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Expert’s warning over ‘dangerous’ wellness trend among young Aussies

More Aussies than ever after jumping into ice baths as cold water immersion therapy becomes more popular, but is it safe?

A couple of dozen young people shiver as they eagerly huddle together on Australia's famous Bondi Beach during sunrise. Together, they plunge their bodies into an inflatable ice bath with the goal of improving their physical and mental health.

It’s not an uncommon sight. In fact, it seems like more Aussies than ever are jumping into cold water immersion (CWI) — a growing trend popping up in major cities around the country credited with burning fat, relieving anxiety and depression, and increasing energy.

A group of women participating in an ice bath on Bondi Beach at dawn earlier this year.
Ice baths are often credited with burning fat, relieving anxiety and depression, and increasing energy. Source: Getty (Getty Images)

While photos of people sitting in individual tubs of water with a supposed average temperature of 10 to 15 degrees can often be seen on social media, “people know nothing” about the potentially deadly damage the cold water can do, CWI expert Professor Mike Tipton told Yahoo News Australia.

Just last week, a coroner found a 39-year-old British woman had died from an undiagnosed heart condition while participating in a cold water immersion session in a river with two friends last year. Kellie Poole complained of a headache after entering the 10.7C water before falling unconscious. She died due to a sudden cardiac arrhythmia — a common and possibly fatal problem with ice baths, Professor Tipton said.

Cold water immersion can induce a high incidence of cardiac arrhythmias, with “about 1 in 3 cardiac arrhythmias in young, fit and healthy individuals with head out immersion,” he explained. The odds of an episode increase to “80 per cent incidence with face immersion and breath holding”.

People sitting in a series of blue ice baths next to each other. Right a woman in a yellow ice bath holds up a large chunk of ice.
Mr Tipton said he believes the trend is more of a placebo effect. Source: The Happy Human Project/Facebook

The damage 'ice water can inflict'

Professor Tipton said ice baths are “anecdotally” beneficial, but there is “limited experimental evidence”.

While there are claims to be made for them being ‘alerting’, improving immune function and being anti-inflammatory, he believes the trend is more of a placebo effect.

“Anecdotal evidence is still evidence, and a placebo effect is still an effect” but there is “limited evidence” of its impact on the body’s function, “other than for the cold shock response on initial immersion which is dangerous, but also releases a lot of alternating stress-related hormones”.

A graphic outlining the initial responses to immersion and submersion in cold water.
The initial responses to immersion and submersion in cold water. Source: Mike Tipton/Cold water submersion: kill or cure?

Professor Tipton said in regard to ice baths, “people know nothing about the peripheral vascular damage [blood circulation disorder] ice water can inflict.”

When asked if there should be concerns about the growing trend of pop-up ice bath events, the cold water expert said “yes”. “Sudden cold water immersion can result in a range of cardiovascular problems, especially in those with comorbidities (especially if they are unaware of them).”

Calls for more regulations around ice baths

Kellie’s sudden death led UK coroner Peter Nieto on Wednesday to call for more regulation surrounding the fad.

“Specifically, my concern is there is no regulation of people who run cold water immersion sessions and, indeed, we have heard from the environmental health service that there are no statutory or regulatory requirements on people running these sessions,” he said in his ruling.

Nick White, who has been hosting frequent ice bath events on Coogee Beach since January, told Yahoo News Australia the trend which has been “in the sports world for years” seems to have “really resonated” with Sydneysiders.

“It’s all about pushing your comfort zone, doing something you never ever thought you could do,” the founder of the Happy Human Project, who underwent ice bath certification training with Bondi Rescue’s Deano Gladstone, said.

Cold immersion instructors learn to be wary of high blood pressure and other diseases, and the proper process of guiding people to use their breath to gain control, the first aid responder added.

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