I am about to take the plunge—the ice bath plunge, that is. Cold plunging and ice baths have been scientifically proven to reduce stubborn belly fat. 

Lord knows I need it. I’ve been eating healthy and doing high-intensity interval exercises at least 3 days per week. 

Despite sweating my tush off in the gym, I am not losing weight. And it’s not because I’m gaining muscle. I just got my muscle-fat analysis results, and the outcome was shocking. 

The reason I can’t lose weight? It’s probably the stress of being a mother of four with a hectic schedule working as a Nurse Practitioner in a busy ER setting in a hospital. As if that weren’t enough, I’m a certified Functional Medicine Practitioner and health coach who works one-on-one with clients at the Diabetes & Wellness Clinic in Norfolk, NE. 

I don’t have much time for anything else in my life. But from now on, I’m vowing to do a cold bath plunge, even if it’s for just a couple of minutes. In addition to balancing my hormones, cold-water immersion is my health goal for 2024. 

In this article, I’ll explain how brief cold water exposure burns body fat. And no worries if you have cold feet (pun intended). I’ll also provide a step-by-step guide.

The “Shocking” Truth About Cold Plunging For Weight Loss

Everybody experiences acute stress. Eek! A spider!! Shoot, I stubbed my toe. Dang it, that person just cut me off! You get the idea. Brief periods of stress is part of life and it’s not particularly harmful unless stress becomes chronic. One of the benefits of temporary stress is the action of shock proteins. Shock proteins, especially heat shock proteins (HSPs), are a group of proteins produced by cells in response to stressful conditions, including extreme temperatures, toxins, and physical stress. Among the things HSPs do to keep us healthy when they are released: they help cells survive under stress and maintain their functionality.

Once you get over the initial shock (pun intended again), cold plunging is an easy way to release shock proteins.

How do Shock Proteins Relate to Weight Loss?

Shock proteins encourage bodyfat-melting in a few ways:

  • Metabolism Regulation: Heat Shock Proteins can boost metabolism by improving the energy-generating powerhouse of the cell (the mitochondria). By increasing cellular energy, the fat-burning potential is unlocked. 
  • Fat Mobilization: HSPs are like chaperones, directing fat from adipose tissue out of fat cells. This makes stored fat in your body available for energy instead of being squirreled away like acorns during a Nebraska winter.
  • Anti-inflammatory Effects: By reducing inflammation, HSPs can improve insulin sensitivity and metabolic health. Both are crucial for weight management.

Cranking Up The Fat Burning Potential With “Brown Fat”

Those heat shock proteins I’ve been explaining—well, something needs to release them. And that something is brown adipose tissue (BAT). Otherwise known as “brown fat,” BAT is the good kind of fat. (BAT is brown because it contains a higher number of mitochondria—the mini power-generator of the cell.) 

The “bad” kind of fat is White Adipose Tissue (WAT). WAT is the more common form of fat storage in the body. It stores energy as large fat droplets and is the primary type of fat that accumulates in obesity.

Compared to white fat tissue, BAT’s superpower role in the body is burning calories to generate heat. This process is “thermogenesis.” Do you know how babies have those adorable rolls of fat that look like the Michelin Man? Under those adorable rolls are tons of brown adipose tissue. But as you get older, the amount of BAT decreases. 

BAT is released through exposure to cold. When you slowly lower your body into a cold bath, the brown adipose tissue stimulates the release of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline. It’s a neurotransmitter in the brain. It helps maintain alertness and concentration. You’ll definitely feel alert when you immerse your body in a cold tub! And when you do, norepinephrine binds to receptors on brown fat cells. This process initiates thermogenesis. 

The great thing about cold plunging is that it not only burns calories but also improves overall metabolic health.

How Long Does It Take to Do Cold Plunging to Lose Body Fat?

So how long do you have to freeze your butt off in order to lose weight? Unfortunately, there’s no exact answer. I’ve heard that as little as 90 seconds is all it takes to release those heat shock proteins. But for significant results, you’ll need to take the plunge seriously. Research suggests that consistent cold exposure (e.g., several times per week for a few weeks to months) and for several minutes is required to observe significant changes in body fat and metabolic rate. 

