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    Ultimate Guide to Cold Thermogenesis

    Ultimate Guide to Cold Thermogenesis
    August 28, 2023 Vitality Pro

    Ultimate Guide to Cold Thermogenesis

    Cold thermogenesis, also known as therapeutic cold exposure, is a hot topic in modern health and longevity circles. Recommended by renowned practitioners like Wim Hof and Dr. Andrew Huberman, cold thermogenesis typically involves immersing yourself in cold water or other low-temperature environments to experience a range of proven health benefits.

    Therapeutic cold exposure has shown efficacy in enhancing metabolism, staving off a variety of diseases, promoting optimal weight management, and managing levels of body fat. These benefits are primarily driven by thermogenesis, our internal physical response to cold exposure. More specifically, this mechanism is the way in which the human body produces heat to maintain temperature homeostasis. 

    Cold thermogenesis activates the process of physical heat production, especially when you are exposed to cold environments. Cold exposure prompts your body to work harder in a bid to regulate its core temperature and maintain homeostasis, producing additional energy by burning calories to produce heat and stimulate your metabolism in tandem. The body temperature regulation process also involves several hormones like thyroid hormones, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which all play roles in promoting enhanced heat-related fat breakdown.

    The Benefits of Cold Thermogenesis

    Cold thermogenesis has a wide range of health benefits that are supported by the latest scientific research. Below are some of the most notable benefits of practising therapeutic cold exposure.

    Glucose Management

    Exposure to low temperatures has been shown to significantly improve glucose homeostasis and blood glucose management in both animal and human studies. While brown adipose tissue (BAT) is important in mediating these benefits in animals, its contributions seem more limited in human models. 

    Research suggests that cold exposure has notable and widespread effects on glucose homeostasis, driven by skeletal muscle and white adipose tissue adaptations. A 2023 study suggests that cold exposure has promise as a lifestyle-based approach to improving glucose homeostasis in individuals with insulin resistance and markers of metabolic disorder.

    Brown Adipose Tissue Activation

    Brown adipose tissue can be activated by a variety of stimuli, including cold exposure, hormones, and dietary factors. When stimulated, BAT produces heat via sympathetic nervous stimulation and the upregulation of β-adrenergic receptors (βARs). The latter in turn stimulates increases in cAMP levels within cells and suppresses Sik2 (Salt-inducible kinase 2) via PKA-mediated phosphorylation to induce Ucp1 expression and adaptive thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue. 

    Researchers believe that these actions can effectively increase BAT thermogenic activity in human beings, thereby providing a host of health benefits, including reductions in excess weight and improvements in metabolic health.

    Increased Metabolism

    Data from ScienceAlert suggests that heat production in skeletal muscle gives rise to metabolic benefits and that muscles work as primary generators of heat to fuel metabolism in low temperature environments.

    Current research suggests that skeletal muscle is the most important thermogenic tissue in humans in cold environments. BAT plays a role in lower body mass index readings and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease onset too. Researchers note that in cold environments, the muscles’ shivering mechanisms use energy bound in ATP molecules and myosin ATPase activity to generate heat and drive metabolism. 

    Cold exposure increases glucose use in the skeletal muscles, lowering blood glucose levels in both lean and insulin resistance subjects. Data shows that individuals with type II diabetes and obesity experience a 43% increase in insulin sensitivity after 10 days of periodic exposure to cold, primarily due to glucose use in their skeletal muscle tissues.

    Inflammation and Pain Management

    There is much research to suggest that cold thermogenesis can reduce pain and inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with a range of diseases like obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Cold exposure limits inflammatory cytokines in the body while promoting recovery and pain management through a reduction of swelling and improving blood flow to effectively remove metabolic waste.

