Written By: Gabrielle Stratton, L.Ac
Edited By: Kate Downes
Artwork By: Jaclyn Kim
Chinese Medicine Lens on Cold Therapy
Speak to any Chinese medicine practitioner (or elder), and we will often hear advice to avoid cold; skipping iced beverages or cold foods, wearing a scarf outside, and keeping our feet covered and warm are common recommendations.
In reality, it’s more complex and nuanced than cold is bad, heat is good. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, both cold and heat are seen as external evils, which can adversely affect a person's constitution when there is chronic exposure or underlying imbalances. Striking balance between hot and cold is always the goal. There’s also cold and hot in the form of food energetics as well.
However, cold therapy or cryotherapy has grown as a popular wellness practice, and studies show it could be beneficial for certain populations. Here’s our perspective on the trend from a Chinese Medicine perspective.
The History of Treating Cold
Zhang Zhong Jing developed the oldest diagnostic tradition, the Shang Han Lun (Treatise on Cold) in 142-220 AD. He lived in what was then known as the Eastern Han Dynasty, where cold exposure was a chronic issue. When an epidemic killed nearly 200 people in his village, he decided to study the epidemic and write one of the first Medical Textbooks we still use in Chinese Medicine today.
He posited that illness arose from Shang Han (injury from cold). The chronic exposure of cold on top of cold constricted the Yang of the body (warmth, movement, immune function), allowing the body to be invaded by cold at the deepest level. An example of this theory in action is the tendency to get a cold/flu when the weather shifts from warm to cold, and cold is able to easier invade the body.
Modern Day Cold Exposure
While Yang Deficiency and Internal Cold are still prevalent among individuals in society, chronic cold exposure is not as pervasive as it once was. In fact, today we often struggle with heat in the form of chronic inflammation. Those struggling with inflammation, poor circulation, and chronic pain may benefit from cold therapy.
Cold Therapy is a type of hormesis, which is characterized by low-dose stimulation which creates favorable adaptive responses. Hormesis is seen in both medical intervention and biological processes such as exercise, vaccines, and herbal therapy. Hormesis can be beneficial to those with Yin Deficiency, Internal Heat, Blood Stagnation, and Damp-Phlegm.
Due to the increase in popularity, cold exposure is being tested more regularly. While there are a lot of hypotheses, there is no substantial data to suggest why cold therapy may be beneficial. What scientists can tell us is that cold water exposure may affect cortisol or dopamine levels, which improves mood and brain function. Biologically, hormetic cold water exposure causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), causing your blood to pool, followed by vasodilation (widening of vessels) once you have emerged from the cold. This process increases the rate at which oxygen is delivered to muscles, leading to quicker recovery and lessening inflammatory processes.
Best Practices for Cold Exposure
No single therapy is right for everyone. That’s why we advocate for learning about the available options and choosing strategies that benefit our unique health and goals. While the research suggests that Cold Therapy can be beneficial for chronic inflammation, blood circulation issues, chronic pain, and muscle soreness, it might not be the best choice for everyone depending on their underlying constitution.
For instance, those with underlying Yang Deficiency or Internal Cold are not advised to add Cold Therapy into their wellness routines. Adding cold exposure to a constitution that is Yang Deficient would be like standing outside in a winter storm to cure a cold — it could make the cold condition worse. Stick to warming foods and movement-based practices that help to build Yang in the body.
We also recommend limiting cold exposure during the Winter, especially for those who live in colder climates. Winter is already a cold time of year, so adding more cold into the body could throw Yin-Yang balance off. Looking back to the studies of Zhong Zhang Jing, we can see how adding cold exposure on top of a cold climate can have detrimental effects on health. However, those with a robust constitution and strong immune systems may still benefit from this form of therapy.
If curious about trying cold exposure therapy, go slowly to build up tolerance. Starting with low-dose exposure helps our body acclimate gradually and helps avoid any complications. Alternating between hot and cold in the shower for 3 rounds can be a great way to build up your tolerance.
Along with cold therapy, make time for warming techniques like Sauna, direct sunlight, moxibustion, or a hot shower after cold exposure to further improve circulation and lower inflammation.