Which Is Better for Sleep: A Hot or Cold Shower Before Bed?

May 21, 2024

Peloton - A Hot or Cold Shower Before Bed - Juan Estrada, MD

Cold plunging is one of the hottest wellness trends right now, thanks to its purported benefits for muscle soreness, inflammation, and even mood. With all the buzz around ice baths and the like, you might wonder if something a little simpler—like a cold shower before bed—could deliver similar advantages, especially for your sleep. But does the chilly temperature genuinely improve your Zzzs? Or is a warm shower the way to go before slipping between the sheets?

There are benefits and drawbacks of each temperature to consider before taking the plunge. Here’s how to decide if cold or hot is better for your best night’s rest.

Pros and Cons of Taking a Cold Shower Before Bed

If you’ve ever stepped in the shower before it’s fully heated up, you know cold water can be a surprise. “It’s shocking to your system and very stimulating. It gives you more energy and alertness,” says Better Sleep Council representative Ellen Wermter, a family nurse practitioner and a diplomate in behavioral sleep medicine. “That invigorating feeling … is typically not the kind of state we think about when we’re trying to wind down for bed.”

Because of that, a cold shower before bed isn’t generally something sleep experts consider conducive to sleep, and there isn’t much research specifically looking into cold showers before bed, either, she says.

But we do know the shock to your system of a cold shower “may lead to an increased flight-or-flight response,” says Juan Estrada, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with U.S. Dermatology Partners. When this nervous system response gets triggered, your body releases more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, spiking your heart rate and preparing you to fight or run from a threat—or a perceived threat, in the case of a measly shower. This “may make it difficult to sleep, if closer to bedtime,” Dr. Estrada says.

It’s also counter to what your body is naturally trying to do at bedtime, Wermter says, as our body’s natural pattern is for cortisol to decline in the evening and rise in the morning.

A cold shower before bed might also mess with natural pre-bedtime body temperature changes. “Your circadian rhythm already starts to drop your body temperature as a cue to sleep,” Wermter says. But a chilly rinse forces more of the blood circulating in your body to your core, she explains. “When we’re cold, we keep the internal organs warm, and we can ‘sacrifice’ the extremities.” Then, when you get out of the shower, you won’t have a noticeable drop in core body temperature like you would exiting a warm shower (more on that below!).

Still, there’s not a lot of evidence that cold showers before bed actually do make it harder to fall asleep. One very small 2013 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that spending 15 minutes in about 57-degree-Fahrenheit water after exercise and before bed didn’t make any difference across a number of sleep measures in male cyclists compared to exercise alone or no special pre-bedtime activities.

And on the positive side, cold showers may help relieve inflammation and pain. “If you’re in less pain, your sleep quality might be better,” Wermter says. The same goes for calming red, irritated skin, Dr. Estrada notes: “Cold water can help soothe inflammation, which can help you relax for bedtime,” he says.

Pros and Cons of Taking a Hot Shower Before Bed

A warm shower, on the other hand, seems inherently relaxing compared to the shock of a cold one. Wermter points to two major ways higher temperatures generally win out over chilly ones before bed: First, warm showers physiologically trigger sleep-inducing body temperature changes.

When you take a hot shower before bed, your blood vessels dilate, sending more blood throughout your body (including your extremities), which in turn draws heat away from your core. Then when you get out of the shower, you cool off quickly and experience a sudden drop in body temperature that mimics the temperature drop your body naturally experiences as a signal it’s time for sleep, Wermter explains. “You’re not going to have the same rapid drop with a cold shower,” she says.

Second, a hot shower before bed is more soothing mentally. Stepping into a warm shower isn’t perceived as a threat, so it doesn’t trigger the adrenaline rush of a cold shower that could be too stimulating before bed, Wermter says.