    Cold exposure prompts the body to release norepinephrine; a neurotransmitter that prompts constriction of the blood vessels to maintain core temperatures. This neurotransmitter is also associated with anti-inflammatory properties, and therapeutic cold exposure can increase norepinephrine levels to the extent needed to reduce systemic inflammation. One study notes that cold water immersion is effective in promoting muscle healing and relieving pain, and another found that exercising in cold environments can limit the immune response associated with intense physical activity, helping to reduce muscular damage and pain.

    Increased Longevity

    Since BAT has been rediscovered in adult human beings, researchers have been studying this adipose tissue in a bid to reduce obesity, enhance metabolism, and treat obesity-related comorbidities. They have found that many of these comorbidities, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia, can be age-related in onset. 

    Researchers theorised that an increase in thermogenesis and energy metabolism can effectively delay the onset of age-associated diseases, aiding in the extension of life span and health span. One study suggests that BAT targeting can be used as a therapeutic strategy to increase glucose uptake to brown adipose tissue, thereby diverting glucose away from cancerous cells and limiting tumour development and growth.

    Improved Immune System Function

    Cold exposure performed regularly may be able to boost immune function. According to Dr Rhonda Patrick, cold environments increase white blood cell and cytotoxic T lymphocyte counts, helping to combat cancer cells via immune system stimulation. 

    Cold therapy also boosts immunity by lowering inflammation, promoting more rapid healing, and stimulating norepinephrine release. This naturally boosts killer cell counts and interleukin 6, both of which enhance immune integrity.

    Enhanced Cellular Repair and Regeneration

    Autoimmunity is a key driver of cellular regeneration and damage. Ly6Chi monocytes play a notable role in autoimmunity within the central nervous system, prompting the development of neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and encephalomyelitis. 

    New research suggests that cold exposure can decrease T cell priming and pathogenicity by modulating monocytes, thereby reducing neuroinflammation and promoting better cellular repair and regeneration.

    Increased Autophagy

    Frequent cold exposure has been found in clinical trials to encourage mitochondrial turnover, fatty acid oxidation, and thermogenesis in BAT. Researchers exposed mice to 72 hours of cold – and brown adipocytes exposed to norepinephrine – and discovered increases in autophagy, mitophagy, and mitochondrial activity and turnover. 

    Autophagy, the process by which senescent cells are destroyed and recycled to generate new cells, reduces the risk of a variety of chronic diseases, including cancers, while optimising cellular function and energy production.

    Improved Mood and Cognition

    Neurons in the brain which are lost or damaged are not able to regenerate – but the synapses between them can. These synapses are essential for brain function, cognition, memory formation, and learning. The brain can create new pathways and rewire itself via neuroplasticity, and cold thermogenesis may be able to facilitate this process to improve both mood and cognitive performance.

    Synaptic breakdown is associated with the increased onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and neurological disorders and can be driven by environmental factors, injuries, and other drivers. RNA-binding protein 3, found in the brain, heart, and skeletal muscle, can improve neural plasticity and suppress synapse loss, and cold exposure stimulates the activity of this protein to up-regulate its effects.

    Improved Mood and Cognition

    Neurons in the brain which are lost or damaged are not able to regenerate – but the synapses between them can. These synapses are essential for brain function, cognition, memory formation, and learning. The brain can create new pathways and rewire itself via neuroplasticity, and cold thermogenesis may be able to facilitate this process to improve both mood and cognitive performance.

    Synaptic breakdown is associated with the increased onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and neurological disorders and can be driven by environmental factors, injuries, and other drivers. RNA-binding protein 3, found in the brain, heart, and skeletal muscle, can improve neural plasticity and suppress synapse loss, and cold exposure stimulates the activity of this protein to up-regulate its effects.

    Enhanced Sleep

    Cold exposure and subsequent thermogenesis have been linked to improvements in sleep depth and quality. One study found that as little as three minutes of full-body cold exposure improved subjective and objective sleep quality in active and healthy adults. 

    Researchers found that increases in parasympathetic nervous system activity and reductions in pain also increased during slow-wave sleep cycles prompted by exposure to cryotherapy.

