Researchers from Cambridge University have discovered that swimming in cold water could protect the brain from developing degenerative diseases including dementia and even have the ability to repair a portion of the damage unleashed by the potentially debilitating and progressive disease.
Doctors have been aware for decades that cooling people down can – in certain circumstances – protect their brains. People who undergo cardiac operations, or suffer head injuries are often cooled during surgery. However what has remained unclear is why the cold provides this protective effect. The known link with the development of dementia lies in the destruction and creation of synapses. A synapse is a small pocket of space between two cells, where they can pass messages to communicate. A single neuron called the Purkinje cell, found in the brain’s cerebellum, for example may contain as many as one hundred thousand synapses.
In the early stages of Alzheimers and other neuro-degenerative diseases these vital brain connections are lost. This in turn leads to the onset of symptoms which personify dementia including confusion, memory loss, mood swings and in time the death of whole brain cells which can lead to total impairment and finally death.
Dementia affects approximately 50 million people worldwide with nearly 10 million new cases every year. Dementia is one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people.
The “cold shock” protein that has been found in the blood of regular winter swimmers called RBM3- has also been identified in other mammals including bears. Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who heads the United Kingdom’s Dementia Research at the university of Cambridge was intrigued that brain connections are lost when hibernating animals bed down for their long winter sleep. As they slumber around 20-30% of their synapses are culled as their bodies preserve precious resources for the winter. However when they reawaken in spring, those connections are incredibly reformed.
In a 2015 study The Cambridge dementia team cooled ordinary mice as well as mice with Alzheimer’s disease and Prion (neuro-degenerative) disease , to the point where they became hypothermic in that their body temperature reduced to below 35C. When the mice were warmed up it was discovered that only the ordinary mice could regenerate their synapses.
In the research the mice suffering from Alzheimers and Prion could not. Simultaneously they found levels of the “cold shock” protein RBM3 soared in the ordinary mice but not in the others.
In a further test scientists artificially increased RBM3 levels in the sick mice then repeated the “cold shock” process. This time the protein seemed to prevent vulnerable cell connectors from breaking, which suggested that RBM3 could shield the brain from the effects of diseases such as dementia. These findings which substantiated a huge breakthrough in dementia research were published in the scientific journal Nature.
The benefits of cold therapy is also being studied as a treatment for depression, anxiety and an aid in the ability to handle stress triggers. One man who is leading the research into cold water swimming is Professor Mike Tipton an environmental physiologist at the University of Portsmouth. An advocate himself of the practice he has studied how people react to the sudden immersion in cold water.
He divides the two phases of the process as the initial “cold shock” response followed shortly after by the adaptation to the temperature. In Portsmouth, Tipton sits his volunteers in a hanging chair, lowers them into water at 12 degrees Celsius and keeps them there for around five minutes. He says that it only takes six immersions to halve the cold water shock response. ‘Your body learns to adapt your heart and breathing rates reduce to half , your breathing is controlled and you experience less panic’ he says. This body adaption to the onslaught of cold water he believes makes you not only less reactive to the shock but also less reactive to everyday stresses. Highly emotive reactions to stress stimulation can trigger mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety and can also contribute to the development of chronic health conditions.
Tipton says; ‘For years we were worried more about the dangerous aspects of cold water immersion rather than thinking about the beneficial side.’ He also says there is mounting evidence that cold provides an anti-inflammatory effect in the body which has led to improvements in patients experiencing post operative pain.
Perhaps one of the most famous champions for cold water immersion is Wim Hof also known as “The Iceman.” He has set numerous Guiness world records for swimming under ice and prolonged contact with ice. He attributes these feats to his Wim Hof method (WHM) which is a combination of frequent cold exposure, meditation and breathing techniques. He believes that exposure to cold is linked to numerous health benefits. Cold is an integral part of the Wim Hof Method which is applied in the form of showers and ice baths. Participants have reported a wide range of health benefits ranging from higher energy levels to relief of symptoms caused by auto immune diseases.
