opioids like morphine, beta-endorphins bind to mu-opioid receptors in the peripheral nervous system to inhibit pain.

Author : greensameblue
Publish Date : 2021-01-09 16:18:15


opioids like morphine, beta-endorphins bind to mu-opioid receptors in the peripheral nervous system to inhibit pain.


At the same time, cold-water shock prompts the pituitary gland to release beta-endorphin hormones for pain relief. Beta-endorphins are one of the three types of endorphins our bodies produce, all of which happen to be opioid neuropeptides. As with synthetic opioids like morphine, beta-endorphins bind to mu-opioid receptors in the peripheral nervous system to inhibit pain. They also activate the central dopamine reward pathways that make us experience euphoria, a feeling of bliss.

It turns out that, physiologically, the “awful” and the “amazing” are part of the same process.

A momentary endorphin high isn’t a long-term cure for medical conditions like generalized anxiety and depression. But researchers are looking into the viability of cold-water swimming as a potential treatment option for people who have been diagnosed with mood disorders. In a report cited by the BMJ, a woman with symptoms of anxiety and major depressive disorder reported a “sustained and gradual reduction” in those symptoms — in addition to the fleeting, post-swim high — after adopting a weekly regimen of cold, open-water swims. Eventually and with medical supervision, she was able to stop taking medication to treat her symptoms, which was her primary objective. It’s a promising case study but far from conclusive.


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Similarly, some researchers have reason to believe that repeated exposure to certain environmental stressors — including, specifically, cold water — not only builds a tolerance to a specific stress trigger but decreases a person’s overall stress response when faced with other environmental triggers, too. If routine cold-water submersion can help build a person’s stress tolerance, it might also reduce inflammation — an acute stress response that’s meant to protect the body from injury or infection in the short term but can become damaging to the immune system when chronic. In this vein, it’s plausible that cold-water therapy might prove a viable treatment option for a host of inflammatory disorders. Again, more research is needed to bear this out.

Regardless of the state of scientific understanding, there’s a sound, basic logic in the amazing feeling that swimmers report after a chilly dip. Simply put, swimming in cold water has a knack for imposing a state of mindfulness — a presence in the moment. It is difficult, on a practical level, for the mind to wander when your nervous system is yelling at you to GTFO of a frigid abyss. Your bandwidth is restricted to the feeling of being in your body and the sights and sounds directly around you. That meditative perspective shift can have lasting effects on a person’s sense of well-being.

“My mood is elevated much more than during my running days and I feel calmer in general,” writes South African journalist and ultramarathon runner Joseph Dana in a Medium blog post about his foray into cold-water swimming. “It’s as if the shock of the water dissolves anxiety.”

The flip side of that therapeutic agony is, of course, potential death. Seventy degrees Fahrenheit, or roughly 20 degrees Celsius, is considered the temperature threshold for “cool” water. Below that mark, a swimmer runs an increasing risk of developing hypothermia, hyperventilating, or even going into cardiac arrest. And when we’re submerged in water that’s roughly 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius) or colder, cold-water shock triggers an involuntary gasping reflex that can lead to drowning.

For these reasons, cold-swimming enthusiasts advise against swimming alone or for longer than a few minutes at a time and will usually recommend staying close to shore for the (short) duration of your plunge. I never, ever get into the water without my partner present just in case. (The Outdoor Swimming Society has a particularly comprehensive guide to cold-water safety that includes a page devoted to safe strategies for warming up after getting out of the water.)

I don’t know if I have it in me to keep swimming all winter. But, equipped with my wetsuit, a few heat-preserving accessories, and some good-sense precaution, I’m going to try. The water cure may not soothe all that ails me, but oh, it hurts so good.



Category : general

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