, if not years to achieve your fitness goals and become stronger and build muscle, the same principles apply when it comes to adapting to our environment. Cold adaptation takes time, as there is some serious rewiring occurring in the brain when our skin initially senses the cold. So how would one go about adapting to the cold? Here are some strategies to help:
1) Begin with ice water face dunks – fill up a large bowl of cold water. Add ice. Submerge only your face in the water while holding your breath. Repeat several times, and make this a daily habit.
2) Reduce your water temperature in the shower from steaming hot to luke warm. Gradually turn the knob down to slowly allow you to catch your breath each time you feel the sensation of cold. Try to make progress each and every day by: ending colder than the previous shower, and starting slightly colder. Eventually, within a few weeks, you should have no issues hopping right in to the cold shower. Practice taking deep breaths, and you will lower the “stress” response.
3) Fill your tub with cold water. Submerge yourself slowly while managing your breathing. Become very still. Lay in the tub and time yourself. Start out with 5 mins. Work your way up to 10 mins. Then 15, etc. If you can make it to 30 mins, you are a rockstar! Keep it up and reap the benefits.
Expect shivering in the initial stages. This will go away once you convert enough of your white fat (WAT) to brown fat (FAT). At this point, you will no longer shiver in the cold as you burn your own fat and calories from food as pure heat!
These are strategies you can employ year round, summer or winter. In fact, it may be ideal to try this out in the summer or fall to help you adapt to winter so you can thrive. Once you become adapted, this pathway can be tapped at any time, and when you can add sun to the mix, the benefits are explosive. For the last 2+ years, I have lived in this pathway year round, adding sun to the mix when I can, and I will never go back to the “modern living for comfort” mentality. My mind is sharp, I’ve forgotten what stress feels like, my sleep is sound, my body composition is optimized without diet or exercise, I radiate heat in the cold, my immune function is top-notch, fatigue and depression are completely foreign to me, etc. Shall I go on, or do you get the message?
Take a leap of faith, and trust me on this one. I am not trying to sell you supplements, special workout programs, or even diet plans. I’m simply here to help you rediscover the power of your evolutionary biology. Embrace the cold, start burning calories as pure heat, and live your life optimally and well. I hope you enjoyed this blog series!