Cryotherapy is the treatment of exposing the body to subzero temperatures, and is purported to provide myriad benefits to bodily, mental, and holistic health. By subjecting the body to extremely cold temperatures—anywhere from –200°F to -300°F— cryotherapy promotes natural anti-inflammatory response, the release of endorphins, and the reduction of pain and spasms. The two most common types of cryotherapy are Whole Body Cryotherapy, in which all but the head is exposed to frigid temperatures, and Localized Cryotherapy, in which only a portion of the body is exposed.
Developed in 1978 by Dr. Toshiro Yamauchi, a Japanese rheumatologist, cryotherapy was originally used to assist in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However, it was quickly discovered that there were many other potential applications, and over the subsequent decades scientists have learned a great deal about the curative benefits of cryotherapy.
In a standard cryotherapy treatment, patients step into a Cryosauna––a chamber cooled using vaporized nitrogen––for a three to five minute period. Once inside, the extremely low temperatures chill the epidermis (the top layer of skin), which sends the body into a natural fight or flight response. To protect the internal organs, blood vessels constrict and redirect blood from the extremities to the core. As a result, the blood becomes suffused with anti-inflammatory proteins and oxygen, excess white blood cells are expunged, and the metabolic rate is boosted. The according benefits are primarily bodily health and athletic performance, cosmetic wellness, and improved mental health. It is not recommended for pregnant women and those with high blood pressure or heart conditions.
Health, Wellness, and Athletic Benefits of Cryotherapy Treatment
Most know cryotherapy as what famous athletes use to aid their performance recovery. This is because its natural anti-inflammatory response provides relief from muscular aches and pains from irritated nerves. A German study found that cryotherapy offered temporary relief from pain associated with both rheumatoid arthritis and strenuous exercise. Cryotherapy also flushes lactic acid from the body and accelerates the production rate of collagen, which is the main structural protein found in skin and other connective tissues. Increased collagen both improves skin elasticity and is the primary protein the body uses to repair muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments.
Another health benefit cryotherapy treatment provides is in its induction of thermogenesis, the process by which the body produces heat. In an effort to warm itself after exposure to intense cold, the body burns up fat and calories in the hours post cryotherapy session, as a 2018 study showed. Additionally, a Dutch study found that the type of thermogenesis produced by cryotherapy turns our typically “white fat” into “brown fat,” which is a special type of fat activated when the body becomes cold. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Brown fat contains many more mitochondria than does white fat. These mitochondria are the ‘engines’ in brown fat that burn calories to produce heat.” By amping up the body’s metabolic rate, a single session of cryotherapy can help burn between 500-800 calories.
The Cosmetic Benefits of Cryotherapy Treatment
The uptick in both metabolism and collagen production not only has athletes clamoring for cryotherapy treatment but celebrities and models as well. Cryotherapy has been shown to reduce the appearance of cellulite and to promote tighter, younger-looking skin. This is because it accelerates collagen production. The body normally slows collagen production at around age 30, but Whole Body Cryotherapy helps to counter that trend.
After a three minute Whole Body Cryotherapy treatment, the blood vessels dilate and rush oxygen rich blood and endorphins through the body. The accelerated production of collagen also improves skin texture and elasticity, both of which help stall the appearance of aging. Additionally, cryotherapy has been shown to reduce atopic dermatitis, or eczema, a chronic inflammatory skin condition in which patches of skin become rough and inflamed. A Finnish study had eczema-sufferers undergo cryotherapy treatment instead of using their typical eczema medication, and many saw improvements in their eczema symptoms.
The Mental Health Benefits of Cryotherapy Treatment
Cryotherapy literally means “cold therapy,” and the word ‘therapy’ is not accidental. This healing treatment has been shown to promote mental wellness, primarily in the areas of sleep aid and the alleviating of anxiety and depression. Ulta-cold temperatures can cause physiological hormonal responses, including jumps in endorphins, adrenaline, and norepinephrine production. These hormones are directly related to sleep and relaxation.
Endorphins activate the body’s opiate receptors, which relieve pain and improve sleep, and norepinephrine acts as a mild sedative, helping the body to relax and sleep more restfully, as one study showed. If the body’s norepinephrine production levels are too low, it often results in feelings of sluggishness and malaise associated with mood disorders like depression.
But Whole Body Cryotherapy’s stimulation of endorphins and norepinephrine has been found to help alleviate these feelings of anxiety and depression. While by no means an alternative to traditional psychopharmacology or psychotherapy, a Polish study found that Whole Body Cryotherapy was effective in short-term treatment for both anxiety and depression. One third of the study’s trial-goers found a 50% reduction in symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, a much greater reduction than in the trial-goers who did not undergo cryotherapy treatment. Finally, a 2013 study found Localized Cryotherapy to help alleviate migraine headaches in chronic sufferers.
Though more research needs to be conducted to determine just how effective cryotherapy is as a treatment, it is nevertheless a burgeoning practice with clear medicinal benefits. Cryotherapy is not a medical procedure but a palliative treatment that has been found to be effective in promoting holistic wellness. Best of all, it is a non-invasive alternative for those seeking improved athletic recovery time, decreased joint pain and inflammation, increased metabolism, healthier skin, deeper sleep, and better moods.