New Year’s ocean dips benefit health, too

The 13th annual Exercise Like the Eskimos and 5th annual Fenwick Freeze, in which brave souls jump into the cold waters on the Atlantic to celebrate New Year’s Day and raise some cold hard cash, are both right around the corner.

But these two yearly events pose a question many people have likely wondered about throughout the years: What exactly are the health benefits, or risks, of jumping into freezing water? And, more importantly, why would anyone do it?

To be fair, the water probably won’t technically be freezing, but it will be close. Mid-Atlantic winter ocean temperatures hover around 40-41 degrees, while the average air temperature locally is about 50 degrees.

Regardless, there will be hundreds of people out there, just waiting for their chance to quickly dip into the almost-freezing waters of the Atlantic.

What many might not know, though, is that they are doing more than raising money for charity — they are driving their blood flow to internal organs and stimulating the locus ceruleus, or “blue spot.” According to researcher Dr. Nikolai Shevchuk from the department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University, cold showers (and presumably cold ocean dips) can alleviate and even prevent depression.

In a nutshell, when the human body is hit with cold water, the peripheral blood flow slows down as a way of protecting the body’s core heat. At the same time, bloodflow, and thus heat and energy, increases toward the brain.

It is very stimulating to jump into the waters, but just as important is what happens afterward, as the body works to return to normal.

“Your body has been challenged,” said naturopathic doctor Clif Steinberg. “It has to step it up to get the outside warm again. The contrasting temperatures are where the magic lies. It is an easy means for stimulating the body’s vital forces – something that is almost always beneficial on many levels.”

Traditional hydrotherapy, or the use of water for pain relief or disease treatment, has been around at least as long as recorded history. Natural doctors have used the apparent healing powers of water since ancient Egyptian civilization, and its use has also been recorded in early Greek and Roman civilizations.

Granted, modern hydrotherapy is often more gradual than just jumping into the frigid ocean water on an already cold day. Most treatments warm up the participant first and then end with the more chilly waters. In such treatment, cold phases are generally shorter than warming phases, and it is important not to over-challenge the system by too much exposure to cold.

Those that have witnessed or participated in the Exercise Like the Eskimos plunge or the Fenwick Freeze could probably attest to the fact that most people seem to understand this intuitively! This dichotomy of temperatures help the body to both expand and contract blood vessels, which helps to “wake it up,” both physically and mentally.

Jon Barron of the Baseline of Health Foundation explained that one such hydrotherapy application involves alternating between hot and cold water in about seven cycles, always ending with cool water.

“The cold water drives the blood flow to the internal organs, and then the near-scalding water draws the blood flow back out to the skin, resulting in greatly enhanced circulation and intensified detoxification.”

He also said that hydrotherapy is nothing new, although more mainstream doctors are starting to pay attention to it once again.

“Here’s another case where the medical establishment just now ‘discovers’ an ancient healing method well known in the alternative arena, comes up with fancy language to explain why the method works, and acts like its big news,” he added.

Hydrotherapy, or even cold ocean dips, are not recommended for everyone. People with certain cardiac conditions, or those who are pregnant, might want to consider checking with their care provider first, although even that depends on who you ask.

In Russia, winter swimming, rooted in traditional Russian folk medicine, is used by pregnant women as a way to “learn to navigate their energy in the midst of extreme sensations.” According to Elena Tonetti, of Birth Into Being, many found it a helpful tool in releasing the fear of giving birth.

Whatever the reason, many people will be out there this New Year’s. And what’s a better cause than the Fenwick Island Beach Patrol or the Quiet Resorts Charitable Foundation? It’s all in the name of good health…