“It is just…free medicine” concludes Meghan Werner, after a few minutes of describing her love of cold water immersion. Cold what? It is much simpler than what it sounds. Also sometimes referred to as “thermogenesis”, it simply means kickstarting the process of generating heat by exposing the body to cold conditions without shivering. And the benefits are clearly amazing!

Who would want to freeze their ‘whatsits’ off anyway? And why?!?

Meghan is a bit of a local legend. A dynamic, no-nonsense ‘accidental’ businesswoman by her own account. She came to Lesotho to do outreach work – maternal and child health related to HIV/AIDS and malnutrition. A short trip down to Cape Town became a longer stay. She longed for some home comforts. Most notably Kombucha, an ancient fermented tea. Since she could not find local versions that scratched the itch, she resolved to make her own. It has now become common in health stores and even chain pharmacies in South Africa. (In America it is a multi-billion-dollar industry.)

Long story short, her brews became popular. From that first bucket brought home by bicycle through the Cape Town inner city traffic, business has exploded. She owns and heads up Theonista, a brewery in the hippest part of town. Her team is hands-on fermenting small batches in a range of a dozen flavours. Some delicate and ephemeral as flowers and an ocean breeze, others robust and intense (think Ginger, with a capital G). Most that have a botanical backbone or nuance with local roots. There is a premium range, some seasonal flavours and exceptional old school ginger beer. She’s also taken this to a whole new level with Rooibos. She even does brewing kits and high-quality herbal ingredients so you can start making your own Kombucha no matter where you live. Years down the line from her flying visit, it seems Cape Town has claimed her as one of their own.

Radiant Health

Bright, clear eyes, glowing skin – never obscured by make-up. The title of Brewmistress and Kombucha Queen crown seems to sit comfortably. At some point one must wonder what is IN that Kombucha?! Sure, having fermented food in your diet helps. Gut health is not just a fad. But healthy eating will only ever get you so far. The thing about Meghan is that she speaks with a calm, thoughtful confidence and great clarity. She is precise and consistent with how she appears. An enviable picture of health.

Benefits that run more than skin deep

The conversation touches on the pressures of work and business. No success or growth comes without some pain. And here she mentions how the noise of daily life can be drowned out by the intensity of the sea. How moments of childlike wonder unfold under water. About how it’s just so damned cold that anything else hurts a little less. As female entrepreneur she is a sought-after person to interview. She’s appeared in a host of articles about kombucha and entrepreneurship. Reading about her, there is a golden thread that runs through her discussions. Compromise is not an option. Authenticity and integrity are the only currencies that matter.

To build a business in this manner, you need a strong constitution. Those early morning swims in the chilly Atlantic start to make sense. It even sounds inviting. Not for the first time, Meghan confirms that: “Over time, you just learn to suffer better.” There is no doubt that what she is doing seems to be working very well. And she is far from alone.

Other famous proponents of cold water immersion?

It is inevitable that any conversation about cold water thermogenesis makes at least one fleeting mention of Wim Hof or Lewis Pugh.

The Ice Man

Wim Hof is an imposing pioneer of this strange trend. He holds the world record for swimming under ice. He is known for using meditation and breathing to help in his extraordinary and wacky feats. His story is born out of tragedy. And what he has achieved is rather remarkable. It is worthwhile exploring more about his story through the links below. The scientific experiments to try to understand what the Wim Hof method does in the human body and brain is fascinating.

Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming

Lewis Pugh was the first person to swim around Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point in Africa), the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula (a 100 km swim from Cape Town to Muizenberg). Pugh was also the first person to swim across an African Great Lake, namely Lake Malawi. He has also completed long distance swims in every major ocean.

Our very own doctor Tim Noakes is regarded as an authority in the field. He has published research on cold thermogenesis and accompanied Pugh on his exploits. He recorded the remarkable two degree increase in body temperature Pugh experiences before his long swims. Even though they disagree on how this happens. Noakes believes it is like Pavlov’s dog, while Pugh feels it is the sheer terror he experiences. Let’s be fair. It seems perfectly reasonable to be scared witless.

Local is lekker

South Africans never like to be left out of the fun either. Discussion around the office got this hilarious story from our marketing manager, Vera. Her father was a highly regarded Professor of Oenology and Viticulture. And a very quirky academic. One of his odd habits was that he would insist on only taking cold showers. Before climbing into the shower, he would huff and puff loudly. Stretching and flailing his arms. “We thought he was completely crazy” she laughs as she describes the scene, and the strange noises that they would hear through the door.

Albert Buhr is a Cape Town based author and personal coach. In his book, Angel of Fear, he refers to his regular habit of swimming in the ocean. In truth as an aspiring writer he was part of a tribe of artists, writers and dreamers who spent many summer days finding inspiration on the beach. And it seems they were onto something.

Ok, great. All these lunatics are doing it. Why should you?

Let’s be fair. From a young age we’re told to put a jersey on so we don’t catch a cold. Often, as children, it happens when we don’t even feel cold. On the one hand we’re told to protect ourselves so that we do not get ill. On the other hand, people seem to be saying that being cold may even improve your health.

Here is what I found most fascinating:

Wim Hof strongly advocates for cold exposure to stimulate the body’s natural defences. But it is in a controlled manner. For example swopping out a warm shower with a cold one, like Professor Orffer used to do. It’s not about never being warm or comfortable. But about short, sharp exposure to “wake up” natural responses to stress. The same way that a cold, or an infection triggers the immune system to take action. I love the way Dr Rhonda Patrick put it: “Avoiding all stress isn’t the answer to fighting aging; it’s about building resilience to environmental stress.” Swop out the word “ageing” for inflammation or infection (like the ironically named ‘cold’) and it still rings true.

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Cold water immersion encourages the body to release the same hormones as exercise. It would not make sense to try to fix the results of a bad diet with some ice blocks. But as part of a holistic health strategy to be the best you, pouring cold water is not a bad thing after all.

Practical tips:

Many of the examples here are about cold immersion in the ocean. But even if you live inland, there are ways you can have your share of this healthy, free medicine, as Meghan Werner aptly calls it.

What can possibly go wrong?

The ice bucket challenge would be one example of how not to do it. Author, podcast host and “inventor” of bulletproof coffee, Dave Asprey, indulges in a bit of fear mongering when he talks about cold thermogenesis. (This link is also available as a source below). The “danger” of this kind of bio-hacking that Dave uncovered is that falling asleep covered in bags of ice can lead to burns. If you are going to jump in the deep end, please don’t be like Dave, ok?

In the context of the Wim Hof method, there are also warnings that one should never be alone when practicing his breathing methods, as one could “pass out.” As always, a little common sense goes a long way.

Our top tips:

  1. Start slowly. Some techniques advise you to just dunk your face in some icy water. Just jumping in headfirst is not always the best approach.
  2. As mentioned, a cold shower can be just the trick. Eskom’s failure to heat the water may just do us a favour.
  3. Arm yourself with information. Check out the links below for information related to this blog and learn as much as you can before taking the plunge.
  4. Back a buddy. Or at least drag a friend along. In the words of Neil Gaiman: “Pain shared, my brother, is not pain doubled but pain halved.”.

If I’ve managed to tickle your interest enough to have a go at a bit of cold water treatment, tell us all about your experiences on Facebook or Instagram.

Further reading: