Cold Thermogenesis

What is Cold Thermogenesis (CT)?

Cold thermogenesis is the practice of intentionally exposing the body to specific levels of cold stress. Years of research now shows this can cause significant increases in metabolism and fat burning, can increase insulin sensitivity and help control blood glucose levels, reduce systemic inflammation, help with sleep and recovery, and potentially fight certain types of cancer as well as promote overall longevity.

As with many of the other OFM protocols, adapting to the cold is part of our evolutionary design. Its only in recent times that we have year round heated homes, places of work and modes of transport. Before the advent of electricity, we only had the use of fires for heat so therefore we were exposed the cold much more. This cold exposure is part of our being and hence it is something that we had to physiologically adapt to.

It has been shown that mild cold exposure increases the rates of heat production by generating heat through calorie burning and bypassing the need for energy (ATP) production. This is done through a type of fat tissue, known as Brown Adipose Fat, that contains specialised proteins (uncoupling proteins) that become activated with cold exposure. Thus, it was a survival mechanism during winter months that enabled us to thermoregulate and prevent shivering by producing heat through the burning of fat tissue. In addition to this, other survival traits during colder weather and food scarcities were to increase energy supply to the muscle (by increase insulin sensitivity) and to enhance the immune system.

Therefore, as part of the OFM program, cold exposure can and should be used to further increase fat adaptation and also to improve insulin sensitivity and immunity.

The Details:

BAT Activation

Brown adipose tissue, or BAT, is primarily found around your collar bones, sternum, neck, and upper back. It is a unique kind of fat that contains high amounts of mitochondria that express uncoupling proteins (UCPs). These increase the rate of heat production by increasing the rate of calorie burning. The opposite of BAT is White Adipose Tissue which is the beige/white fat stored subcutaneously and does not contain the same UCPs that burn calories.

Exposure to cold has been shown to increase the levels of BAT. And while exercise and fasting can also both increase BAT, they don’t increase BAT as much as cold exposure. Remember, the increase in BAT has been shown to come from more continuous mild cold exposure as opposed to short extreme bursts of cold. This simply means exposing the skin to cooler air or water temperatures for more prolonged periods of time as opposed to immersing for a few minutes in iced water or frozen lakes.

Adiponectin Activation

Adiponectin is a hormone released during cold exposure that increases fatty acid oxidation and improves insulin sensitivity. It is a hormone produced by adipocytes and this not only has an anabolic, muscle repair effect, but can also enhance recovery. Interestingly, low adiponectin levels have been associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Cold exposure has been shown to increase the levels of adiponectin production.

Enhanced Immune System

Cold therapy has been proven to enhance the immune system, primarily by increase levels of immune system cells that help fight disease and infection. It can also suppress the pro-inflammatory response of cytokine production and increase endogenous antioxidant production.

Cold exposure – likely due to it’s ability to stimulate norepinephrine release – can induce leukocytosis and granulocytosis, an increase in natural killer cell count and activity, and a rise in circulating levels of interleukin-6, all of which can massively improve your immune system integrity.

How to practice it ?

Cold adaptation and the benefits of BAT, UCPs, Immunity and Adiponectin can come from mild cold stress. Studies done have used air temperatures ~10C/50F and water temperatures of 18C/64F. Water is also a better conductor of heat so when the body is immersed in cold water, greater heat loss occurs compared to air. It is estimated to be of 10-20 times the rate of heat loss in cold water compared to the same air temperature. Therefore, only short periods of cold water exposure versus more sustained cold air exposure. e.g. 1hr in 55F/14C is equivalent to 5mins in 55F/14C water.

To put this into practical terms and daily living. Being outside in minimal clothing , working/walking/exercising, on a day when the air temperature is ~55F, exposes to the skin to a mild cold stress. Likewise, having a 5min cold shower, results in similar adaptations.

The key is to practice this way of cold exposure on a consistent basis. The increased BAT levels and increased rates of calorie burning are small percentages and thus incremental. The benefits will not come from 1/week cold ice bath but rather daily mild cold exposure. Also, the adaptation to the cold exposure should be done in a gradual manner. Simply starting with a 1min cold shower and working up to 5min over weeks is recommended.

Finally, there can always be too much of a good thing. Chronic and extreme cold exposure can lead to hyperthermia when the body temperature drops under its set point of 96.8F/37C. This will happen more quickly in cold water temperatures <10C/50F and sub zero air temperatures. Therefore, exposure to the cold should first be done in a gradual manner. Secondly and more importantly, the benefits of cold exposure come from mild cold stress as described above. Only highly trained experienced cold water swimmers and enthusiasts need to adapt to chronic/extreme cold exposure

How to do Tips:

  • Cold water face dunking. Fill sink with tap water. Dunk head in and hold breath     for as long as possible. This exposes the face to the cold and helps the body to adapt to cold water immersion. This can be done daily.
  • During     cooler days , 50-60F/10-14C, train outdoors with minimal clothing.
  • Run in short sleeves. Cycle in short pants and a light jacket. Do
  • S&C workouts outside in short sleeves and top.
  • When driving on cooler days, avoid using high heat or heated seating.
  • Drive and complete the journey at the ambient air temperature. Again, mild cold air can be used. e.g. cool spring day or mild winter day.
  • At home, set heating to 18C/65F.
  • In the office, if possible, set the heating to 18C/65F.
  • Take a cold shower daily. This can be built up from 1min to 5mins.
  • If living near the ocean, river or lake… take a dip for 5-10mins. Check water temperature. If <14C/55F….


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