The many benefits of sea swimming...

A 'dose of Vitamin Sea' can help to improve our physical and mental health, so says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll.
The many benefits of sea swimming...

A combination of the cold water, and also the exercise of swimming itself, is a double whammy for releasing endorphins in the body, says Michelle.

WHETHER it’s been lockdown and an appreciation for the simpler things in life, or seeking a way to de-stress from the feeling of compression that has built up in our bodies and minds from overworking and under valuing our health, sea swimming has become a weekly, if not daily routine for many.

It’s an easier thing to contemplate when the weather is warm and the water is tepid, but that is a rare occurrence here in Ireland.

More often, a sea swim involves bracing yourself for the belt of cold, and the suddenness of that temperature change. The initial feeling of having the wind knocked from you sails is something that is supposed to pass, but is difficult to push through in order to enjoy the experience.

Sea swimming isn’t just a trivial pastime, however, it has increasing research behind its health benefits in colder water, backed up with anecdotal accounts from participants of how their dip makes them feel, pivoting their outlook, perspective and physical outcomes.

It has been labelled as fun, addictive and life-changing, so what is it that makes it so beneficial?

Endorphins activated

A combination of the cold water, and also the exercise of swimming itself, is a double whammy for releasing endorphins in the body. The cold brings us close to the pain barrier and this releases endorphins.

Similarly, exercise is known to help in the treatment of depression; endorphins are chemicals which help to boost our mood and our energy, a natural high, so to speak!

Circulation improvement

Particularly if the water you’re swimming in is cold, circulation can be boosted as blood is prompted to flow faster and closer to the surface to warm those outer layers.

This helps to flush out the toxins that may build up in our veins, arteries and capillaries, and increases the amount of oxygen being delivered to those extremities.

Calorie burning

Cold water swimming increases the heart rate and the amount of energy that your body is using.

If you’re cold enough, the body has to act to counteract.

Coupling that with the physical exercise component, and the number of calories that you burn increases.

This can have cardiovascular health benefits as well as reducing pressure on joints if your BMI is high.

Stress reduction

It’s a known fact that cold water puts the body and mind under stress, but this stress serves as a reset for the other stresses that you’re potentially grappling with.

More evidence is emerging that use of cold water helps to regulate the nervous system, leaving you feeling calmer in between swims.

Immunity booster

The level of white blood cells created increases after cold water swimming, as the changing environment prompts the body to prepare for future eventualities such as having to fight infection.

Over time, the body becomes more able to activate the immune system when needed.

Safety considerations

It’s very important to have safety at the forefront of your mind if sea swimming is something that you wish to take up. Never swim by yourself, and make sure you have easy access into and out of the water.

Starting at this time of year when the water is less cold is advised, and to keep on swimming to allow the body to acclimatise.

Diving into very cold water is not recommended as the low temperature hitting the lungs can lead to cold water shock and this can be very dangerous.

Conversely, warm up again gradually too — don’t take a hot shower immediately afterwards, but instead use layers of clothing and hot drinks.

You can improve your swim experience by using appropriate gear — a wet suit is an option, but even the use of a swimming hat can help to retain your body heat.

Limit the time you spend in the water in the colder months.

So it seems that for those of us within driving distance of the coast, we have the potential to improve our physical and mental health with a dose of Vitamin Sea!

As well as the above benefits, it has become a fantastic social outlet, with local swimming groups scattered all over the country.

The health benefits from connection and interaction with others are also well documented.

Whether or not it’s something to consider trying, that’s for you to decide! Just make sure in the coming months to do so safely.


Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.


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