Ice baths = testosterone boost?
July 2, 2013 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Timothy Ferriss’ book “The 4-Hour Body” has a section on boosting testosterone levels. His “protocol” for achieving a higher testosterone level includes ingesting various things like fermented cod liver oil, as well as twice-daily, 10-minute-long ice baths or cold showers. Mr. Ferriss doesn’t always explain how a thing that he recommends doing does what it’s supposed to do. Unfortunately, this cold bath/shower regimen is one of those unexplained things, because this inquiring mind wants to know! Does the hive mind know?

In case the cold bath/shower regimen works synergistically with the other things in the testerone protocol, I'll mention that the rest of the protocol includes ingesting these, twice daily: fermented cod liver oil, butter, vitamin D3, raw almonds, and (optional) brazil nuts.
posted by Mechitar to Health & Fitness (13 answers total)
He doesn't explain how it works because it doesn't actually work.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:55 PM on July 2, 2013 [27 favorites]

Tim Ferris is a bullshit artist; that's the explanation.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 12:57 PM on July 2, 2013 [26 favorites]

This has been discussed on a number of bodybuilding forums. Note how no one can cite an actual study, though there are vague claims of a 1993 paper from the "Thrombosis Research Institute."

Have you had your testosterone levels tested? Is there a reason to believe they need boosting? In short, I wouldn't take medical advice from Timothy Ferriss.
posted by zachlipton at 1:11 PM on July 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't take advice on *anything* from Tim Ferriss. He does what he does because it makes him money, not because he has valuable insights to share.

That said, it's entirely possible he lifted the ice bath idea from a completely non-testosterone-related lifting regimen, in which you take a post-workout ice bath to lower inflammation and speed your recovery time, allowing you to work out harder and more frequently without injury. That's the only context I've encountered ice baths in, and it's usually people who are interested in building muscle mass and generally being testosterony that are talking about it, so there's *some* connection.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:33 PM on July 2, 2013

There was a totally non-scientific but interesting piece on the Art of Manliness about boosting testosterone, and here's a relevant paragraph from it:
The basis for my thinking that T levels could be boosted by cold baths came from a post I wrote a few years ago on the benefits of cold showers. One benefit I found in my research was that they could increase testosterone levels. I mentioned a 1993 study done by the Thrombosis Research Institute in England that found increased T levels after taking a cold shower. Here’s the thing. I can’t find a link to the original source and I can’t find any other studies that support this claim! So without supporting research, I’m unsure of the effects of cold showers on testosterone.

I still found the practice beneficial, invigorating, and helpful in building my self-discipline.

posted by General Malaise at 1:37 PM on July 2, 2013

Maybe he extrapolated from the tighty whities vs. boxer shorts discussions. The warmth retained in tight underwear is supposed to adversely affect semen. From there to ice baths is quite a leap.
posted by Cranberry at 1:45 PM on July 2, 2013

I'm no scientician but this study appears to contradict Ferris' claim.
posted by averageamateur at 1:51 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is the guy who wrote the article originally. You could drop him a note. He was president of the Thrombosis Research Institute, he is now retired. This is a longer article that was written about the time that study came out. Here's a longer analysis of how the story came out and how the info about it changed over time. It was published in The European in early 1993, not a journal. The European is no longer being published (1990-1998) which is why people can't really find it. The upshot of the article, I gather, was mostly about how cold showers don't really dampen the libido and it's mostly about the benefits of hydrotherapy

Here is a post on MythBroScience Busters looking for peer reviewed research that supports that claim (scroll to #25)

Conclusion summaries

1. "These results suggest that physical exercise increases TS level in serum by increasing LH and NA levels, but these tendencies were not found with cold water stimulation."

2. "Our results show that the short-term exposure of adult man to low ambient temperature does not have any effect on the pituitary-thyroid and pituitary-testis axes and adrenal medulla"

3. " In summary, the changes in PTL and Tre that occurred as a result of 5 d of heavy exercise did not affect sperm production rates in humans."

tl;dr: no. IAYL.
posted by jessamyn at 2:25 PM on July 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think this could work, and that if it does, the mechanism is something like the ice bath stimulating the activity of brown fat, which in turn requires adrenalin, and the adrenals producing a lot of androgens in addition to the adrenalin:
Brown adipose tissue (BAT) or brown fat is one of two types of fat or adipose tissue (the other being white adipose tissue) found in mammals.
It is especially abundant in newborns and in hibernating mammals.[1] Its primary function is to generate body heat in animals or newborns that do not shiver.
It was believed that after infants grow up, most of the mitochondria (which are responsible for the brown color) in brown adipose tissue disappear, and the tissue becomes similar in function and appearance to white fat. However, more recent research has shown that brown fat is related not to white fat, but to skeletal muscle.[3][4][5]

