Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cold Thermogenesis; A Fitness Feature You Probably Don't Pay Any Attention To, But Should

I listened to the informative wide-ranging podcast involving Ben Greenfield and Dr. Jack Kruse this week, and it emphasized the fitness advantages of cold thermogenesis. The picture shows the ultra cold-water swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh from Outside Magazine, but you don't have to brave Arctic swimming to accrue the benefits of cold thermogenesis (CT).

Cold thermogenesis literally refers to the extra expenditure of calories to keep your body warm, in response to cold exposure. CT is a health optimization strategy, and much more. The advantages of CT go way beyond ramping up your metabolic rate by shivering (or even by its physical precursor, non-shivering thermogenesis), according to Dr. Kruse's research.

We know that cold exposure such as ice water baths or cold-water swimming has a hormetic and anti-inflammatory effect. In other words, CT helps you reduce stiffness and inflammation from exercise or daily life, and it's a "good stress" that often results in beneficial, adaptive cellular responses. As long as you do it enough, CT also has the following benefits:

  • It stimulates brown fat to burn more fats for energy; brown fat is a metabolically active form of fat cell or adipocyte which plays an important role in generating body heat when we're exposed tot he cold. People greatly differ in the amount of brown fat they have – it diminishes with age, and a person who has more fat probably also has more brown fat.
  • Our bodies use energy, our stored fats, much more efficiently when we're becoming cold adapted.
  • Dr. Kruse has found that hormonal states involving growth hormone and leptin, for instance, are positively affected by CT. He points outs that CT can generate more metabolically active brown fat or brown adipose tissue. He believes CT in general can play a role in extending longevity.
  • CT is an appetite suppressant and make you feel more energetic afterwards. I can attest to these qualities based on my own experiences with CT. You continue to burn more calories at least an hour after cold exposure, like after an ocean swim.

For example, "athletes such as Michael Phelps have benefited from cold thermogenesis" to pump up their athletic performance, according to the podcast.

Dr. Kruse theorizes that CT stimulates an "ancient pathway" in our bodies whose essence is the evolutionary adaptation by humans to cold environments. According to Dr. Kruse, the U.S. military such as Navy Seals are paying more attention to CT since discovering that their physical performance has improved dramatically when preceded by cold-water exposure.

So how do you introduce CT into your lifestyle in the first place? I advocate cold-water swimming, which I've been doing all late-Spring and Summer. Get a pool thermometer and test the temperature of a local ocean, lake, or river. I've been swimming in temperatures ranging from 49 to 64. You don't have to live in the country to benefit from a cold waterbody, as many cities are located next to rivers and oceans.

Even if you live in Florida, for instance, you might be able to find cold pools (at a fitness facility or spa, for instance), or simply take cold showers.

Swimming in 60-degree fahrenheit (16 degrees celsius) water is not as difficult as you think, and is actually pleasurable given its beneficial effect on your body.

As common sense would dictate, the warmer temps on the latter scale permit longer term swimming and thus probably a better adaptative response (at 49-50 degrees, I can hardly even take a stroke before quickly leaving the water, leaving me wondering about the efficacy of that polar plunge, beyond its hormetic effect). All of these swims are accomplished without a wetsuit.

Brown fat metabolism seems to operate "below the radar," via a different mechanism than the shivering of muscles. Although I'm becoming cold adapted, I tend to shiver a fair amount after cold-water exposure, which makes me think that I do not carry very much brown fat.


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