Research backs this up: A 2019 review in Sleep Medicine Reviews found warm showers or baths before bed were associated with better sleep and falling asleep faster. If you have a few extra minutes and a tub, consider a bath: A warm bath was linked to lower blood pressure in elderly individuals at bedtime (generally considered a sign of relaxation) in 2019 research published in Chronobiology International.

Warm water can also ease aches and pains. “It may soothe stiff muscles, which also allows for the release of tension in the body, which further contributes to quality sleep,” Dr. Estrada says. Plus, if you’re dealing with sinus pressure or a common cold, a hot shower might help break up some of that congestion, according to the Cleveland Clinic, potentially making it easier to fall asleep.

Keep in mind, though, that certain skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis don’t always play well with hot water, especially at bedtime. “The hot water can dry out the skin and create more inflammation, causing irritation, which can make it difficult to sleep,” Dr. Estrada says. If you have an inflammatory skin condition, you should always take lukewarm and not hot showers, whether it’s before bedtime or earlier in the day, he adds.

So, Should You Take a Hot or Cold Shower Before Bed?

A warm shower is better than a cold one for sleep, experts agree. There are plenty of benefits of cold showers, but cooler temps are best reserved for earlier in the day when you need that boost in alertness and energy.

Remember, you don’t have to take a shower of any temperature before bed if you don’t want to. And if you really prefer a chilly one, there’s no definitive evidence it will make your sleep any worse.

“Sometimes when people aren’t sleeping well, they think they have to add things to their routine, but it’s normally about simplifying [your routine] to a few things that are really meaningful and relaxing to you,” Wermter says. Whether or not a shower—cold or hot—fits into that plan is really up to you, she says. “When you start to put too much thought and effort into optimizing sleep, it will typically backfire. There is no one ‘perfect’ combination of habits that are going to make you sleep,” she says.

How to Make Your Bedtime Shower as Beneficial for Sleep as Possible

If you do make a shower part of your nightly bedtime plan, try to rinse off an hour or so before bed, Wermter says, so you’re not trying to towel dry and jump immediately into your sheets. “You usually want a little time for that cooldown to happen afterward, so the timing of a shower is usually toward the beginning of your wind-down routine,” she says.

Some people might enjoy listening to some relaxing music during their pre-bedtime shower, Wermter adds. Just make sure to pick tunes that “make you happy” rather than rile you up, she advises. You could also queue up a guided meditation on the Peloton App and listen while you lather (or after you get done scrubbing).

Consider incorporating soothing scents into your bedtime shower plan, too, Wermter says. Lavender is often used to encourage sleep and relaxation, but she also suggests vanilla and eucalyptus as good options for essential oil diffusers or even to add directly to the shower. “I’ve seen people hang eucalyptus in their shower, and when the warm water hits it, it kind of infuses it,” she says. “You feel like you’re at the spa—it’s really calming and relaxing.” A scented candle might also feel calming.

Above all, try to be consistent in your pre-bedtime routine, Wermter says. Keep it up long enough, and you’ll start to anticipate the same experience at the same time every evening. “Your brain’s going to say, ‘I know what’s coming next, it’s going to be sleep,’” she says. That includes going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day (yep, even on weekends and vacations), she says.

And of course, a shower only goes so far. Your bedroom should also be “a sanctuary for sleep,” Wermter says. Aim to follow some essential sleep hygiene tips:

  • Make sure your mattress and bedding are comfy.
  • Keep your room cool, dark, and quiet.
  • Turn off electronics and/or stash them outside the bedroom. (The doom-scrolling really won’t help, we promise.)
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime.

The Takeaway

You don’t have to shower before bed for better sleep, but if you do, warm water is more likely to help you drift off. That said, there’s no reason you can’t try a cold shower before bed if you prefer.

“If you enjoy a warm shower before bed, wonderful. Same goes with a cold shower,” Wermter says. “If you have no problems with a wind-down routine or falling asleep and feel like your sleep quality is good, there’s not necessarily a worsening of sleep quality that we’ve seen in any studies. The proof is in the pudding if it’s working for you.”

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