Cold Water Swimming for Improved Immunity
When it comes to wild swimming, there are many upsides to taking the plunge. A study from 2011 found that cold water helps to boost white blood cell count as the body is forced to react to changing conditions. White blood cells work to protect your body against diseases, and Lactoferrin – Leapfrog’s hero ingredient – is stored in a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil that releases Lactoferrin when required to quash infection. A regular cold-water swim can accelerate your immune system functions and over time your body will become better at activating its defences. It reduces stress, improves your circulation, and activates endorphins – the feel-good chemical – to help us cope with the “pain” of cold water.
Sophie Hellyer has long been at one with the water, having won both British and English Junior Surfing Champion titles. But at 25, she walked away from the sport to turn her attention to ocean pollution and sustainability and has spearheaded a British sisterhood passionate about cold-water swimming. Sophie talks to us about the life-changing and addictive benefits of immersion in Britain’s coldest waters – from improved mental health to deeper friendships.
I stopped surfing because it was bad for my mental health. I had been modelling too – travelling the world for various sports campaigns – so I was constantly comparing myself to other women. I knew I was never going to be the best surfer or the prettiest girl in the world. The comparisons to other women enhanced all these negative feelings, and so I stepped away from competing and modelling. My work now is about supporting other women and creating communities.
My first grasp of environmental issues in the water was surfing amid sanitary towels, condoms and tampons. The beach we used to surf in Devon has a wave that breaks along the sewage pipe, and the southwest wind would blow the sewage back in. I’ve heard in order to get blue flag beach status the water is only monitored in high season. The rest of the year it can get pretty dirty. So, growing up on the beach, I was always aware of the sewage issue.
A surfing trip to the Maldives when I was 26 made me change my habits for the sake of the environment. It’s postcard-perfect, but as it’s one of the most densely populated nations in the world with nowhere to throw rubbish, the plastic pollution is really visible. The influx of tourists is huge and is a big part of the problem. The Maldives’ solution was to create ‘trash islands’, where the beaches are piled high with plastic. Of course, a lot of it gets blown into the sea. I knew when I got home that I couldn’t go on ignoring the issues.
I lived on an organic veg farm in Ireland and opened the country’s first eco-friendly surf shop and school. When I make decisions, I try to consider the environment first: whether it’s buying chemical-free sunscreen, plastic-free deodorant, or local, organic fruit and veg. I also can’t go to the beach without doing a #twominutebeachclean which I encourage people to hashtag if and when they do it. We don’t have to be perfect we just need to be aware and try to make better decisions.
I first tried cold water swimming in the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland – the water was 9 degrees and I managed about 30 seconds. A friend had just started the Wim Hof method and we talked about the benefits of cold showers. A few of us got chatting about it and decided to try our first cold water swim together. I shared time-lapses on Instagram, it inspired people and it grew. Rise Fierce is now a community of women who swim – or dunk or float! – all year round. We initially did it for health reasons – the studies said a minimum of 2 minutes was needed, so that was our only aim. We rarely stay in long, and never for more than 8 minutes or so. Despite the shock of that first time, it was exhilarating.
Cold water swimming stops me thinking and starts me feeling – it’s truly transformative. I don’t cold water swim for health now – I do it for the rhythm, routine and challenge. It’s like playtime with my friends. You go in the water first thing in the morning and come out feeling like a superhero. I feel like a stronger person. Now I’m living by the sea in Cornwall, four of us swim together every day. You’re accountable to turn up when you go with others, and it’s safer than going alone. It’s how I’ve made my friends and community, and now it’s my business too.
I run Rise Fierce retreats, which are a combination of cold-water immersion, yoga, women’s circles and breathwork. They’re normally high-end five-day retreats, and I’ve hosted them all over the UK and Eire. We have a Rise Fierce private Facebook group for women – or anyone who identifies as a woman – to meet one another for cold water swimming. It’s been a great resource to create lasting communities everywhere. In contrast to where I started in the competitive worlds of surfing and modelling, I have made some of my best friends through cold-water swimming.
Keen To Try Wild Swimming? Sophie Says…
1) It’s a Natural High
The brain has a limited bandwidth and the cold forces you to focus on the intense sensations and your breathing, which doesn’t leave you much capacity to worry about daily chores and life’s stresses. Entering cold water gives you mental calmness and awakens you to your inherent physical robustness. The hit of dopamine and endorphins – the feel-good chemicals the brain produces – will leave you feeling high after each swim.
2) The Science
Cold water swimming is said to boost the immune system and improve circulation and libido. Although there is a whole raft of anecdotal evidence that cold water immersion can help cure modern diseases such as Crohn’s, arthritis, psoriasis and depression, scientists are still reluctant to support this because there is so little data. Cold water may be a placebo. So what? It works for me even if we don’t know precisely why.
Having a shared experience in which you are both vulnerable and exposed, but also empowered and resilient, is a bonding force – it’s like a glue in your friendship. I also love the accessibility of the sport: almost anyone can do it regardless of age, gender or income, and there are places with dedicated facilities for people with disabilities. You don’t need a wetsuit or any expensive equipment, just a dash of courage and a couple of friends.
4) Back to Nature
The majority of the UK’s outdoor lidos are located in beautiful parks surrounded by acres of trees. Time in nature is proven to reduce stress and the risk of depression, and wild swimming always requires some degree of immersing yourself in the elements. I also think a connection to our natural world is an integral part of protecting the planet’s wellbeing. Why would we care about the environment if we are entirely disconnected from it?
A Word of Caution
Cold-water swimming has many benefits, yet immersion does also account for 7% of all injury-related deaths (WHO, 2014). If you do intend to try it, please read Sophie’s Guide to Cold Water Swimming before you get started.