Cold showers and intermittent fasting… a cruel joke or is there real science behind the madness?

Have you ever heard the term Hormesis before?

Probably not, but Hormesis is the term used by scientists to describe any beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) that results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses.

Two examples of this are cold showers and intermittent fasting, which we are just beginning to explore for their exciting health benefits

 Cold Showers

You may have thought cold showers were just something talked about by those annoying personal trainers looking to sound like they have a PHD in everything recovery related or maybe even by a marine who takes pride in being able to withstand anything that comes their way. However, the science behind cold showers is actually fascinating and very real.

Katherine Hepburn new about the benefits of Hormesis before most other people did…She began taking cold showers daily after being pushed into it by Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, a urologist and pioneer in social hygiene and she credited them for her high energy levels. But now scientist have started to discover what is actually going on under the skin.

By deliberately subjecting yourself to the freezing cold water, we cause a number of changes in our bodies.


  • Thermogenesis– the internal generation of body heat.
  • Turn on your body’s adaptive repair systems– which leads to:


  • Improved Mood –Cold showers have been shown to up regulate (increase) the number of dopamine receptors (D2 receptors). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for our motivation and behaviour, and is partly the reason why cold showers are so effective for countering depression.

 Not too bad when you think about it. 60 seconds of discomfort is probably worth it for all of those rewards. Joel Runyon actually credits taking cold showers with helping him start up his business:

Cold showers can also help us to loose weight and even produce healthier fats

When it comes to intermittent fasting…should we do as the Romans do?

It may have been the Romans who first discovered the benefits of intermittent fasting, completely by accident of course, like a lot of important scientific discoveries. Back then, epilepsy was an unknown entity and the Romans believed that seizures were a sure sign that you had actually been possessed by a demon, and an ignorant diagnosis was always going to earn an ignorant prescription for a treatment.

They would lock up anyone having seizures in a dark room and cut off their food supply, but through sheer dumb luck they actually began to notice improvements and a reduction in the number of seizures.

This wasn’t because the demon inside them got a little bit too ‘hangry’ and decided to go and possess someone else. Scientists have now discovered that intermittent fasting has positive effects on those who suffer from seizures, which they believe is due to the fact that intermittent fasting encourages our body and brain to use ketones as an energy source instead of glucose and this seems to reduce the number of seizures.

Who else can benefit from intermittent fasting?

All of us really, but its best to start when you are an adult as they will notice the most benefits, of which there are many useful ones.

As we age, our cells can slowly begin to break down under what’s know as oxidative stress where by we produce unwanted free radicals that can be detrimental to other cells, bumping into them and damaging them potentially leading to diseases such as cancer.

What are the benefits and how do they come about?

Intermittent fasting can cause a number of adaptive responses from our brain that improve our neural functioning. Whether this is an evolutionary adaption, we don’t know for sure, but it would make sense. Imagine yourself back in the days of hunter-gatherers where you need to find food to survive. If you go through a period of time with no food and your brain started to slow down and perform poorly then you would be far less likely to survive, but if your brain function improves you are more likely to find something to help you survive and pass on your DNA.

Some of these adaptive responses are extraordinary, for example some studies have shown that when we fast, the amount of BDNF (brain derived neutrophic factor) a chemical responsible for protecting, creating, and the differentiation of new cells in the brain, can rise by between 50-400%.  This is significant as BDNF play a large role in learning, memory and mood, which suggests that IF may be a great way to stave off age related neural decline in the brain.

Similar to cold showers, another response from IF is that we up-regulate (increase) the number of dopamine receptors (D2 receptors), which is great news for those with mood disorders and even Parkinson’s. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in numerous functions such as pleasure, reward, and motor control.

Intermittent fasting can also raise our levels of Human growth hormone (HGH) by significant amounts. On study showed that after 3 days HGH levels increased by 300% and after 7 it was at 1200%.

HGH influences a number of different areas:

  • Muscle strength
  • Enhanced weight loss
  • Stronger bones
  • Less risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Better mood.

The benefits of Hormesis are significant, and could be a tool for us all to look after our minds and bodies, as we grow older. It could also be useful for those suffering from physical ailments like arthritis or those with mental health related issues who are looking for a more natural way to improve their condition. With more and more individuals looking into preventatitve medicine to look after their minds and bodies in preparation for old age, Hormesis is definitely a route to be explored.

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