The big chill: Can cold water actually boost our immunity and resilience this winter?

Winter often comes with the unpleasant side effect of colds and flus, and can even impact our mental wellbeing as the days get shorter, darker, and colder. But is there a way to harness the cold and use it to actually boost our immunity and resilience?
The big chill: Can cold water actually boost our immunity and resilience this winter?

Níall Ó Murchú on Portmarnock beach. Picture: Photocall Ireland 

When I first meet Níall Ó Murchú on a cold autumn evening, he is barefoot in a pair of shorts.

Ó Murchú, a certified Wim Hof Method instructor, looks exactly like the kind of person you’d imagine has sat in an ice bath with the Dutch adventurer known as ‘The Iceman’. 

But, everyone starts somewhere, and before the Portmarnock native was climbing mountains barefoot and convincing Muireann O’Connell and Tommy Bowe to sit in ice baths on live television, his life looked a lot like any other Irish father trying to raise young kids while holding down a 9-5 office job.

“[My wife] Josie and I had four children under the age of four. So it was extreme pressure, extreme stress, extreme exhaustion,” he recalls. “During that time, maybe four or five years, it was just broken sleep, night feeds... the relentlessness of raising children. And I just felt cold all the time.”

Ó Murchú, who has just released a book, The Power of Cold: How to Embrace the Cold and Change Your Life, likens the way he was feeling all those years ago to a Lord of The Rings quote, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”.

“When you’re feeling like that, your body is up in this part of the nervous system, up in fight or flight, and it’s taking all the resources that would keep us healthy, keep us digesting, keep us warm, trying to deal with that stress,” he says.

“If the stress is chronic, we are in that depleted state the whole time.”

What Ó Murchú is describing is something that many of us are likely to relate to. A recent poll of 2,000 workers conducted by recruitment firm, Robert Walters, revealed a third of us are experiencing reoccurring workplace stress “very often,” while research from Lahinch-based HR company HR Locker back in 2021 suggested over half of Irish workers were experiencing burnout.

It should come as no surprise then that a study from University College Cork published earlier this year found mental health-related sickness absence is a growing challenge for Irish employers, with more than half of employers reporting that the proportion of absenteeism due to mental ill-health has increased in the past 12 months. 

And, all the while, working while ill, is becoming an an increasing problem in Irish workplaces as employees struggle to feel they can take time off to recover.

Níall Ó Murchú with Wim Hof, the Dutch man known as The Iceman
Níall Ó Murchú with Wim Hof, the Dutch man known as The Iceman

Ó Murchú says it was when he, and his wife Josie, found themselves at a place of depletion and burnout he came across Wim Hof and they first turned the dial down in the shower — and the benefits of embracing the cold became apparent.

“It wasn’t pleasant,” he says, recalling the early days of standing under his showerhead, being pelted with cold water. “But we needed something to get us out of it. We were desperate. And slowly our levels of energy started to change. We started to feel a little bit stronger.”

Some of the purported benefits of embracing cold showers or swimming in icy waters include; improved circulation, reduced inflammation in the body, a natural high as a result of endorphins and, for those of us who are prone to illness, a boost in white blood cell count leading to improved immune function. 

Indeed, one 2016 study from the Netherlands with over 3,000 participants found that those who went for a burst of cold water of between 30 and 90 seconds after their hot shower for just 30 days were off work with self-reported sickness 29% less than those who skipped the cold blast.

The evidence is fairly compelling, but chances are, many of the people reading this will already know, at least in a vague sense, that cold showers and cold water swimming are good for us. 

Most of us have friends or family who are evangelical about their sea swims (and DryRobes). And yet, we don’t do it. I am one of those people, I admit to Ó Murchú, I know the benefits, and I still can’t face it. Is there anything he can say to convince me?

“So many people push the cold away. They want to avoid it as much as possible for the rest of their life,” he acknowledges. But in a world where many of us are plagued by daily stress, Ó Murchú, who also teaches meditation and breathing workshops, insists the cold is one of the simplest (and free) ways to learn to control our response to stress.

“I think, at the deepest level, we need the cold, to learn how to breathe, to learn how to deal with stress.

“The path into the cold is a path into chaos, fear, and uncertainty,” he explains. “But it’s also a path to finding control and calm, despite all that pressure and struggle. The cold can teach us how to live, and live well, despite stress and uncertainty trying to push us out of balance.

“How we feel is reflected in how we are breathing in that moment. So if we are really stressed or under pressure, our breathing is out of sync, our breathing is erratic, it’s not balanced, it’s shallow, it’s up in the chest.

“When we are in control, our breathing is soft and calm.

“The great news is that we can change our breathing at any moment and that then changes how we are feeling.”

