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Boosting Insulin Sensitivity with Cold Plunging!

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Friends cold plunging in the river
Friends cold plunging in the river

Cold Plunging for Health

As pre-diabetes, diabetes, and obesity run rampant in the world, people are looking for lifestyle changes to prevent or even correct such health issues. In addition to the agreed-upon pillars of regular exercise, well-balanced diet, and sufficient quality sleep, cold water exposure may be another tool in the toolkit to improve glucose metabolism and overall health and wellbeing!

Did you know that cold water exposure or cold plunging is shown to increase insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance in the body? Insulin sensitivity is something we want, but in order to understand why – and how cold water increases it – we first need to understand what insulin is.

What is insulin and what does it do?

Insulin is a hormone produced by islet cells in the pancreas (a gland located in the abdomen). Insulin regulates the amount of glucose, or sugar, in the blood, and moves it from the blood stream to the cells for energy. Glucose is one of the main energy sources that feeds cells of muscles and other tissue. When you eat a meal, your blood sugar goes up, so the pancreas creates more insulin to allow that sugar in your blood to go to your cells.

Insulin sensitivity is where the insulin in your body regulates glucose levels in the blood very efficiently. Someone with good insulin sensitivity is less likely to develop lifestyle and inflammatory diseases.

Insulin resistance is the opposite. It means the body doesn't respond well to insulin, so glucose levels in the blood cannot be controlled as easily. Consequently, your cells can't use the glucose as energy.

There are some main problems relating to insulin that can occur:

  1. If the body's immune system attacks the islet cells, the pancreas won't produce insulin. This problem is otherwise known as type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune disease).

  2. When the body is very insulin resistant, glucose from food remains in the bloodstream after eating. The buildup of too much sugar leads to hyperglycemia. This problem is type 2 diabetes (a disease that is usually related to excessive body fat).

Diabetes can threaten shutdown of vital organs, most often the blood vessels, heart, kidneys, nerves, and eyes.

Worse, when a lack of insulin reduces the body's ability to use glucose as energy, cells may rely on fat stores as their only source of energy. Hormones are released and break down the fat, which can cause a buildup of acids called ketones in the bloodstream. Over time, this can lead to a severe condition called ketoacidosis.

How does cold water affect insulin?

One study showed that cold water or air exposure seemingly increases the production of adiponectin through shivering and non-shivering thermogenesis. Adiponectin is a protein that protects against insulin resistance, diabetes, atherosclerosis and other age-related diseases, and is associated with increased longevity.

Other studies show that cold water exposure greatly increased experienced and non-experienced subjects' insulin sensitivity and decreased their insulin resistance.

Dr. Susanna Søberg found that many regular winter swimmers have a rich supply of brown fat, an insulin-sensitive organ that burns glucose from the bloodstream as energy to heat the body. Brown fat is activated and developed by exposing oneself to different temperatures, especially extreme cold and heat. Through developing brown fat by cold exposure, humans may increase insulin sensitivity.


So, try it! Add cold showers to your regular schedule, hop in the river a few times a week, and/or join us at PLUNJ. See what happens if you, too, embrace the cold!


American Diabetes Association. (2023). Insulin Basics. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, Sept 20). Hyperinsulinemia. Esperland, D., de Weerd, L., & Mercer, J. B. (2022). Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water - a continuing subject of debate. International journal of circumpolar health, 81(1), 2111789. Gibas-Dorna, M., Chęcińska, Z., Korek, E., Kupsz, J., Sowińska, A., & Krauss, H. (2016). Cold Water Swimming Beneficially Modulates Insulin Sensitivity in Middle-Aged Individuals. Journal of aging and physical activity, 24(4), 547–554. Gibas-Dorna, M., Checinska, Z., Korek, E., Kupsz, J., Sowinska, A., Wojciechowska, M., Krauss, H., & Piątek, J. (2016). Variations in leptin and insulin levels within one swimming season in non-obese female cold water swimmers. Scandinavian journal of clinical and laboratory investigation, 76(6), 486–491. Hermanussen, M., Jensen, F., Hirsch, N., Friedel, K., Kröger, B., Lang, R., Just, S., Ulmer, J., Schaff, M., & Ahnert, P. (1995). Acute and chronic effects of winter swimming on LH, FSH, prolactin, growth hormone, TSH, cortisol, serum glucose and insulin. Arctic medical research, 54(1), 45–51. Imbeault P, Dépault I, Haman F. Cold exposure increases adiponectin levels in men. Metabolism. 2009;58(4):552–559. Mayo Clinic. (2022, Oct 6). Diabetic Ketoacidosis. Smith, Y., & Cuffari, B., M.Sc (2021, March 30). Insulin's Role in the Human Body. News-Medical. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from UVA Health. (2023). Type 1 vs Type 2 Diabetes.

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