Brain studies reveal why swimming in cold water improves your mood

Surely you have seen images of people bathing in very cold water, to the point that they even have to cut a hole in the ice to be able to dive (like the Wim Hof ​​method). It is considered a very healthy habit for body and mind and now a study has found that immersion in water at low temperatures can improve our mood and make us happy because it has a positive impact on the brain.

For the first time, a group of scientists from the University of Portsmouth, Bournemouth University and Dorset University Hospitals (UHD) in the UK have observed changes in the way different areas of the brain interact. each other after immersing a person’s body in cold water and have discovered why people who swim outdoors or take a cold bath tend to feel more lively and alert after doing it.

The researchers conducted a trial involving 33 healthy volunteers who underwent a magnetic resonance functional (fMRI) immediately after bathing in cold water and the images showed changes in the connectivity between the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing emotions. His findings have been published in the journal Biology.

Brain imaging showed changes in connectivity between the “parts of the brain that control our emotions and help us pay attention and make decisions.”

Dr Heather Massey, from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, has said that outdoor swimming and cold water immersion are gaining popularity and growing in popularity. because many practice these activities “to improve their mood”, so “we should have studied how it can affect us for a long time. We know a lot about the impact that cold water immersion can have on the body, but not on the brain, mainly because it has been more difficult to study. Only now that the technology is developing can we start to get an idea.”

Dr Ala Yankouskaya, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Bournemouth University and lead study, said: “The benefits of cold water immersion are widely known from previous studies in which participants were asked how they felt afterwards, but we wanted to see how the impact of being submerged in cold water actually affects the brain.”

Changes in the areas of the brain that control our emotions

First, an MRI was performed on all participants at the Institute of Medical Imaging and Visualization at Bournemouth University. Then they plunged into a pool of water at 20ºC for five minutes, while his body’s physiological responses were measured with an electrocardiogram (ECG) and respiratory equipment. After quickly drying them, they underwent a second fMRI so the researchers could detect any changes in their brain activity.

“All the tiny parts of the brain are connected to each other in a certain pattern when we carry out activities in our daily lives, so the brain works as a whole,” explained Dr. Yankouskaya. “After our participants were submerged in the cold water, we saw the physiological effects, such as shivering and rapid breathing. The MRIs then showed us how the brain rewires its connectivity to help the person cope with the shock.”

By comparing the images from the scanners, they found that there had been changes in the connectivity between specific areas of the brain, specifically in the medial prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex, which are the “parts of the brain that control our emotions and help us pay attention and make decisions,” says Dr. Yankouskaya. “So when participants told us they felt more alert, excited, and generally better after their cold bath, we expected to see changes in the connectivity between those parts. And that’s exactly what we found.”

Yankouskaya has also explained that “the medial prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex have different connections when people have disorders such as depression and anxiety” and that “learning how cold water can rewire these parts of the brain could help us understand why the connectivity is so different for people with these conditions and hopefully in the long term lead to alternative treatments.” Therefore, the next objective of these scientists is to use their findings to find out more about the connectivity and interactions between the parts of the brain of people with mental health problems.


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