Cold Plunge, Cold Shower, Hot Mess – By Ann Cecil-Sterman

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March 26, 2020

Last week I saw a seemingly healthy, vibrant looking man in his late 30’s presenting with particularly severe arthritis. All his joints were aching, especially hips, shoulders, knees and most of his finger joints.

How long have you had this joint pain? 
Probably five years, maybe six. 

What was happening in your life around that time? 
Ummm, well, it was a great time and I’m having a great time now. I’ve been married happily for six years. My wife is a dream, the love of my life and we’re planning to start a family next year. 

Congratulations. How wonderful. How about your job? 
I love my job and I own my own small company. It has its stresses, but whose doesn’t! 

What makes your joint pain feel better? 
Holding a mug of hot coffee, actually. 

Is it painful? 
Yes, especially in the morning. I have trouble getting up. I feel like an old man. 

Did you have health challenges as a child? 
Not at all, totally healthy and active, and I was a college athlete, but I can’t imagine even playing cards comfortably now. 

Okay, thank you, let’s take pulses. 

The pulses were an incredible display of tightness. Everything was tight except for the Kidney Yang pulse which was utterly absent. The Spleen at the moderate level was tight and became like a board when pressed (known as “leathery”). The lungs were too tight to disperse. The Spleen was too tight to communicate up to the Lungs. Nothing was pliable, nothing was moving. There seemed nothing else to feel since the other spaces in the pulses were vacuous. The left wrist was also all tight but the pulses were sequestered in the bottom third of the pulse depth (below 12 beans). No communications on that side either. The Liver—completely bound at the 12 bean line—could not be coaxed to say hello to the Heart or the Kidneys.  The Heart didn’t disperse, the Kidney Yin pulse felt tiny and solid. 

Your pulses are very interesting and quite revealing. They’re what we call tight pulses. Usually a tight pulse tells us that that organ is busy trying to conserve a commodity. The Liver pulse might become tight as it tries to store more blood. The Kidney pulse on the left might become tight as it tries to store more mediumship to balance the warming influences of the body. The Spleen pulse might become tight if it’s trying to control blood. But your pulses are tight all over. I have some questions, if you don’t mind. Is your low back tight? 

Do you have cold hands and feet? 

Do you sometimes feel cold to your core? 
Yes, I guess. Sometimes I have chills. 

Do you have gas and bloating? 

Do you sometimes get headaches? 

Do your symptoms come and go and are they worse on one side than the other side? 
Yes. Wait, you can see all this from my pulses? 

Well your pulses are clearly showing these things. You have a deep systemic cold and we have to find out why. Do you eat salads? 
Yes, but just small side salads.

Do you juice? 

Do you drink cold water? 
No, I really don’t like anything cold. 

Do you sleep in air-conditioning or with a fan when it’s too hot? 

Do you dress well enough to feel warm in this cold weather? 
Yes. (He pointed to his heavy coat on the hook.) 

Hmmmm, So this started six years ago and everything was going beautifully then, and continues to do so. I wonder what changed…
The only cold thing I do is my morning cold plunge. But that’s to keep my immune system boosted. I had a cold plunge pool built right into my patio. 

Oh! How does that boost your immune system? 
Well the science is showing that when you do cold plunges or cold showers your immune system becomes more active. You don’t know about cryotherapy? It’s very cool. Haha! So important now with COVID-19 being as contagious as it is. Since the outbreak in the States I’ve been doing it twice a day. I wish everyone could do it. It’s European and goes all the way back to Roman times. They’d take a really hot soak and then do a cold plunge.

They also put lead in their wine! (We laugh.) 

What temperature is your cold plunge pool? 
I keep mine at 50 degrees, but I’m aiming for 45. It’s so invigorating at that temperature. If you rapidly cool the body down, your blood circulation is amplified, the pores snap shut and you get a detoxification.  

Interesting! In Chinese medicine we open the pores to detox! 

How do your joints feel when you do the plunge? 
My joint pain completely disappears. It’s so amazing. Your joints become totally numb. Completely numb. Even the nerves go numb. No pain! No pain at all. The inflammation disappears. Even muscle spasms disappear. Sports people, health clubs, they’re all doing it, they’re all reporting it’s great for pain. It’s like magic. 

And how do you feel afterward? 
That’s the best part—the endorphin rush. You feel invincible, almost ecstatic. And then there are cytokines; tons of them are released. They help you fend off bacteria and viruses. We need community cold plunge facilities to beat the corona virus. It’s really the answer. 

How long have you have your plunge pool? 
Since we moved in to our house about a year before we got married. 

Seven years. 

Okay, thanks. It very often happens that people come in with serious health issues and we find that they’re doing something that is out of alignment with the ancient wisdom of Chinese Medicine. I’m not asking you to change anything, but if you’re open to it, I’d like to explain some of this ancient theory that has sustained a massive population for millennia; they must be doing something right! Then you can take it if it makes sense and seems compelling, or leave it if it doesn’t, and then we’ll do the treatment which will feature moxa on your low back. 
Sounds good, I’m all ears.

