Year-round swimmers in Berlin have half as many chest infections as other people, say doctors from the Herzog-Julius Hospital in Bad Harzburg and the Medical School at Humboldt University in Berlin. Swimming in freezing water, cold plunges in ice water following a sauna, and other forms of cold immersion harden the body and benefit health by increasing resistance to chest infections, the German doctors say.
Dr Werner Siems, a biochemist at Herzog-Julius Hospital became interested after observing patients with rheumatoid arthritis who were given exposure to cold at -110C for up to three minutes at a time. Patients, who wear shoes and gloves and special protection for the nose, mouth, ears and other sensitive parts, report a reduction in pain following treatment in the cold chamber.
Studies of year-round swimmers, both men and women, have found that regular exposure to cold changes the body's chemistry, making it more resistant to oxidative stress. The swimmers' bodies have increased quantities of a substance, glutathione, and elevated levels of several enzymes that enable the body to remove reactive oxygen from the body more quickly.
It appears that swimming in cold water may help the body combat natural decay caused by reactive oxygen. Among the possible, but as yet unproven benefits could be protection against heart and blood vessel disease. "Modern life has a deficiency of stimulating factors such as cold, heat and physical stress and this results in poor resistance to disease," said Dr Siems. "Brief exposure to cold causes a mild oxidative stress which may prepare the body to resist a greater stress."
Cold treatment is popular in Siberia, where it has been witnessed by Professor William Keatinge, of Queen Mary and Westfield College in London, an expert on cold exposure.
"In Russia they call this treatment Ivanov therapy after a guru who walks in the snow barefoot and without a shirt," Professor Keatinge said. "I saw a number of expectant mothers in Krasnoyarsk, central Siberia, troop out of the hospital clinic into the snow in bikinis, meditate for a few minutes, and then troop back.
"But I was even more astonished to see a newborn baby given Ivanov therapy. The baby was only a few hours old when a nurse poured a bucket of ice- cold water over its head. Then I was shown a one-year-old boy who had been given the treatment every day of his life. He had become so used to cold water that he continued to play on the floor after it was poured over him as if nothing had happened."
Russian doctors particularly recommend the ice-water treatment for what they call post-Chernobyl syndrome, an anxiety condition recognised in Russia which may have psychological aspects similar to ME, the persistent fatigue syndrome.
Professor Keatinge has for many years been studying the increase in deaths in this country during the winter. He has shown that some 30,000 people in Britain die each winter as a result of exposure to cold. These are mostly older people who go outdoors wearing insufficient clothing during cold weather when they may, for example, have to wait in the cold at a bus stop.
"Cold stress acting over a period of half-an-hour to several hours causes the blood to become more concentrated and increases the risk of a heart attack," said Professor Keatinge. "Shorter exposures to cold may make people more resistant to it, but there are risks. People who swim in the cold may suffer heart attacks. So it is not advisable for older people, unless they have been doing it for a long time. It is particularly ill- advised for anyone who suffers from angina."Reuse content