The euphoric benefits of cold rolling

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I have always wondered why the hell I enjoy rolling my kayaks in the Minnesota winter.  It gets fucking cold here, there is no other way of putting it. -18°F, -27°C for the metrically inclined, is the lowest temperature I have paddled in (so far). Wrapped in my tuilik, dry suit, neoprene mittens and layers of woolen long underwear and sweaters my body felt like the Michelin man. No amount of clothes would lessen the pain that –18F air caused as the wind hit my face. It was like jumping face-first into a fire, an intense shooting pain, wherever skin was exposed. The water was so much warmer. The 50 degree temperature delta between near freezing water and sub-zero air made what usually is a brutal experience on warmer days (rolling in cold water), feel less tortuous, as the water arrested the plummeting decent of facial tissue temperature. But even so, the water was close to freezing, it could hardly be called pleasant. But somehow after rolling I felt euphoric.

I have previously written about the growing importance of my yoga practice to my physical and mental wellbeing. I have experimented with nearly every form or style of yoga offered at my local studio. Tuesday nights the studio is heated up to a sticky 105F and for two hours we practice moving through a series of poses while sweat drips from my body by the bucket full. I use a towel on my yoga mat, through the course of the practice it absorbs several pounds of sweat. It’s quite revolting when I have to fold the towel up and take it home. It lands with a god-awful splat on the laundry floor where I throw it, grateful that my lovely wife will run it through the washing machine, returning it to a usable state.  However my propensity to sweat profusely is barely relevant and not at all the point I was trying to make. When it ends, as with cold rolling, hot yoga produces within me a sense of euphoria. The feeling lasts the drive home, and sometimes persists longer. My mental state is shifted into a place of love and warmth.

I had never heard of Dom D’Agostino until I was driving to work last month listening to the Tim Ferris show. Dom’s story was fascinating, and well worth your time listening to. As with most Tim Ferris podcasts, their conversation diverged and  whilst meandering into alternative therapies for body builders, they provided me an insight which I believe may help explain my experiences of euphoria.

The immersion of one’s body into water either hot or cold has both physiological and psychological impacts. Ranging from the obvious vasodilation and vasoconstriction of blood vessels that attempts to mitigate the temperature to the less obvious changes in the production and uptake of serotonin. This isn’t just idle podcast chatter, there is substantive peer reviewed research available on the subject. For example; In 2010 a French scientist published research showing the positive psychological impact of regular cold water therapy on patients with depression exceeded the impact of SSRI (anti-depressant)  treatments. I am not suggesting that one quits medication, move to the northern climes and roll a kayak daily, but I am suggesting that these chemical changes resulting from temperature changes are contributing to why I enjoy rolling and yoga.

I wrote previously about the “cuddle hormone” wondering if that contributed to the psychological benefit I receive from rolling. I suspect it is a combination of both these chemical responses. Whatever it is, the result is powerfully positive for me.

I don’t foresee this knowledge changing my behavior or activities, but it is interesting, nonetheless, to understand what might be going on inside my head as I sweat buckets and freeze like a brass monkey.


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