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Ice Baths and Cold Plunges … It’s Hot Right Now

By Chris Pepitone, D.C.


Hormesis or hermetic stress. The adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress. Right now, ice baths, sauna, fasting, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, etc. are getting very popular. More people are realizing the importance of being proactive about their health and are reaping amazing results. What is not as popular is getting the proper guidance while utilizing these stressors. A mild or moderate stress stimulates the adaptive response and then rejuvenation. When the stress gets too large it is considered an over-stress. This is destructive and tends to lead to stress resistance. Stress resistance is when your body stops responding to the stressor which leads to minimal if any hermetic benefit.


Some stressors require a bit more guidance than others. Namely the ice bath. First thing that must be emphasized is that no ego belongs in the ice bath. Just because you learn to mentally tolerate the cold and can push your times does not mean that you your body can. You shouldn’t be pushing yourself to a shiver. Shivering happens at 1o above or at hypothermia which is an overstress. You should feel cold after but you should not be shivering and if you do then there is a very specific exercise/movement to perform warm you up without increasing your heart rate. If your heart rate goes up it speeds up the after drop and the resultant hypothermia.


There is shivering thermogenesis (heat production) and non-shivering thermogenesis. Shivering is not the most efficient way to lose weight. Brown fat conversion and resultant increase in production of thyroid hormone is. Your metabolism speeds up and you burn more calories in a rested state. Less suffering and more benefit when the brown fat conversion is the goal.

Temperature and time matter. To get the max benefit you should be at 40o for 2 minutes. The next data point in the research is at 50o for 1 hour to see the same benefit at 40o. This is for the 250% increase in dopamine and 530% increase in norepinephrine which are required to activate brown fat. Colder can be even better but this is relative to the individual and less time.

Time. Skin cooling is up to 3 minutes; beyond that is core cooling. There is no data I have seen to justify a 5–6-minute ice bath to see the maximum benefit.


Safety first, maximum benefit next. There are many more nuances to reducing risk and increasing benefits. This is why it is important to receive guidance when undertaking this type of health approach. Environmental stressors are an extremely powerful methodology to rejuvenate and revitalize the body. The stressors can provide amazing benefit if used wisely. To better explore this, you must first determine what exactly you are trying to accomplish with your health. Once we know that then you can get a tailored program for your needs.


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