Water: font of health and happiness

Science has made great claims about the health benefits of spending time in nature, but what about the evidence to support the benefits of cold water swimming?

Swimming and your mental health

Have you ever meditated by the sea or a stretch of open water? It does have a quality of its own, and I would recommend it. Avoid extremes of temperature and places that are crowded or noisy. However, the benefits of water to health and wellbeing extend far beyond a relaxing place to meditate.

Last week the New Scientist magazine ran a feature dedicated to the health benefits of proximity to water. ‘Why spending time near water gives us a powerful mental health boost.’ This article reminded me of the health benefits of open water swimming, particularly in the winter. Open water swimming carries its own risks and benefits, and it shouldn’t be tackled in the winter without appropriate training, equipment and consideration. If you search the internet or the archives of the mainstream media, you’ll see several TV programmes dedicated to the mental health benefits of swimming in the winter. You’ll also find research in this field if you access academic databases. The scientific explanations are patchy, although anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

New Scientist 13th July

I first tried winter swimming at the end of 2020. I swam through the summer as normal but just never stopped. By the start of October, the water began to feel uncomfortably cold. I began swimming with other cold water swimmers who shared their knowledge and encouraged me to wear a wet suit, gloves, boots and hood. It took time to become comfortable with the kit and the cold water. By the end of November, the water temperature was around 11oC and entering the English Channel on a grey winter’s day was uninviting. But the feeling of returning to dry land 15 minutes later was epic.

It’s actually quite hard to explain the sensations. Upon entering the water, I feel some fear and a sense of danger, but once immersed, all mental functions are reduced to simply coping with the cold. Even with the wetsuit, the first few minutes are challenging. A degree of acclimatisation occurs as the water inside the suit becomes slightly warmer. After that, however, the blood retreats away from the extremities, and the hands and feet become bitterly cold. Fifteen minutes is as much as I can manage in mid-winter. As soon as I come back onto the beach, I strip the wetsuit off, dry myself down and change into several layers of warm clothing. At this point, the sense of well-being becomes palpable, a wave of joy and satisfaction moving over me; it feels great. I take a warm drink from the flask as soon as I’m dressed. The effort, the fear and the cold all seem a small price to pay for this sense of well-being.

I can only imagine that the return of blood to almost normal levels of circulation underpins this great sense of wellness. Perhaps there is a flushing of toxins from the major organs, even the brain. The truth is, the scientific research doesn’t help much in explaining why cold water swimming makes me feel like this. Afterwards, I tend to use hand warmers to counter numbness, but the sense of well-being endures for hours despite this. The ‘high’ eventually passes, and in seven days, when I’m standing in front of the sea again, I feel only trepidation. But I remember how it will feel afterwards, a thought which propels me back into the icy water.

Friendly Advice: cold water swimming should only be undertaken by experienced swimmers in groups with appropriate equipment and safeguards. In the first instance, contact your local open or wild water swimming club for more information. Be advised that some wetsuits are specifically designed for swimming in cooler water.

How does meditation improve mental health?

Does the effect of saunas and showers on mental health tell us anything new about meditation and mindfulness?

So what has cold water swimming got to do with meditation?

How does meditation improve mental health? A possible link between cold water swimming, saunas, meditation and depression.

I’ve recently come into contact with some exciting research linked to depression and dementia. Several academic papers suggest changes to blood circulation may positively affect mental health. A scientific study of middle-aged men who practised sauna bathing in Finland indicated they were less likely to experience dementia than peers who didn’t take saunas. A degree of support in this general direction comes from other evidence that cold showers may have a beneficial effect on depression. Over the last decade, we have also started to see claims linking open water swimming (cold water swimming) with improved mental health.

Saunas, cold showers and cold water swimming affect us in different ways, but they all share the ability to alter the body’s temperature. A rapid increase in body temperature leads to a widening (dilation) of the blood vessels, increasing the blood flow. The reverse is true when we get cold, the blood vessels become narrower, constricting the flow. We are uncertain of exactly how rapid temperature changes alter blood flow in the brain, but we can be sure it does have an impact.

So what have showers, sauna and swimming got to do with meditation? What may surprise many people is meditation can also change our heart rate and blood pressure. Since the beginnings of the scientific investigation of meditation, both physiological and psychological effects have been visible. If we go back to the 1930s, the first studies of meditators using electroencephalographic (EEG) technology observed changes to alpha waves in the brain. However, by the 1950s, scientists looked at a much more comprehensive range of changes in meditators, such as the lowering of heart rate blood pressure and increases in skin conductivity. So from its earliest origins, contemplative science has recognised that practising meditation can lead to physical changes correlated with our mental states.

There is no question that meditation acts differently compared to physical activities in warm or cold environments. But we may find, coincidentally, that cold water swimming, saunas and meditation can all lead to fluctuations in blood flow to the brain.

The term meditation is imprecise; there are, of course, thousands of different meditation and mindfulness methods. Each distinct method is likely to have a particular effect on your mind and body. Rather like physical exercise, mind-training will make most of us ‘fitter’ but not in the same way and at the same rate. So when we think about physical and mental changes from meditation, we should always be mindful of not overgeneralising. But even with the limited evidence available, there is a case to argue that circulatory changes during meditation may be linked to improved mental health. And that other activities like open water swimming may possess a similar potential to mediate mental states and traits through changes to blood flow.

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