The good news is that just two minutes of cold immersion can have a noticeable effect. At the very least, you’ll be more resilient to stress when you make cold plunging a frequent habit. 

How Cold Is Cold?

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that cold exposure of 15-17°C/ 59-62°F increased BAT activity and energy expenditure in healthy adults. Regular exposure over 10 days led to an increase in resting metabolic rate and improved glucose metabolism. That study was conducted in 2009, long before the cold plunge trend was popularized.

Since then, numerous studies have echoed these results. A 2022 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Physiology reviewed 10 randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of research. Those studies, conducted from 1990 to 2021, concluded: “Acute cold exposure could improve the energy expenditure and BAT activity in adults, which is beneficial against obesity.”

A How-To Guide For Cold Plunging For Fat Loss

Step 1: Get Medical Clearance

Consult Your Doctor: If you have any underlying health conditions or concerns, consult your healthcare provider to ensure cold plunging is safe for you. If you have cardiovascular issues, cold plunging may not be suitable.

Step 2: Preparation

  • Cold Water Source: Use a bathtub, cold plunge pool, or a natural body of water.
  • Thermometer: Make sure the water is cold but not too cold. For effective cold exposure, aim for a temperature between 10-15°C (50-59°F).
  • Timer: Track your immersion time.
  • Towel and Warm Clothes: For after your plunge.

Step 3: Start Gradually

  • Initial Exposure: Begin with shorter durations. Can’t hack it for more than 30 seconds? No worries. Start short, then work your way up to 1-2 minutes. Gradually increase the time as your body adapts.
  • Frequency: Start with 2-3 times per week and gradually increase frequency as you become more comfortable.

Step 4: Techniques During Cold Plunging

  • Breathing: This is the most important part other than the cold water. Practice slow, controlled breathing techniques. Inhale deeply through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth to stay calm.
  • Mindfulness: Focus on staying relaxed and mindful during the plunge. Avoid tensing up, as this can make the experience more uncomfortable. Easier said than done, especially during a northeast Nebraska winter!

Step 5: Post-Plunge Routine

  • Warm Up: After exiting the water, dry off immediately and wear warm clothes.
  • Hydrate: Drink warm water or herbal tea to help your body return to a comfortable temperature.
  • Recovery: Engage in light physical activity, such as gentle stretching or walking, to stimulate blood circulation.

Step 6: Monitor Your Progress

  • Track Changes: Keep a journal of your cold plunging sessions, noting the duration, water temperature, and how you feel before and after.
  • Adjust as Needed: Listen to your body and adjust the frequency and duration of your plunges based on how you feel and your progress.

Step 7: Advanced Techniques

  • Contrast Therapy: To enhance circulation and recovery, alternate between hot and cold water immersion (e.g., 3 minutes in cold water, followed by 3 minutes in hot water). Don’t have a big bathtub? Cold showers work, too. Especially first thing in the morning. In winter, you can start off with warm/hot water for a couple minutes to ease the shock. But remember, the shock means that the heat shock proteins are burning your brown adipose tissue for energy. (If you pay for city water, take the hot/cold showers at a gym to save money on your water bill.) 

It should go without saying that if you start shivering or feeling dizzy, you should immediately stop and slowly exit the water. Control your breathing while doing so. 

Why I’m Cold Plunging For Fat Loss: Summary

Recently, I reached a weight loss plateau. Even though my diet is healthy and I’m getting plenty of exercise, I can’t seem to get leaner. Cold plunging for as long as comfortably possible, ideally under 60 degrees, gets your brown adipose tissue to release heat shock proteins. These shock proteins boost metabolism, fat burning, and lower blood glucose. Cold immersion therapy has several other benefits, including lowering inflammation

I’ll keep you posted on my progress. What’s your health goal? Schedule an appointment with me, and we’ll work together to reclaim your health so you can live your best life. 

Until next time, 

Jenna Witt, NP
Nurse Practitioner
Functional Medicine Practitioner