A little water clears us of this deed

In an embarrassed, albeit reluctant, display of honesty I feel compelled to confess that I top off my morning showers with a blast of cold water. It is because of something I read many years ago in an otherwise forgotten and discarded book -probably one in the stack of Reader’s Digests by the toilet, now that I think about it. Anyway, the author claimed that it shut the skin’s pores so germs would have a harder time getting in -at least that’s how I interpreted it. But you had to use the cold water at the very end or you couldn’t get all the dirty soap off. Well, it was something that appealed to my ten year-old’s sense of how things worked in a prairie world surrounded by fertile, but dirt-filled fields. Winnipeg was earthy like that in those days.

Later, as my hormones progressed, and the braggadocio of my friends increased, I remember they recommended cold showers to sooth the newly-felt urges as they elbowed each other in recognition of their risqué thoughts. I suppose it alerted me that I’d been self-medicating from an early age, and it made sense -I’d never been able to get a date. In fact, though, there was a far more pragmatic use for cold showers in my frigid home. In the winter, only important rooms like the kitchen with its constantly used stove were warm in our house. Stepping out of a hot shower onto a cold-floored bathroom where the towels hanging next to the Jack-Frosted window were still hard was difficult -unless I actually decided the room was warm because I was colder still… Well, anyway it seemed appropriate to me in those days, and the habit has persisted.

In fact, I have to admit that cold has been so engrained in my morning ablutions that I haven’t given it much serious thought for years now. Of course, I’d read that idea of cold soaking had been around in one form or another for centuries as both punishment and treatment for things like mental illness, and god only knows what else. I had no idea why, though -I don’t imagine they were doing double-blind control experiments to validate the results in those days; it just seemed like a good idea, I guess. And I, at least, felt I had a justification.

But now, especially in my dotage, I welcome any ideas that seem corroborate my more outrageous habits. Perhaps it is an unconscious epilogic quest to justify a life lived liminally. At any rate, I stumbled upon an essay by Lindsay Bottoms, at the time a Reader in Exercise and Health Physiology at the University of Hertfordshire that seemed to fit the bill: https://theconversation.com/cold-showers-are-said-to-be-good-for-you-heres-what-the-evidence-shows-167822

She reports on a large study from the Netherlands which found that ‘people who took a cold shower were less likely than those who took a warm shower to take time off work due to sickness… some research suggests it may have something to do with boosting the immune system… Cold water also appears to activate the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that governs the fight-or-flight response.’

So, during a cold shower, you apparently get an increase in the fight-or-flight crew. ‘This is what most likely causes the increase in heart rate and blood pressure observed when people are immersed in cold water, and is linked to the suggested health improvements.’

The cold water, as the argument goes, decreases blood flow to the skin and the subsequent warming when you towel off, increases it again. So, quod erat demonstrandum? Uhmm…

Oh yes, and she also says there is ‘some evidence that a cold shower can help you lose weight.’ Hold on… ‘A study found that cold-water immersion at 14℃ increased metabolism by 350%. Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy, so a higher metabolism roughly equals more energy burned.’ But even if you treated the resulting hypothermia, I don’t think it would work, if you ask me (which nobody has). Well, okay, so far it hasn’t -alright?

Ahh, but there is also some evidence that there may actually be mental health benefits from cold water as well -like increased mental alertness from that adrenaline thing that happens when you splash cold water on your face… Come on, eh? I mean that requires evidence?

Well, anyway, as a sort of coup de grâce Bottoms tells us ‘A cold shower may also help relieve symptoms of depression. A proposed mechanism is that, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower sends an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which may have an anti-depressive effect.’ Hands up those of you who think she is stretching it a little.

But naturally not everybody is taking this evidence standing up, as it were. There are hot water folks that find this sort of pseudo-evidence as a challenge to their own hitherto unquestioned common sense. I’ve just been listening to a podcast about some research studying the effects of hot water -as in saunas, or hot baths- for extending the benefits of exercise. Not exactly common sense, I suppose, but for unclear (to me) reasons it works in much the same manner as cold water: it increases blood flow to… well, to wherever. They’re not advocating doing away with exercise, or anything -just helping it out I guess. Anyway, now I’m not sure who to believe, although it is tempting to tell myself I could just quickly jog over to the corner store, and then relax in a hot bath with some potato chips and a Pepsi. And all with the clear and certain knowledge of evidence from a podcast whose name I can’t remember. But, I mean, nowadays who quotes their sources anymore?

Still, although it’s hard to reconcile the two approaches, there’s one thing they both appear to have in common: water. Hot or cold, it doesn’t seem to matter as long as you actually use it. I’m pretty sure I knew this long ago, however: even Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth alluded to the magic of water for clearing things up -making them right again…

So, should I ever find myself wondering whether great Neptune’s ocean would wash something clean from my hand or whether this mine hand would rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, I now know who to talk to. And maybe I could lose some weight at the same time while I go looking for her husband…

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