    Building Fortitude and Mental Resilience

    Cold exposure therapy can assist in building fortitude, resilience, and grit. When we regularly push ourselves to do challenging things such as submerging our bodies in ice baths, we effectively rewire our brains to associate these activities with beneficial effects.

    Over time, the body’s response to stimuli like cold environments diminishes, making it easier to perform regular cold exposure while still enjoying similar physiological and cognitive benefits.

    Reduced Stress and Anxiety

    Humans have a midbrain area called the periaqueductal grey, which sends and receives messages about cold and pain to the rest of the body. This brain area releases cannabinoids and opioids in response to pain and cold exposure, both of which are associated with improved mood and reductions in anxiety. 

    Activation on the periaqueductal grey area prompts a decrease in pain perception and thus in stress and anxiety as well. When cold exposure is performed regularly, the brain begins to associate cold with invigoration, which can stimulate even higher releases of opioids and cannabinoids. In turn, this can positively affect mood-regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

    The Science Behind Cold Thermogenesis

    There are a variety of proteins, tissues, and hormones involved in the process of cold thermogenesis. Each one fulfils specific mechanisms to promote muscular thermogenesis during exposure to cold environments.

    Cold Shock Proteins

    Cold shock proteins are classified as stress proteins that are activated in response to cold exposure. They are present in a vast range of organisms, from human beings to bacteria. Their primary function is to assist organisms in coping with and adapting to cold stress.

    There are many different cold shock proteins, including:

    • Y-box binding protein (YB-1)
    • Lin28A and Lin28B
    • RNA-binding motif protein 3 (RBM3)
    • Cold-inducible RNA-binding protein (CIRP)

    YB-1 modulates the immune response, and Lin28A and Lin28B assist in the regulation of glucose metabolism and energy production. RBM3 has neuroprotective effects on the brain and helps to maintain muscle mass.  CIRP reduces inflammation, promotes wound healing, and regulates circadian rhythms to optimise sleep cycles and sleep quality.

    Brown Adipose Tissue

    Adipose tissue has numerous critical endocrine and metabolic functions, and the physiology of fat deposits has direct influences on human health. Brown adipose tissue or BAT is capable of dissipating large amounts of energy through thermogenesis and uncoupled respiration. 

    These processes are supported by the major thermogenic factor uncoupling protein-1 and can be activated by genetic changes, adrenergic substances, and exposure to cold. Stimulation of BAT and its activities is linked to increased energy levels and protection against metabolic dysfunction, type II diabetes, and obesity. Additionally, factors like cold exposure can alter the nature of white adipose tissue (WAT), making it more metabolically active in the process.

    Non-Shivering Thermogenesis

    This type of thermogenesis was originally thought to be a cold-induced heat production increase associated with the increase in muscular activity during shivering. However, more recent data suggests that it is actually a metabolic process that takes place in brown adipose tissue and is modulated by the sympathetic nervous system. 

    The act of ingesting food also promotes so-called diet-induced thermogenesis in BAT, which grows and shrinks in response to stimulation by diet or ambient cold. 


    Catecholamines function as both neurotransmitters and hormones in the body and play important roles in body heat generation and metabolism. They stimulate both glucose and oxygen consumption, generating heat and facilitating glycogenolysis and lipolysis. 

    The catecholamine group includes dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Each hormone regulates the secretion of other hormones as well. Epinephrine inhibits insulin secretion by the pancreas, norepinephrine promotes the secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, and dopamine inhibits the secretion of prolactin.

    Techniques for Cold Thermogenesis 

    Cold Showers

    The cold shower is a popular cold thermogenesis-inducing tool, especially for beginners. One recommended strategy is to begin with lukewarm water and then gradually reduce the temperature until it feels noticeably cold but tolerable. Some find it easier to let the cold water flow over their arms and legs before moving onto more sensitive areas such as the torso and head. 

    This method should also include deep breathing to promote relaxation. Stay in the cold water for at least 10 seconds during your first session, and then gradually work your way up to a few minutes per session.

