A 24-year-old sufferer of depression was a year ago given a prescription that changed her brain and, therefore, her mindset: a weekly swim in cold water.
Sarah, the protagonist of this story, was filmed as part of the BBC documentary series ‘The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs.’
“It was a series that looked at our most prescribed drugs, particularly where there are weaknesses in the evidence for their effectiveness,” said Van Tulleken, the presenter of the documentary and a doctor as well as researcher at the University College London. Sarah had been on conventional treatment since she was 17, but her deplorable symptoms were a bitch – holding firm in the presence of the drugs, not backing down an inch.
Under Van Tulleken’s guise, Sarah tapered off her anti-depressant medication use and simultaneously began taking-up a weekly swim in 15 centigrade open water. In the space of four months of adopting this extreme hobby/prescription, Sarah was proudly drug and symptom free.
This remarkable case study was published in the medical journal that Van Tulleken authored along with colleagues. The report outlines Sarah’s recovery and emphasises the need for further research to establish the treatments biological mechanisms of action.
The current hypothesis
As hunter-gatherers, before we became farmers and tamers of maize, we were continually exposed to the twists and turns of climate, humidity and weather. In other words, our early day ancestors were often at the mercy of cold weather but had also evolved adaptations to it. Our physiology adapts when we take a cold dip: once we’re over the initial shock and stress of the cold, the experience becomes revitalising. This is because the cold causes our peripheral surface vessels to constrict, incentivising blood to move from the surface to the core organs of the body. Not only does this mechanism save heat, it also ensures the delivery of fresh oxygenated blood to the brain and other vital organs. This transportation will deliver nutrients in a trade off for toxic molecules. Thus, the brain will release the bad for the incoming good.
Tipton, a co-author of the study, also added that there’s evidence to suggest that cold is anti-inflammatory, pointing out a recent study which found that cold water swimming led to patients showing a down-regulation of self-reported pain post operation.
The shock of the cold water also stimulates the endocrine system to release cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. The repeated and regular exposure to such a shock may result in the body habituating to it. “One theory is that if you adapt to cold water, you also blunt your stress response to other daily stresses such as road rage, exams or getting fired at work,” Van Tulleken opined to the Guardian.
The exercise, however, is perhaps a good thing for treating depression in and of itself and thus acts as a placebo. Van Tulleken acknowledges this possibility, saying that additional studies would be needed to further test why the cold could relieve such a mental illness such as depression.