Source: Optimum Psychology
Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman shares studies on how cold water exposure increases motivation and dopamine. This method increases motivation and dopamine even better than sex and nicotine.
So we've been focusing a lot for the last few minutes on the kind of darker side of dopamine and how getting big peaks in dopamine can be detrimental. But I want to acknowledge the truth, which is that dopamine feels great. Being in pursuit and motivated and craving things feels wonderful. And I don't want to demonize dopamine.
What I'm trying to do today is to illustrate how dopamine works in your brain so that you can continue to engage in dopamine-evoking activities. And certainly, there is a place for ingesting things that can increase dopamine provided that they are safe for us in the short and long term. There are activities that we can do that will give us healthy, sustained increases in dopamine, both the peaks (when they happen), and to maintain or even increase our baseline levels of dopamine. So how do we do that? What are some of these activities?
Well, in recent years, there's been a trend toward more people doing so-called cold exposure. In part, this was popularized by Wim Hof, the so-called Iceman. Getting into cold showers, taking ice baths, and exposing oneself to cold water of various kinds can in fact increase our levels of dopamine, as well as the neuromodulator norepinephrine.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1920s, a guy by the name of Vincent Priessniz was one of the first people to popularize and formalize cold water therapies. He was an advocate of cold water exposure in order to boost the immune system and increase feelings of well-being. And actually this practice dates back long before Vincent popularized it, and Wim Hof is the more recent iteration of this.
First of all, some of the safety parameters. Let's establish those first. Getting into very, very cold water, you know 30 degree Fahrenheit or even low 40 degree Fahrenheit can put somebody into a state of cold water shock. I mean people can die doing that. So obviously you want to approach this with some caution.
But for most people getting into 60 degreE water or 50 degree water or if you're, acclimated and comfortable with it, you know, 40 degree water or 45 degree water can have tremendously beneficial results on your neuromodulator systems, including dopamine.
What temperature of water you can tolerate will depend on how cold water adapted you are and how familiar you are with the experience of getting into cold water. And when I say comfortable with, I should mention there is never a case in which getting into cold water does not evoke a release of epinephrine. So the quickening of the breath, the widening of the eyes, the feeling is if you can't catch your breath and even some physical pain at the level of the skin. That happens almost every time, or every time that you get into cold water, even if you're cold water adapted.
What almost everybody knows and understands is that that wall, as I like to refer to it, is coming. That's always the first experience of getting into cold water. There's no real way around that.
Now, the study that I mentioned earlier – human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures, a really interesting study that was done and published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. I can provide a link to that study in the show caption. It's a really interesting study. They looked at people getting exposed to water that was warm, moderately cold, or very cold. It was 32 degrees Celsius, 20 degrees Celsius, or 14 degrees Celsius. You can just put those online and do the conversion or you can do the conversion to Fahrenheit if you like, but in any case what they looked at, were the concentrations of things like epinephrine and dopamine and so on.
And what they found was really interesting. First of all, upon getting into cold water, the changes in adrenaline and noradrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine were immediate and fast. And these were huge increases. So that's the getting into the cold water that everybody experiences, these huge increases in adrenaline. But then what was interesting is they observed that dopamine levels started to rise somewhat slowly and then continue to rise and reach levels as high as 2.5 times above baseline. That's a remarkably high increase.
Remember if we go back to our examples of chocolate, sex – a doubling above baseline; nicotine – two and a half times above baseline; cocaine. The increase in dopamine from a cold water exposure of this kind was comparable to what one sees from cocaine, except in this case it wasn't a rise and crash, it was actually a sustained rise in dopamine that took a very long time up to three hours to come back down to baseline, which is really remarkable. And I think this explains some of the positive mental and physical effects that people report, subjectively, after doing cold water exposure.
One question that many of you are probably asking is just how cold should the water be? Well, you could mimic what was done in this study and do 14 degrees Celsius (57 degrees Fahrenheit), but for some people that won't be cold enough, and for some people that will be too cold.
They did look at the release of stress hormones like cortisol. In addition to the release of things like epinephrine and adrenaline, and it's interesting that they noted that in all cases, but especially at that coldest temperature, there was an increase in cortisol, but that it was transient – that eventually people's cortisol, their stress hormone, subsided a bit.
There are basically two different approaches to remaining in the cold when it's uncomfortable. One is to try and relax yourself: to try and practice slow breathing, to try and dilate your gaze. I've talked about this before in previous podcasts. You go into panoramic vision to essentially try and calm yourself so that it's not as stressful in the cold.
Other people, however, take the approach of trying to ramp up their level of internal autonomic arousal, meaning to get really energized and kind of lean into the friction of the cold, and they find that easier. Other people distract themselves, they recite the alphabet, or they do something anything to try and distract themselves from the discomfort. To be totally honest, it does not matter for sake of dopamine release, because the dopamine release is triggered and then continues. Even after you get out of the cold water.
Now in this study it was long exposure to cold water. It was an hour that's a long period of time, and I do warn you against getting into cold water, that's so cold that it will make your temperature drop and make you hyperthermic for an hour. That actually could be dangerous for a lot of people. You might have a hard time reheating, and hypothermia is not a good thing. They had people monitoring subjects in these studies and paying attention to their core body temperature. They were able to reheat them afterwards.
It's well established now that getting into cold water, whether or not it's a shower an ice bath, circulating cold water, a stream, etc. – that can evoke the norepinephrine release immediately and the long arc of that dopamine release. Why would that be good?
Up until now, I've basically said getting increases in dopamine is detrimental to your baseline. Well, this does appear to raise the baseline of dopamine for substantial periods of time and most people report feeling a heightened level of calm end Focus after getting out of cold water. So cold water exposure turns out to be a very potent stimulus for shifting the entire milieu the entire environment of our brain and body, and allowing many people to feel much, much better for a substantial period of time after getting out of the ice bath or cold water of any kind than they did before.
Now you might ask how often to do this? Some people do this every day. It can be very stimulating, so typically doing it early in in the day is going to be better. I don't necessarily recommend doing it right before sleep, but some people do it in the afternoon. And some people will indeed do that seven days a week, other people three days a week, other people every once in a while.
What I can say is once you become cold water adapted, once it no longer has the same impact of novelty and feeling a bit like a (I don't want to say a shock to your system because you don't want to go into cold water shock), but once it is comfortable for you, then it will no longer evoke this release. There really does seem to be something in the pathway from cold water exposure through the norepinephrine pathway and into the mesolimbic brain stem that causes this release in dopamine.
But nonetheless, it's basically zero cost. I mean you need access to water of some sort: cold water shower, etc. But basically zero cost way of triggering a long lasting increase in dopamine without ingesting anything, no pharmacology whatsoever. Please again approach it with safety and caution in mind, but it is a very potent stimulus. Again, a 250 percent of a rise in baseline, two and a half times rise in baseline rivals that of cocaine, which is really remarkable.