    Ice Baths and Cold Water Immersion

    Cold water immersion, with or without the inclusion of ice, affects the entire body and is only recommended for people who can already withstand cold showers for a few minutes per session. Before trying the ice bath method, try deep breathing to promote relaxation, and practise the same breathing as you immerse yourself in the water. 

    Your sessions may be as long as you can tolerate, up to a maximum of 15 minutes per session. Alternatively, try one-minute exposure intervals paired with a minute of rest outside of the bath until you can tolerate longer sessions.

    Cold Thermogenesis for Athletic Performance

    Cold thermogenesis offers a variety of health and performance benefits for athletes. The human body becomes more metabolically active in cold temperatures, driving more calorie consumption and more intramuscular heat generation as a result. The body generates heat not only through the action of shivering but by raising its metabolic demand and burning stored calories via the actions of brown adipose tissue.

    Some of the most notable benefits of cold thermogenesis for athletes include:

    • Increases and modulation of key hormone levels
    • Increases in muscle mass and lean body mass
    • Improved athletic performance and recovery
    • Pain relief
    • Improvements in sleep quality and sleep duration


    Cryotherapy is becoming especially popular among athletes and sportspeople. This therapy takes place in a specialised cryo-chamber, which maintains extremely low temperatures of -110 to -140 °C. A patient would start a therapy session by entering the first chamber with temperatures of -60 to -80 °C, and after 30 seconds, moving to the colder main chamber for around 1 to 3 minutes. 

    These drastic temperature changes promote increased blood flow to the muscles and skin, supporting injury healing, tissue regeneration, and beneficial immune effects.

    Contrast Therapy

    Contrast hydrotherapy involves the use of multiple baths at varying temperatures. The rapid changes in temperature when immersing yourself in these baths produces circulatory changes and encourages blood vessels to open and close in a pulsing motion. 

    There is evidence to suggest that this motion can accelerate injury recoveries and offer other benefits for cellular and muscular function. Research shows that contrast baths can help athletes to recover efficiently from fatigue after games, improve muscle weakness and pain and reduce lactic acid buildup in the body post-exercise. Plus, it can decrease the swelling associated with ankle sprains and similar sports-related injuries.

    Mattress Toppers

    Temperature-regulating mattress toppers are another medium through which cold thermogenesis can be induced. 

    Toppers offered by brands like Eight Sleep are fitted on top of your existing mattress and can warm or cool each side of your bed as high as 110°F and as low as 55°F, allowing you to induce thermogenesis at temperatures that feel comfortable to you.

    The Huberman Protocol

    The Huberman Protocol recommends ice baths or cold water immersion as a primary means of stimulating cold thermogenesis. The protocol encourages practitioners to aim for temperatures that feel notably cold but safe to endure. Most people can generally tolerate temperatures within the range of 45°F to 60°F. 

    According to Huberman, the colder the stimulus, the less time is needed for cold exposure. Research shows significant and enduring dopamine increases for participants who stayed in cool water (60°F) for around an hour, while other studies showed notable epinephrine increases from just 20 seconds of exposure in 40°F water. The protocol also notes that as you become more familiar with cold exposure, you can start to use colder temperatures for therapy without negative effects.

    According to the protocol, you should aim to practise deliberate cold exposure for a total of 11 minutes each week. This translates to 2-4 sessions of exposure each week, lasting 1-5 minutes for each session.

    Cold Thermogenesis Safety and Precautions

    Understanding your body’s limits is the key to successfully harnessing the benefits of cold thermogenesis. If you experience dizziness, light-headedness, or a white or pale pink skin colouration during treatment sessions, stop treatment immediately and consult a healthcare professional. 

    If you have any serious health conditions – including adrenal insufficiency – it is also important to consult a doctor before starting any cold thermogenesis regimens. Cold exposure therapies are not recommended for those who are pregnant. 

