I have a very scenic drive on my Sunday morning trip to Mass. Stunning views of the Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound. A few months ago, I noticed a group of people gathering every Sunday in the frigid Puget Sound waters of Steilacoom, Washington. I dubbed them the “water church,” as I couldn’t figure out why anyone would be in cold water so early on a Sunday morning.
After some sleuthing, I learned that the group, the Puget Sound Plungers, is almost like a water church. It is a gathering of people who have discovered the joy of practicing cold water immersion, or deliberate cold exposure (DCE), in the Puget Sound. Their plunge on Sunday mornings at Sunnyside Beach Park is dubbed “the Sunday Service.”
I had recently read The New Rules of Aging Well: A Simple Program for Immune Resilience, Strength, and Vitality by Frank Lipman, MD, a pioneer in both integrative and functional medicine. His book suggests lifestyle changes based on ancient wisdom supported by science. He recommends cold water shower rinses as a small acute stressor to repair cellular function in the body. I started adding a quick rinse at the end of my showers, making sure to run water over my head. It definitely triggers the fight or flight mechanism in the body. I was intrigued by cold water therapy and decided to check out the Puget Sound Plungers.
Note, I have no medical training. The examples in this article are anecdotal experiences from myself and other plungers but there are plenty of medical studies you can seek out. To learn more, read Cold Shocking the Body: Exploring Cryotherapy, Cold Water Immersion, and Cold Stress (PDF) by Rhonda Perciavalle Patrick, Ph.D.
The Puget Sound Plungers
It was with a bit of trepidation that I met up with Renate Rain, age 53 and one of the leaders of the group, on a Thursday evening to try my first plunge. The group is informal, and you are responsible for your own safety. Rain recently completed a certification in the Morozko Method of Deliberate Cold Exposure. For anyone that wants to try their first plunge, she will have you arrive before the group and talk you through the experience. She also shares the benefits of DCE with examples from members of the group. The Puget Sound Plungers was founded so that people who know about DCE have a place to go and the comradery of others to experience it with.
The Puget Sound Plungers is a diverse group with people of all ages and sizes. I arrived early to meet with Rain and others over 50 to interview them on the benefits they received. According to Rain, to experience the benefits of DCE, the minimum effective dose is 2 minutes in 55 degree water. In layman terms, this stimulates your body’s fight or flight response, and when you get out of the water your body is flooded with a feeling of euphoria. Rain describes it in much greater detail with the proper medical terms.
Benefit 1: Reduced Hot Flashes
One of the benefits of DCE is its effect on symptoms of menopause. Anita Bennett, age 53, found immediate relief. “It helped me with anxiety, and my hot flashes just stopped. I was drenched in sweat, and it just stopped, and I just feel so good all week,” she said. Rain says that many women in the group feel it helps regulate their hormones.
Benefit 2: Improved Sleep Quality
Better sleep is another benefit. Kathy Gilman, 66, found her quality of sleep has dramatically improved since she started cold water immersion. “I sleep so much better. I used to sleep 6 hours a day, and now I sleep 8 hours, and it is good sleep”!
Claudia Swanson-Young, 57, agrees. “Every time I take a plunge I sleep awesome as menopause wreaked havoc with my sleep.”
Benefit 3: Eased Chronic Pain And Mental Health Struggles
“We have all ages and sizes join us, and many come from a place of vulnerability,” said Rain.
Many members of the group have seen relief from chronic pain. She shared an anecdote of a 400-pound woman who struggled to walk down to the beach from the parking lot because of her pain. At the end of the session, she walked up the hill to the parking lot with ease.
Many members of the group talk about how their anxiety is better and they feel less depressed. There are a few teenagers, who attend with a parent, that have seen a positive change in their mental health. The sense of wellbeing DCE provides is helpful to those suffering from drug addictions. Anecdotally, DCE helps maintain sobriety.
Peggy Takes A Plunge
My experience was truly amazing. I must admit I was extremely skeptical about the results. Everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic, and the results just seemed so over the top. Really, could just cold water do all of this? Well, I am a convert, and here is my experience.
It began with Rain escorting all the newbies into the water, where we waded up to our hips. The fight or flight kicked in the second my feet hit the excruciatingly cold water. I mean that literally — the first 30 seconds were agony, especially when we reached hip level and dropped into a squat so the water was past our chests. Through it all, Rain spoke calmly to us, and once we reached the proper depth, she began counting off time hacks. My goal was to meet the minimum of 2 minutes and not be the first out of the water. There is a real sense of community, and after 2 minutes, I was less aware of how cold it was. I lasted 7 and a half minutes in the frigid waters.
After exiting the water, we all turned to face the water and the Olympic Mountains and assumed the Superman pose with hands on hips. Then, as I took deep breaths, it happened. This momentous feeling of euphoria flowed over me. It was so intense and emotional that I almost burst out crying. A wondrous wellbeing then settled upon me. Wow!
Returning home, I had the best sleep I’d had in the last few months. The feeling of wellbeing lasted for a few days. I am a convert and will add DCE to my wellness routine.
If you are interested in trying DCE, contact your physician. If approved, limit your immersion to 10 minutes the first few times.