Cryotherapy: Cold therapy to fuel your inner fire
Cold therapy, or more popularly referred to today as cryotherapy, has been used for thousands of years. But why? Why do people feel the need to put themselves through, for the most part, a highly uncomfortable treatment and then come running back to do more?
From as far back as 3500 B.C., Hippocrates has used cryotherapy for medicinal purposes. His use of snow and ice to reduce pain and oedema in his patients has proclaimed him as the grandfather of cryotherapy1. Since then, and particularly during the 19th century, experimentation in cryotherapy has increased exponentially2, with research demonstrating many beneficial effects such decreasing inflammation3, enhanced recovery4 and improving immunity. As an athlete, my first exposure to cryotherapy was cold water immersion, and it was tough! My body reacted with ‘cold shock’ where my body gasped uncontrollably for air and my hands and feet screamed at me from under the cold water. I didn’t last long my first time – maybe two minutes (more like 30 seconds) before I was running for the hot shower. But as a physiologist I knew the possible benefits, such as decreased inflammation and delay onset of muscle soreness (DOMs) after an intense workout, plus, after the initial struggle of being in the cold water, my muscles felt renewed, I had greater vigour and was more cognitively alert. So, I persisted, and with each experience, it got easier. I found I could slowly last for longer periods of time in the cold water and the benefits appeared to further develop, meaning I could bounce back quicker from an intense week training and maintain similar intensities following week without too much of a drop off. I shared this experience because I don’t want you to think it’s easy. Before you start you need to be motivated to do this type of therapy, but if you do, then it won’t take long for you to see the benefits and that’s when you won’t want to stop.
A lot of the research and focus has been directed towards the physical adaption’s cryotherapy can have on the body, but since moving to a career focused on fundamental medicine I’ve noticed there is one area that cryotherapy may have a more significant impact. The mind. A study demonstrated that, with the addition of medication, 15 daily visits to a cryogenic chamber had the ability to reduce depression by 50% in a third of participants and decrease anxiety by 50% in half of the participants5. This was significantly greater than the control group, who only had medication and only saw a 50% reduction in depression in 3% of the group and recorded no participants reducing their anxiety by 50%. More recent research confirmed these findings by demonstrating that 10 daily cryogenic chamber sessions could reduce mental health deterioration, particularly in mood disorders6. Norepinephrine is likely responsible for the lower scores of anxiety and depression seen after cryotherapy, as the cold has the ability to produce a higher amount of norepinephrine which is a hormone that is responsible for alertness and is negatively correlated with disorders such as depression and ADHD. When I take a step back and relate this research to my own experiences, I’m not surprised by the results. I know that I always experience a jolt of energy after cold exposure (likely due to the increase in norepinephrine), alongside a feeling of optimism that is related to confronting a challenge and overcoming it. Figures such as Wim Hof have preached of the holistic benefits of cryotherapy and I think he has converted me. I am now taking a cold shower most mornings as I find it allows me to take control and become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. I believe that if I can practise techniques to face the cold each morning, such as breathing and positive thinking, then these tools will be more accessible for everyday life, allowing me to become more resilient to stressors that may occur day-to-day. I know I am not the only one who feels this way with masses of anecdotal support alongside scientific research. However, experiencing is believing, so if you are suffering from chronic inflammation, need to recover from constantly being on the go or feel like you’re overwhelmed with day-to-day life then I highly recommend giving the treatment a go.
The three methods of cryotherapy that are most researched are cryogenic chambers, cold water immersion and cold showers, all of which have advantages and drawbacks. Perhaps the least aggressive form of cryotherapy is the cryogenic chamber which cools your skin and tissue through cooling the air with liquid nitrogen. Although less overwhelming than plunging into cold water the benefits are arguably more effective. This is because the whole body, including your head, is cooled, meaning that stronger signals and higher hormone secretion can be sent to the body. Therefore, improvements to pain, inflammation and mental health have been seen from just three-minute sessions1.
That said, cryogenic chambers are the least accessible and most expensive form of cryotherapy, so many individuals choose to have cold showers or ice baths as an alternative. Although cold showers have limited physiological benefits, they have still been found to have profound psychological advantages, are easily accessible and are great at setting you up for the day. Mostly though, cold showers act as a great stepping stone to cold water immersion. Cold water immersion is definitely the most challenging of all the therapies. The research suggests that most benefits are seen from 10-15 min immersion in 10-15 °C1, however I wouldn’t suggest trying this immediately. There are risks with cryotherapy and therefore the best method is to increase the duration of each session slowly, starting around 2-minutes. Another little tip would be to wear socks. Personally, my feet can get extremely uncomfortable being in cold water, but wearing socks can make the experience more manageable and help me last longer so I can obtain the most benefits. All negatives aside, once you warm up again (maybe after a warm shower) the effects are immediate.
Consistent exposure to the cold can have extraordinary benefits to your physiology and although it can be challenging, that is actually one of the main draws of the therapy. You honestly feel euphoric once you’ve finished and can be proud to know that you’ve overcome a challenge. At Hum2n, we use the coldest manufactured cryogenic chamber in the world, which cools the air top -140 °C to maximise the benefits of just three minutes in the chamber. Furthermore, we combine the cryotherapy with theragun use pre-treatment, and infra-red exposure post-treatment.. The combination of these treatments allows our clients to experience the greatest muscle relaxation and blood circulation possible to help relieve pain and detoxify the blood. I am an avid believer that cryotherapy has the potential to improve everyone’s lifestyles, but don’t take my word for it, be safe and try it for yourselves.
- Kwiecien, S. Y., & McHugh, M. P. (2021). The cold truth: the role of cryotherapy in the treatment of injury and recovery from exercise. European journal of applied physiology, 121(8), 2125-2142.
- Allan, R., Malone, J., Alexander, J., Vorajee, S., Ihsan, M., Gregson, W., ... & Mawhinney, C. (2022). Cold for centuries: A brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 1-10.
- Rose, C., Edwards, K. M., Siegler, J., Graham, K., & Caillaud, C. (2017). Whole-body cryotherapy as a recovery technique after exercise: a review of the literature. International journal of sports medicine, 38(14), 1049-1060.
- Machado, A. F., Almeida, A. C., Micheletti, J. K., Vanderlei, F. M., Tribst, M. F., Netto Junior, J., & Pastre, C. M. (2017). Dosages of cold‐water immersion post exercise on functional and clinical responses: a randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 27(11), 1356-1363.
- Rymaszewska, J., Ramsey, D., & Chładzińska-Kiejna, S. (2008). Whole-body cryotherapy as adjunct treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. Archivum immunologiae et therapiae experimentalis, 56(1), 63-68.
- Rymaszewska, J., Lion, K. M., Pawlik-Sobecka, L., Pawłowski, T., Szcześniak, D., Trypka, E., ... & Stanczykiewicz, B. (2020). Efficacy of the whole-body cryotherapy as add-on therapy to pharmacological treatment of depression—a randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 522.
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