    Best Supplements to Take to Enhance Cold Thermogenesis

    According to Ben Greenfield of Ben GreenField Life, there are many supplements available that effectively boost the effects of cold thermogenesis. Firstly, quality sleep and circadian rhythm regulation encourage thermogenesis in BAT deposits. Melatonin has been shown to produce similar results in small doses, and drinking iced drinks such as iced coffee may prevent the body from needing to re-regulate its internal temperature after the consumption of hot beverages.

    Moreover, Green notes that research highlights natural compounds like capsaicin, piperine, cinnamon, ginger, green tea, and Citrus aurantium extract for accelerating thermogenesis. Supplementing with bile acids may enhance thyroid hormone function by promoting improved liver health, thereby helping to stimulate BAT thermogenesis. Another popular plant-based supplement is Forskolin; a compound that may help to increase fat burning and limit fat storage.

    Some research indicates that fish oil, paired with cold exposure, may increase metabolism and reduce fat storage simultaneously. Ketones, polyphenols, and caffeine may serve as valuable weight-loss aids, especially when paired with beta-hydroxybutyrate, compounds which facilitate the conversion of white fat into brown fat. 


    There is plenty of evidence to suggest that cold exposure therapy and cold thermogenesis can reduce systemic inflebolism and recovery times, improve and protect cognitive function, and boost physical performance and stamina. 

    While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cold therapy, it is important for all practitioners to keep temperatures and durations tailored to their needs and levels of comfort. We recommend starting your treatment sessions with brief cold showers, incorporating breathwork into your routine, and taking high quality supplements to maximise the benefits of your cold therapy efforts.


    What is the difference between cold thermogenesis and cold water therapy?

    Cold water therapy is one treatment medium that can be used to induce or accelerate cold thermogenesis; an increase in metabolism and heat generation in skeletal muscle tissue and adipose tissue.

    Does cold water therapy help with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

    Research shows that cold therapy holds promise for reducing fatigue associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia.

    What happens after 30 days of cold showers?

    Proponents of cold exposure therapy report improved skin health, mood, mental state, athletic recovery, and sleep quality after 30 days or longer of cold showers.

    Is 5 minutes too long for a cold shower?

    Cold shower sessions can be up to 5 minutes or longer in duration. However, you should build your way up to this point by starting out with brief sessions and increasing their duration as you acclimate to cold exposure.

    When should you stop taking cold showers?

    If you experience any dizziness, faintness, or pink or white discoloration of the skin, stop cold shower therapy sessions immediately and consult a medical doctor.

    Do cold showers age you?

    Research has actually linked cold showers and cold thermogenesis to improved longevity in both human and animal models. 

    Is cold water therapy safe for autoimmune disease, will it help?

    Research suggests that cold therapy can help to reduce certain biomarkers associated with autoimmune disease and chronic inflammation, including white and red blood cell counts, C-reactive protein levels, and erythrocyte sedimentation rates.

    Glossary of Terms

    Adrenergic: Pertaining to the adrenergic nervous system, a part of the human autonomic nervous system which relies on neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine.

    Beta-hydroxybutyrate: Chemicals produced by the human body which provide energy when insufficient glucose has been ingested.

    Brown adipose tissue: Also known as brown fat or abbreviated to BAT. Brown adipose tissue is metabolically and endocrinologically active and displays high levels of cold thermogenesis in comparison to white adipose tissue or WAT.

    Cold thermogenesis: A process of endothermic thermoregulation which increases metabolism and intramuscular heat generation as a response to environmental cold exposure.

    Forskolin: A labdane diterpene extracted from the Blue Spur Flower which is often used in supplement form to promote weight loss.

    Glycogenolysis: The process by which glycogen stored in the muscle cells and liver is broken down into glucose to maintain optimal blood glucose levels during physical activity and fasting periods.

    Lipolysis: The process by which fats are broken down into fatty acid molecules.

    Periaqueductal grey: A brain region associated with autonomic function and responses to threatening or dangerous stimuli.