Dr. MICHAEL MOSLEY: Defeat the pain and avoid the flu … all with a small dip in the sea

Most of the country has stomped last week. But – sorry for this – I have been lucky enough to be on holiday in Dorset, enjoying a nice cool sea breeze. Being on the south coast also means that I have been able to swim in the channel every day.

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I love swimming in the sea – but I am always surprised by how many people go to the beach without actually entering the water.

If you are one of them, let me gently encourage you in the big blue by telling you about some of the many health benefits of bathing in the sea.

Cool off: Michael Mosley went swimming along the glorious Dorset coastline last week

Cool off: Michael Mosley went swimming along the glorious Dorset coastline last week

IT DOES NOT SCREW – BUT IT REDUCES PAIN

One of the first British doctors to become enthusiastic about the medical potential of sea baths was Dr. Richard Russell, a British doctor from the 18th century.

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He not only encouraged his patients to swim in the ocean, but he also urged them to drink plenty of seawater, which I suspect was not good at all. He claimed that a dive, followed by a head with salty stuff, would cure jaundice, leprosy, scurvy and a whole host of other diseases.

Most of his claims were clearly nonsense, but Russell was on his way to something. A great proven advantage of outdoor swimming is the mood. It is clearly a good exercise – and each exercise is likely to make you feel better.

But there is sufficient evidence that swimming in cold water (or a cold shower) activates temperature receptors under your skin, which in turn leads to the release of hormones such as endorphins and adrenaline. Endorphins are our natural pain killers.

This may explain why swimming in cold water has been shown in some studies to reduce the symptoms of chronic fibromyalgia pain and rheumatoid arthritis.

The release of endorphins and adrenaline also helps explain why swimming in cold water appears to have an effect on depression and anxiety. There are many people who swear by the mental benefits of cold water, including a friend of mine, Dr. Chris van Tulleken. He practices what he preaches by regularly swimming cold water, even in winter.

He told me that after even a fairly short dip in cold water he feels excited for hours and then calm for several days.

There is sufficient evidence that swimming in cold water (or a cold shower) activates temperature receptors under your skin, which in turn leads to the release of hormones such as endorphins and adrenaline (photo: Baleares, Mallorca)

There is sufficient evidence that swimming in cold water (or a cold shower) activates temperature receptors under your skin, which in turn leads to the release of hormones such as endorphins and adrenaline (photo: Baleares, Mallorca)

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There is sufficient evidence that swimming in cold water (or a cold shower) activates temperature receptors under your skin, which in turn leads to the release of hormones such as endorphins and adrenaline (photo: Baleares, Mallorca)

Chris recently published in the British Medical Journal the case of a 24-year-old woman named Sarah, who has been taking antidepressants since she was 17. After the birth of her daughter, Sarah wanted to try to be medicine-free, so under supervision she started a program of weekly cold water swimming.

This led to an almost immediate improvement in her mood and a sustained and gradual reduction of her symptoms of depression.

Over time, she was able to take all medication, and two years after starting swimming therapy, she remains medication-free, although she still has counseling. Of course this is just the experience of one person and no one to whom medication is prescribed can make changes without medical advice.

But further evidence of the benefits of immersion in cold water came from a French study in which they recruited 237 patients with generalized anxiety disorder and randomly assigned them to either an eight-week regular visit to a spa or a standard antidepressant. Both groups improved, but those who visited the spa did better in both the short and the longer term.

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I think the buoyancy I get by swimming in the sea has a calming effect on my brain. I just enjoy floating, living in the moment. I also love the glow that you get afterwards, plus the satisfaction that comes from having done something challenging.

IT CAN ALSO HELP YOU TO AVOID THE FLU

Earlier today when I was swimming in the sea, I heard a middle-aged woman urging another to get into the water "because you have to shock your immune system."

QUESTION DR MOSLEY – YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

My husband is 82 years old and has to lose a lot of weight. He suffers from painful knees, and one is a substitute, so he cannot do intensive exercises. He likes pies, puddings, sweet treats and fruit, but does not like vegetables. How can he lose weight?

Your husband's situation is very common. Since he is 82, avoid drastic changes. The best thing you can do is eat less sweetness and increase fiber, as this is associated with a lower risk of some cancers and heart disease. Try to sneak some fiber-rich dates into his puddings or add legumes such as kidney beans to meals.

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Regarding exercise, encourage him to walk even when it is just in the garden or at a local store.

You can also swim because it is friendlier to the joints and has the benefits I explained above.

It sounds plausible, but how strong is the evidence? Not huge, is the answer. There have been numerous animal studies, but few have looked at the impact of cold water on the immune system in humans.

The only one I could find was a study that was conducted in the Netherlands a few years ago. Researchers recruited more than 3,000 people and randomly assigned them to a cold shower for a month, or to a control group.

Some of those who had been given a cold shower were asked to tolerate it for 30 seconds, while others were asked to hold it for 90 seconds.

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When the month was over, the volunteers had the opportunity to stop for another 30 days or to continue with cold showers. It was impressive that 80 percent went ahead willingly. And it really seemed to have a beneficial effect on their immune system.

There was a flu in the Netherlands when conducting this research.

And this turned out to be a good test, because the people with the cold showers were 30 percent less likely to be free for illness than those in a control group. And the explosion of 30 seconds of cold water gave the same benefits as sustaining 90 seconds.

BUT TAKE TIME TO BUILD CONFIDENCE

Every year there are stories about people jumping into rivers or lakes to cool off on hot days and then drown.

If you are not used to the temperature of the water, your first, involuntary reaction when jumping in will be to gasp for breath, and if you are under water at that time, this can be fatal.

If you plan on swimming in cold water, don't start alone. And make sure you go into the water somewhere shallow, such as on the beach.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR DR MOSLEY?

Email drmosley@mailonsunday.co.uk or write it on The Mail on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT.

Dr. Mosley can only answer in a general context and cannot provide personal answers.

Don't just jump into a river, especially if you've been drinking. Begin by gradually entering the water for a few minutes. You can build, and as you do, your tolerance will develop.

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You can find more information about how to safely swim outdoors at the Outdoor Swimming Society (outdoorswimmingsociety.com) or Wild Swimming UK (wild swimming.co.uk). Look for places to go to the Wild Swim card (wildswim.com) or visit the RNLI website (rnli.org).

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