There has been a lot of publicity lately around a recent study conducted by researchers from University College London (UCL), which explored the effects of cold water swimming on menopausal women’s health and well-being. The study surveyed 1114 women, of which 785 were going through menopause. Over 1/3 reported improvement in anxiety, depression, mood swings, and hot flashes. Many women used cold water as an active treatment for menopause, as well as a way to maintain overall health. One participant even described cold water as “phenomenal” and credited it with saving her life, making her feel her best.
For premenopausal women, over 1/3 also reported benefits in the areas of improved menstrual symptoms, irritability, anxiety, and mood swings.
Does this sound too good to be true? Should we all start swimming in frigid waters?
Well, the short answer is, maybe…
Supporting the findings are many published studies that show how thermal regulation affects inflammation and mental health. Cold therapy (less than 59 degrees Fahrenheit or 15 degrees Celsius) is a powerful stimulus to the brain and results in the increased release of neurochemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. This can lead to improvements in mental performance, motivation, and dealing with stress. It can elevate mood.
Additionally, just 15 minutes of aerobic exercise has shown benefits in cognitive function.
We also know that participation in such niche activities can build strong relationships and build community, which also has mental health benefits.
So, in the big picture, the study’s results make scientific sense.
The caveats are:
This was an observational study, and the participants were a homogenous group (of white women) who were already participating in cold water swimming. There were no controls, and there was variability in water temperature and overall length of time in the water.
This was also a self-selected group of women who were likely relatively healthy and athletic and may have been swimming for years…it may not be generalizable to everyone.
Nevertheless, the results were intriguing and gave us a glimpse of how women may be able to manage a variety of symptoms. More research will be required to determine which women can safely and successfully pursue this activity, as well as the duration, temperature, and frequency needed to achieve benefit.
And, of course, caution must be taken with cold water swimming as participants put themselves at risk for hypothermia, cold water shock, and drowning. Water quality standards are also variable, and sewage pollution can put one at risk for infections.
If you decide to take the plunge, please first consult your healthcare provider.