Níall Ó Murchú, author, podcaster and Wim Hof Method instructor. Picture: Alan Rowlette
Níall Ó Murchú, author, podcaster and Wim Hof Method instructor. Picture: Alan Rowlette

Chaos and control

So where does the cold come into this? Well, when we feel the shock of a cold burst at the end of a shower, our breathing is likely to become quick and erratic, mimicking the stress or pressure our bodies might feel when we encounter a stressful situation at work or at home.

This provides a great way to practice bringing your breathing under control in a pressurised situation, Ó Murchú explains.

“If we can slow our breathing down and learn to focus on the exhale in that situation, the heart rate drops, the body becomes soft and we feel calm despite the cold,” he says. “That’s the practice.”

And how long do we have to stay in the cold to reap the benefits?

“Just until you regulate your breathing, then you’re done.”

In a close-to 40-minute chat, this is the single most motivating thing Ó Murchú has said. What had put me off embracing cold immersion prior to this was the effort involved — getting to a beach and shivering on the sand, keeping a 10-minute timer in my bathroom to monitor how long I spent in hell before starting my working day.

Could I really reap the benefits of the cold in just a couple of seconds?

Nicole Glennon took a dip with Wim Hof instructor Niall Ó Murchú in Portmarnock. Picture: Photocall Ireland
Nicole Glennon took a dip with Wim Hof instructor Niall Ó Murchú in Portmarnock. Picture: Photocall Ireland

Embracing hard things

When I meet Ó Murchú for the second time, it’s on the beach in Portmarnock. He’s here as part of a Keep Discovering event with Fáilte Ireland promoting the benefits of swimming in the colder months, with a group of us signed up to take the plunge.

As I arrive, dressed in a jumper and beanie, dreading stripping down to my swim togs, I tell Ó Murchú about my reluctance, playing up my lack of experience in comparison to some of the other seasoned sea swimmers who are also in attendance.

As it happens, there was no need for me to talk my way out of failure ahead of the fact, because after a couple of seconds in the sea, I am breathing calmly, and the fear and doubt that was plaguing me all morning has long dissipated.

That, I discover, is the real power of the cold. It has shown me that I can do hard things. It’s the greatest sense of personal
achievement I’ve felt in a while.

“The cold shower has so many amazing physical benefits for the body, the list is nearly endless, but deeper than that, the cold teaches us how to be resilient, how to find a sense of calm and control,” Ó Murchú says.

“And the cold continues to test you, because it is relentless. But when you get out of that cold shower, your body has just learned how to deal with the shock of the cold, and what we’ve learned through evolution, is that our bodies are always learning.

“So the next time you get into the cold, or experience an extreme pressure, your body knows a little bit more how to deal with that. You will be able to find your breath a little bit easier, you will be able to deal with that pressure of stress, anxiety, worry, fear, just a little bit easier.

“And when we can find a sense of control and calm in the chaos of the cold, we can find it anywhere.

“We voluntarily put ourselves into this difficult position to learn how to get out of it. It’s a battle every time we turn that tap. But when it’s over, we feel victorious.”

  • The Power of Cold, by Níall Ó Murchú, published by Hardie Grant Publishing, is out now. For information on staying safe in cold water see

The Power of Cold, by Niall Ó Murchú
The Power of Cold, by Niall Ó Murchú

Niall's guide to the cold shower

You’ve set your intention to do it. You’re going to turn that tap to cold at the end of your hot shower. That’s done. So, what happens next?

Simply put: chaos. When the cold water hits our skin, it can feel like an explosion: it’s shocking, we recoil from the water, our minds burst into fear. Usually, there is a fairly loud voice in our heads, saying ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ Welcome to the chaos. This is what we want. This is where we find all the deep benefits. This is where we learn a lot about ourselves. This is where the cold teaches us.

In the chaos, we lose track of our breathing entirely. It becomes erratic, fragmented and uneven. Our inhales become short, painful attempts at trying to breathe. Our exhalations disappear. This is where the path into the cold begins. We don’t have to worry about our inhales. We’ll always find a way to breathe in. Our focus is on our exhales. We want to try to find our exhales in the midst of the chaos. We want to find our exhalations, no matter how small they might be, and begin to focus on them. Initially, our exhales will be short and choppy. They’ll feel out of control.

We must mechanically and consciously move our lungs so our exhales get longer and stronger. Keep focusing on them until we feel our exhales are steadily and strongly flowing outwards. The cold is relentless and will continuously try to take our breath away again. So, we have to keep working on controlling our exhales, keeping them steady, breathing out and trying to control our breath.

And then what? When our breathing comes under control, we start to slow that breath down a little. It goes from being a little bit forceful perhaps, to becoming a little softer. We’re still focusing on that exhale. We are still working on it. But it requires less effort now.

The cold water is still splashing on us, but we feel calm despite it. We are in control.

Extracted from Power of Cold, by Níall Ó Murchú

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