Firstly, you wouldn’t plunge a baby into cold water. And you wouldn’t plunge an elderly person into cold water. Do you agree? 
Sure, that would be shocking. 

Right, and shock is the key word here. You can tell your mind that it will feel a shock and you can tell your mind to tell your body that it will feel a shock and that it will feel great afterward. But the body will still react as if in shock. According to Chinese medicine, the number one cause of all disease is Cold. We even write it with a capital C because it’s so important. So a shock involving Cold is a serious shock. One of the most important books in Chinese medical theory is the Shang Han Lun “The Treatise on Diseases caused by Cold.” Seventy percent of that book is about the damage that is caused in the cascade of exposure to Cold. This understanding still resonates in Chinese culture. When you go to Chinatown even today, the elderly people are wearing scarves even when it’s mild. And you can’t buy salads or juices in the standard restaurants. 
What about the bubble tea places? Plenty of ice there!

That’s just the last couple of decades. In China, out of the tourist areas, you don’t see any salads, no ice, nothing served cold. Even the breakfasts are all warm or hot, or soupy and hot. The people are well covered, especially around the neck where the body is most vulnerable to cold. Hot cooked food is served everywhere all year round even in hot weather. They understand that warmth is essential to longevity and that Cold is the number one enemy. 

In Chinese medicine it goes like this: You encounter a cold (or virus, viruses are cold in themselves), and the body identifies it as a pathogen that needs eradication. The first thing it does is release what we call Kidney Yang. The closest term to this in Western parlance is the word “adrenaline”. So you release a little adrenaline which fires up the immune system. (We call the immune system Wei-defensive Qi). The immune system is half adrenaline and half activated fluids. The Kidney Yang (adrenaline) and Stomach Yin (fluids) combine forces in the creation of a sneeze and a small sweat, and the pathogen exits. With the capacity to produce and release adrenaline, and a store of adequate expendable fluids, you’re free of that pathogen in short shrift. 

If that pathogen is not cleared, it penetrates more deeply into the body, and the immune system calls upon more Kidney Yang to create a fever to try to burn off the pathogen. Fever reins until the pathogen is burned up and healing is ensured. 

If the body can’t generate a fever, or if the fever lingers for long because it can’t get high enough, creating dangerous inflammation, an apparent bacterial infection emerges. This is a result of the fever simply not conquering the viral infection. The pathogen proceeds further into the interior. At this point the urgent matter is to keep that pathogen away from the organs, the viscera, because if the viscera are affected, the situation is potentially deadly: pleuritis, colitis, pancreatitis, gastritis, myocarditis, cystitis, pyelonephritis, hepatitis, cholecystitis, and so on. So the body activates what we call the Divergent Channels. These marvelous Channels have an ingenious mechanism: they gather the pathology and deposit it into the joints. The joints are dense and quiet, a center of synovial fluid that is relatively still. The Divergent Channels dump the virus and the remnants of the failed response to the virus into the joints where it all becomes latent (hidden away, so that the body can continue to function—to gather food and water). In the joints, the pathology waits patiently for the person to regain the resources they need to generate enough warmth to push the pathogen back out into exterior. It waits until has the resources to release the pathogen using a fever and sweat, things it couldn’t generate before. 

Your Divergent Channels did all that soon after you got your cold plunge pool. Your body was shocked over and over again by the Cold and your body dutifully socked it away. But your joints filled up with the Cold. Then they overflowed. The joints couldn’t keep the Cold latent any more. Every time you take a cold plunge now, there’s a little bit more Cold to put away but your joints can’t capture it. Now it’s leaking out into the actual joint structure. Wei-defensive Qi will never give-up trying to redeem the body. It will still go after the pathogen even after it has leaked out and penetrated the actual joint structure. But because the pathogen (Cold) has fused with the joint now, the Wei Qi will attack the Cold+Joint combo, thus destroying the bone belonging to the body it is protecting. This is the mechanism of autoimmune diseases. 

So why do I feel so amazing after a plunge then. What about the cytokines and the endorphins?

Two things have to feel great for the survival of the human race: sex is one and escaping from danger is another. We’re not engineered to run, but when we run fast, we can get a runner’s “high”. It feels amazing to get away from danger. So when you freeze your body, it thinks it’s going to die—which of course it would if you stayed there like Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic—so you get the adrenaline rush which activates the immune system, releases all those endorphins and cytokines, and then off you go! You feel as though you could solve anything, you feel as though you can get through anything the day has in store for you. You feel invincible. When they take a reading of the blood at that time, your immune system results are staggering: wow! look at the immune system of this guy! Endorphins and cytokines out the roof! Inflammation markers are GONE! Incredible! And it’s as hollow, as empty, and as dangerous as 200 foot deep Antarctic crevasse with a layer of snow over it.  

