Cold plunging is just what it sounds like: dunking in ice-cold water. Right now, it’s all the rage, thanks to claims that it helps improve your health by reducing inflammation and boosting testosterone (in the most exhilarating, teeth-chattering way possible). But does cold plunging actually improve male fertility? There’s no science to support the idea just yet, though studies are clear about the negative effect of heat on sperm health. Here’s what to know about cold plunges and male fertility, according to the research, plus where you should really focus your efforts if you’re trying to improve sperm health.
- Proponents of cold plunging say immersion in icy cold water has specific health benefits.
- While there may be some evidence that cold plunging can be beneficial, there are no studies that link it to sperm health.
- Exposure to hot water, on other hand, is associated with impaired sperm production.
- The best way to improve sperm health is with healthy lifestyle habits, including good nutrition, a men’s prenatal vitamin supplement, regular exercise and stress management.
Meet the Cold Plunge
Professional athletes are familiar with the cold plunge, i.e. cold water immersion or the ice bath. Essentially, you climb into a bath, barrel or tank filled with freezing cold water to reap the health benefits. While it’s currently buzz-worthy thanks to a few high-profile celebrities singing its praises, the practice of cold plunging in some form or another is actually centuries old (1). And there are a handful of studies that find it may indeed have health benefits, including reducing and/or transforming adipose tissue (that’s body fat for those of us who skipped biology), reducing insulin resistance and improving insulin sensitivity. In fact, according to one review, “this may have a protective effect against cardiovascular, obesity and other metabolic diseases and could have prophylactic health effects” (2). But here comes the caveat. These studies were small, often composed on one gender, and there were important controllable variables missed, like exposure temperature and the salt composition of the water. At this point, more studies are warranted to really confirm these health benefits.
Does Cold Water Affect Sperm Health?
Let’s establish what we know about healthy sperm and temperature. There is clear evidence that heat exposure can impair sperm production. First, there’s the fact that scrotum is outside the body, a clever design that keeps it between roughly 35 to 46 degrees cooler than the body’s core temperature. That’s the range in which normal spermatogenesis occurs (3). Then there are studies that show reduced sperm production and even sperm cell death and DNA damage are associated with regular use of hot tubs and saunas, and even hot baths (3). Intense exercise, especially cycling and running, can also lead to this overheating, which is why men are advised to dial down the intensity a bit when they’re trying to become fathers. Even resting the laptop on, well, the lap, can be problematic.
The good news is that the effects of this kind of heat exposure appear to be temporary. Men who make an effort to protect the family jewels from hot water and steamy air usually see a rebound in sperm quality within a few months or so. But does that mean jumping in the ice bath can actively improve sperm health? At this point, there’s no concrete evidence to support the claim. However, one older, very small study did find that men who stop exposing themselves to what researchers dub “wet heat” (hot baths and long soaks in the hot tub for more than 30 minutes per week) had a startling sperm count increase of close to 500% (4).
Still, consider the small but notable studies (one in 1991 and another in 2007) that have linked cold stimulation to a decrease in testosterone (5, 6). The bottom line here is that cold plunges may have some health benefits, but don’t let manly men who swear by this practice (Thor, we’re looking at you) make you think it’s a fast track to more testosterone.
If you’re reading this because you want actionable ways to support and improve sperm health, you’re in luck.
It’s Not Rocket Science
First, let us applaud your efforts to take an active role in improving your sperm health! It’s such a significant factor in a healthy conception, pregnancy and baby, so good on you for being proactive. Experts recommend leading a healthy lifestyle if you’re hoping to conceive, so in addition to avoiding the hot tub and sauna, do your best to embrace all of the following
- Eat a healthy diet. Nutrition has a direct role in the fertility health of both men and women (7). Make sure to fill those inevitable nutrition gaps with a prenatal vitamin designed to support you both. Prenatal vitamins are a huge part of preconception health care, and we can recommend some good ones!
- Exercise regularly (but keep it chill). Your fertility health, just like your health as a whole, benefits from regular exercise. Just remember that not every workout should be high intensity.
- Manage stress. While researchers are still debating how exactly stress affects fertility, the fact remains that it does, so make a point of exploring some healthy stress management practices.
- Keep it clean. If you smoke, it’s time to stop. If you drink a lot, it’s time to cut way back. If you use CBD products, take the conservative approach and avoid them while you try to conceive.
The Bottom Line
There will always be gimmicky shortcuts for improving sperm health and male fertility, but your best bet is always to err on the side of science. At this time, there’s no evidence to support the idea that cold plunging improves male fertility. But there are evidence-based habits you can embrace, like good nutrition, a specialized men’s prenatal vitamin, regular exercise and stress management, that really can make a difference.
- Knechtle, B et al. (2020). Cold water swimming—benefits and risks: a narrative review. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/23/8984/htm
- Esepeland, D et al. (2022). Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water—a continuing debate. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9518606/
- Rao, M et al. (2016). Transient scrotal hyperthermia affects human sperm DNA integrity, sperm apoptosis, and sperm protein expression. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/andr.12228
- Shefi, S et al. (2007). Wet heat exposure: a potentially reversible cause of low semen quality in infertile men. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17335598/
- Sakamoto, K et al. (1991). Effects of physical exercise and cold stimulation on serum testosterone level in men. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1890772/
- Shevchuk, N et al. (2007). Possible stimulation of anti-tumor immunity using cold stress: a hypothesis. https://infectagentscancer.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1750-9378-2-20
- Panth, N et al. (2018). The influence of diet on fertility and the implications for public health nutrition in the United States. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079277/