Hof advocates the benefits of daily cold showers. He advises to gradually build up to the duration and intensity if you have no prior experience. He recommends commencing with a regular shower and finishing off with 30 seconds of cold immersion, gradually increasing the time of the cold phase until you are able to shower entirely cold them moving on to the next level of cold therapy being ice baths.
Thousands of people who have taken Hod’s advice and incorporated daily cold showers into their routines have reported a myriad of health benefits including:
1. Being more alert
Cold showers wake your body up. The cold stimulates your body to take deeper breaths which in turn decreases the level of CO2 through the body which aids in concentration.
2. Build up a strong and resilient immune response
Studies have proven that taking a cold shower increases the amount of white blood cells in your body that shield you against disease. It is believed that this process is related to an increased metabolic rate, which stimulates the immune response.
3. Weight loss aid
Cold showers as well as increasing metabolic activity also stimulate the generation of brown fat. Brown fat is a specific type of fat tissue that generates energy by burning calories. Cold showers are then beneficial for those who are looking to lose weight.
4. Reduced stress levels
By regularly partaking of cold showers your body is imposed to a small amount of stress which leads to a process called hardening. This in turn leads to your nervous system over time getting used to adapting to stress situations. It allows you in essence to maintain “a cool head” when you find yourself in a potentially stressful situation and observe it more instead of responding.
Hof’s foray into the belief that cold water immersion techniques have the ability to save us from modern diseases stems from the tragedy of his first wife’s suicide in 1995. She was suffering from schizophrenia. ‘We are estranged from our own deeper physiology because we are no longer in contact with nature,’ he has said. ‘Instead we are controlling nature with air pollution, heating, technology. But you have to know you have a depth within yourself which needs to be stimulated. If it doesn’t get stimulated it becomes weaker, like a muscle that’s not being used any more.’
Scientists are studying Hof’s theories including his claims that; his method activates the body’s “fight or flight” response which then in turn reduces chronic inflammation. He believes he is able to through his methods to regulate his immune response to stress – a feat previously considered impossible as the immune system is automatic.
In regards to cold water immersion proving a successful therapy in warding of Alzheimers, Professor Mallucci has said that the ability to even be able to delay the onset of dementia by a few years would prove to be significant. ‘If you slowed the progress of dementia by even a couple of years on a whole population, that would have an enormous impact economically and health wise,’ she said.
Researchers in Switzerland have also looked at treating and preventing Alzheimers by manipulating mitochondria which are organelles within our cells that produce energy. There is increasing evidence that mitochondrial damage contributes to neuroinflammation which is typically evident in Alzheimers disease.
The Swiss researchers surmised that activating “clean up” pathways within the mitochondrial could improve Alzheimers symptoms. To activate these pathways (known as UPRmt and mitophagy) the researchers used doxycycline which is an antibiotic and nicotinamide ribosome (a form of vitamin B3) This formula was then tested on mice, cultured human neurons and worms. The results showed that the worms lived longer and also exhibited less amyloid plaque which was also mirrored in the human brain cells. The biggest improvement however was from the mice, who had less plaque and also showed huge improvements in cognitive function.
‘So far, Alzheimers disease has been considered to be mostly the consequence of the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain.’ reported Johan Auwerx one of the study’s three authors.‘We have shown that restoring mitochondrial health reduces plaque formation — but, above all it also improves brain function, which is the ultimate objective of all Alzheimers researchers and patients.’
There are also a few other strategies besides cold water immersion that can be utilized as a potential deterrent to developing dementia. These include:
It has been shown that as we age mitochondrial function declines. However studies show that 12 weeks of interval training can reverse this decline in older adults.
Fasting morphs nto mitophagy which is one of the mitochondrial “clean up” mechanisms activated in the Swiss study. Some people advocate for a daily intermittent fast for up to 13 to 14 hours a day while some opt for longer spread out fasting regimes.
As there is currently no official effective treatment to cure dementia and its progression, cold therapy immersion which has been proven to cure and control many other mental and physical health issues could also potentially hold the key in stopping or slowing this ever increasing syndrome.