But I have so many friends who swear by cold plunges and they don’t have arthritis! 

They’re able to hold the Cold latent longer. They’re likely not linking the symptoms to the Cold. And didn’t you say that joint pain disappears with the plunge? People couldn’t report that unless they had joint pain in the first place. They’re going around in circles, perhaps. 

So how would you get your endorphins to release? 

You can get a release of cytokines and endorphins by meditating, by brisk walking, by loving someone, by admiring a tree. But our culture is looking for thrills. We’ve become so numbed to dumb culture, the celebration of meaningless inconsequential things, to the mindless parts of social media, to violence on the screen, to vapid video games. These things can’t compete with the way endorphins are released in meditation, in loving, in walking in nature. We don’t need endorphin and cytokine rushes, we need a steady gentle background hum of them. And you told me your wife is a dream and you love your job. Do you need this shocking of your body to give you these expensive thrills?


Yes, it’s extremely expensive. The capacity to produce Kidney Yang (adrenaline) is finite. You’re born with a certain amount in your life-force bank account. You can replenish it to a certain degree but only with warm, hot and cooked foods, and going early to bed. The bottom line is that it runs out, and when it does, death arrives. The more you force your adrenal glands into action, the less time you have. 

Are you saying that my cold plunges are actually reducing my capacity to fight off illness? 

Yes. Every time you call on Kidney Yang, adrenaline by eliciting urgent sudden responses from the body, you are a little less able to create the next immune response. Then you’ll crank up the ante. You’ll turn your plunge pool temperature down a little, you’ll get confrontational, you’ll take a risk in business you shouldn’t have taken, and that will stimulate a bigger response which will make you feel more alive again. The end of that pattern is early death. I’ve seen people do this with heat, too. They’ll tell me they want to take extremely hot baths and that they wish they could tolerate hotter and hotter water. They, too, are trying to stimulate Kidney Yang, and it will respond because remember Kidney Yang finances the immune system which makes you sweat, either to expel something if you have a cold, or to cool you off if you’re overheated. That’s still Kidney Yang. The end of that pattern is also its expenditure, leading to early death, or a lifetime of disease.  

But what about living life. Just getting out of bed takes energy!

Yes, all action takes a little Kidney Yang. Getting out of bed for most is the first step in the day of living life. We live our lives and when our resources (Kidney Yang) is all used up, we exit our worn out bodies. 

Kidney Yang and its balancing (Yin) partner, are precious jewels. You can’t even find them in the pulses of a healthy person until you dig down deep in the pulse. Every shock, every rejection, every adverse reaction, every argument, every fight, every emergency, every assault on the body steals these most precious commodities away. They are not to be disturbed too much. To live calmly, to live peacefully, to live lovingly, to be happy in our work, to allow our contributions to drive us steadily, calmly and without fear—this is how we preserve our very life force. 

Now, it’s time for moxa. We’ll begin the process of breaking up this systemic cold to free your joints of their cold burden. You’ll feel so much better with some Heat! 
Sounds great. Can we close the window, by the way? 

Yes, of course, I can even heat the table if you’d like that. 

(We’d spent most of the hour in discussion about Cold. If a patient is not educated in the mechanism of their illness, the treatment is thrown away when they re-engage in the very thing that’s making them ill. The teaching must be done without pointing the finger (without directing the teaching to the patient personally), without blame or judgment, and without superiority. It’s simply delivered as a teaching. 

I applied moxa on GV-4 for quite a while, then KI-2 and SP-8 and then CV-12 to get the Spleen into gear so that he could begin manufacturing Wei Qi again. We’ll see how the pulses look next week; hopefully they will be relaxed enough to reveal which medium is lacking most. Clearly the Divergents are called for but not yet. We need to break up some of the cold first. Trying to pull the Cold using the Divergents now would lead to a partial clearing since there may be insufficient media to carry it out. That would lead to an autointoxication as the pathology is partially released. The pain would increase. Next week, when I can read the various commodities in the pulses, I’ll know which Divergent to treat and it will be DSD, to more completely contain the pathogen and keep it quiet as we shore up the body’s resources to create the healing it’s unable to perform. The correct Divergent could be any of them, even the Lung Divergent. Divergent Channels treat pathology that is affecting the structure. The Divergent Channel chosen will contain the pathology so that the joint pain is alleviated, and ultimately the channel will facilitate the exit of the Cold. When the exit occurs, it could look like a flu, so that will be part of our next conversation.) 


Practice as though nothing else matters, because everything does.

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2 thoughts on “Cold Plunge, Cold Shower, Hot Mess – By Ann Cecil-Sterman”

  1. Lori Kristen Miracle

    This is so helpful! I get questions about cold plunging all the time and it’s difficult for patients to reconcile the great way they feel after the plunging. Appreciate this very much.

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