Further, recent studies using Positron Emission Tomography scanning of adult humans have shown that it is still present in adults in the upper chest and neck. The remaining deposits become more visible (increasing tracer uptake, that is, more metabolically active) with cold exposure, and less visible if an adrenergic beta blocker is given before the scan. [emphasis added]
In this model the androgens would not come from the testes, but from the adrenals, and would not be limited to or necessarily primarily composed of testosterone:
The human adrenal gland secretes large amounts of androgens and androgenic precursors as compared with the adrenal glands of other species. In part, this pattern of secretion is regulated by ACTH, analogous to the control of cortisol. However, in many instances, including adrenarche, puberty, aging, and severe illness, secretion of adrenal androgens and cortisol diverge for reasons which are not clear
The rationale for the cod liver oil would be that, because of the cold water bath, the brown fat could need a lipid which remains liquid at low temperature and can be easily oxidized at that temperature, which is what you might expect from a cold water fish such as cod. I'm not sure about almond oil or brazil nut oil.

Very high doses of D3 are associated with prostate cancer, so it might be reasonable to infer an independent androgenating effect from it.
posted by jamjam at 3:01 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is scant evidence this actually works. What is certain is any changes to your testosterone levels caused by cold showers are almost certainly minuscule compare to the effects of sleep, eating, exercise, stress, and excess body fat. If cold showers provided a discernible boost to testosterone you can bet everyone and their mother who ever wanted to put on muscle would be doing them.
posted by Anonymous at 3:56 PM on July 2, 2013

Here's how it works:

1. You take a cold shower. It's hard to do.

2. This makes you feel like a tough guy.

3. You start doing what you imagine tough guys do, like lift more weights.

4. Lifting weights increases your testosterone.
posted by michaelh at 4:30 PM on July 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

You do get a nice rush from a cold water plunge--I think it's from your blood vessels constricting in the cold and then opening up when you get out. (I am soooo not a doctor, so feel free to correct.) So you'll feel something, but it's not increased testosterone.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 6:08 PM on July 2, 2013

I find it funny that nearly everyone here has strong opinions on this without ever mentioning having given it a try. You could certainly do a rough test by taking regular cold showers or ice baths while monitoring libido, something that would likely jump up with a spike of testosterone.

I agree that Tim Ferriss writes a lot of B.S. His claim of gaining 34 pounds of muscle in a few weeks, for example, is the biggest load of crap I've ever read. But his testosterone-boosting formula looked intriguing to me since it's easy enough to test with anecdotal feedback.

Keep in mind that it's an entire formula that he claims gave him a substantial spike in testosterone, and daily cold exposure was only one part of the formula. Also, he claims the increase in T and LH occurred over a period of several months while doing this. It seems that the biggest factor in the regimen is getting blood levels of vitamin D up to 55 ng/ml - something I've found is more challenging than expected if you're not a daily sun worshiper.

Long story short: I'm a natural bodybuilder, so I have a vested interest in maximizing natural testosterone. I tried the regimen in late winter/early spring of 2013 while, admittedly, not having my vitamin D levels up to the minimum 55 ng/ml for most of the self experiment. BTW, toxicity of this vitamin hits at 150 ng/ml a day, so this target is well under that. My levels were a scant 19 when I started so I had a lot of room for improvement. Also, that's all I've had blood work done on; I never did shell out the money to get a whole T-level panel done, so I had to go completely on anecdotal evidence.

What I noticed specifically from the cold exposure was a jump in libido and bodybuilding recovery time. This all happened within two weeks of starting hardcore daily cold exposure. When I say hardcore, I mean it: I got my ice baths as low as 36 degrees F and stayed submerged in them for up to 14 minutes. I did cold showers late at night with the bathroom window opened and blowing cold air on me. If nothing else, it was a test of my willpower. I've even considered the possibility that any boost of testosterone from this routine might just come from repeatedly doing something bold - forcing oneself to carry out a task that's definitely a mild form of self torture.

The best positive effect I experienced from this, and the phenomenon that made it addictive for me, was a big reduction of stress. By the final two minutes of each daily cold exposure, I would feel euphoric. This was probably just hypothermia setting in. Whatever the reason, the reduced stress was something I carried with me throughout the day. BTW, I'm not recommending this to other people; I have a lot of trust in my body's ability to withstand the shock of sudden near-freezing temperatures.

The positive effects I felt definitely seemed to plateau after two two to three months. I never did get blood work done on T-levels because the experiment was flawed due to my trouble getting vitamin D levels up. By the time I got them to minimum, my tap water was getting too warm to have any effect without spending a shitload on ice.

I do like cold exposure. I think it has a positive effect on hormone levels. This makes sense, to some extent, given that studies have shown guys have higher average testosterone levels in the winter than in summer.
posted by hardbodymaker at 10:05 AM on April 4, 2014

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