Cryotherapy is a popular treatment in which the body is exposed to subzero temperatures, and some of its suggested benefits include the promotion of natural anti-inflammatory response, the release of endorphins, and the reduction of pain and spasms. Another suggested benefit is the burning of calories––some cryotherapy advocates say you can burn up to 800 calories per cryotherapy session! But is this true? Does cryotherapy actually burn calories? Though it’s still too early for a definitive answer, the research looks promising!
How Does Cryotherapy Work?
To understand just how research is progressing, we should first learn how cryotherapy works. 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. In a standard whole body cryotherapy treatment, patients step into a cryosauna––a chamber cooled by vaporized nitrogen to anywhere between 200°F to -300°F––for a 3 to 5 minute session.
Once inside, the extremely low temperatures chill the epidermis (the top layer of the skin), which sends the body into a natural fight or flight response. In order to protect the internal organs, blood vessels constrict and redirect blood from the extremities to the core. The blood then becomes suffused with anti-inflammatory proteins and oxygen, and excess white blood cells are expunged. Cryotherapy is not recommended for pregnant women, those with high blood pressure, those with major heart or lung conditions, those with poor circulation, or those with neuropathy (nerve disease) in the legs or feet.
Originally developed in the 1970s to assist in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, it was quickly discovered that there were many other potential applications. Over the subsequent four decades scientists have learned a great deal about the curative benefits of cryotherapy, and one of the most enticing of these benefits is the burning of calories. The suggestion is that this is done via a process known as thermogenesis. But what exactly is thermogenesis?
Thermogenesis is the process of heat production in organisms. It occurs in all warm-blooded animals and even some plants. In an effort to warm itself after exposure to intense cold, the human body burns up fat and calories in the hours post cryotherapy session. The type of thermogenesis produced by cryotherapy is known as “non-shivering thermogenesis,” which is defined as an increase in metabolic heat production that is not associated with muscle activity.
How does non-shivering thermogenesis amount to calorie burning? Well, this type of thermogenesis turns our white adipose tissue, or “white fat,” into brown adipose tissue, or “brown fat.” White fat is the body’s standard fat––it keeps us warm, provides insulation to the organs, and an excess of it can lead to heart disease or obesity. Brown fat, on the other hand, is a special type of fat activated when the body becomes cold. As brown fat burns, it creates heat without shivering––thus, “non-shivering thermogenesis.”
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.” This brown fat stores energy in a smaller space than white fat, and its iron-rich mitochondria is what’s responsible for its brown color. Based on this theory of thermogenesis, cryotherapy advocates suggest that by amping up the body’s metabolic rate a single session of cryotherapy can help burn between 500-800 calories. By this logic, a 3-5 minute cryotherapy session burns the same amount of calories as a 45 minute run! But are these advocates correct? And are their claims backed up by scientific evidence?
Thermogenesis and Calorie Burning
Though research on cryotherapy has been conducted since at least the early 1980s (most of it focused on cryotherapy’s capacity as an arthritic painkiller), many of its suggested benefits have only been lightly researched. The burning of calories is unfortunately one of these lightly researched benefits. But the little research that has been undertaken is on the whole quite positive.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Obesity showed that, in an attempt to warm itself after exposure to the intense cold, the body burns up fat and calories in the hours post cryotherapy session through the natural process of thermogenesis. The French study noted that single cryotherapy sessions lead to significant decline in a type of fat known as brown adipose tissue––that is, brown fat. This led the researchers to conclude that cryotherapy “may be a viable option for combating obesity.”
Additionally, a Dutch study found that the type of thermogenesis produced by cryotherapy does indeed turn our typically white fat into brown fat. Trial-goers underwent a 10-day cold acclimation regiment, which resulted in a marked increase in non-shivering thermogenesis. The researchers concluded that cryotherapy “might be an acceptable and economic manner to increase energy expenditure and may contribute to counteracting the current obesity epidemic.” However, the study did only feature a small sample size of only 17 trial-goers, and so more research is very much needed.
While still too early to confirm whether cryotherapy does indeed work for weight loss, the early data is promising. This suggests that cryotherapy, as a supplement to your healthy eating and exercise plan, may indeed assist you in achieving your weight loss goals. A significant amount of research has been conducted on cryotherapy’s other benefits, including improved athletic recovery time, relief from arthritic aches and pains, the removal of keloids, deeper sleep, and better moods. On the whole, both whole-body and localized cryotherapy have shown themselves to be great options for those looking for non-medical additions to a healthy lifestyle.