Cold therapy has been getting a lot of hype recently due to one man named Wim Hof (aka the “Ice Man). But is all the hype backed by Science? Let’s break it down.
Cryotherapy or cryogenic therapy is a form of treatment using freezing temperatures (usually around -250 degrees Fahrenheit) applied to the body for therapeutic benefit. Cryo chambers have become the most popular, where you stand in a tube-shaped enclosure that covers your body with your head popping out the top. Clients stand in the chamber and are exposed to liquid nitrogen for 2-4 minutes on a regular basis to reap the benefits.
Cold hydrotherapy is similar to cryotherapy, where you are exposed to cold water that is usually around 40- 60 degree Fahrenheit. Ice baths are the most common practice, and they have been around for a long time— especially in the athletic space, used for muscle recovery. Now, even non-athletes are taking the cold plunge due to the recent rise in interest.
Cold exposure, especially when preceded by exercise in water that’s 64° F, increased counts of white blood cells and natural killer (NK) cells in one study. The researchers behind the study concluded that cold exposure has immuno-stimulating effects, but even more so when preceded by the water-based exercise (Brenner, 1999). An earlier study found that repeated immersions in cold water—one hour of immersion three times a week for six weeks—did appear to activate the immune system to “a slight extent” (Janský, 1996).
According to anecdotal evidence, blasts of cold significantly improve the quality of life for patients suffering from phantom limb pain. Cold compression therapy provides more pain relief than popular, alternative interventions. Cold application alone may be effective in reducing pain associated with migraine attacks. Another study showed a reduction in the frequency and degree of pain perception in patients with osteoarthritis, which reduced the number of analgesic medications needed by these patients. Cold exposure can increase the neurotransmitter norepinephrin in the brain, which lowers pain and inflammation in the body.
Cold therapy helps produce adaptive, beneficial hormetic responses (Vosselman, 2014). Thermogenesis is a way to produce heat to keep the body warm. Cold thermogenesis kicks this process into overdrive. When exposed to colder environments, the body works harder to maintain homeostasis (the body wants to always stay at 98.6F degrees or 37C degrees) and its core temperature. In order to do this, it produces more energy to stay warm, burning calories to produce heat. This in turn stimulates and increases metabolism. Cold thermogenesis becomes a fat burning aid by activating the body’s built in stores of brown fat.
Humans have stores of active brown fat tissue (BAT). Unlike white fat, which stores energy and comprises most body fat, brown fat is active in burning calories and using energy. BAT can essentially turn calories from food into heat. Indeed, studies show that cold exposure increases BAT activity which leads to increased calorie expenditure. Researchers concluded that frequent cold exposures might be an acceptable and economical complementary approach to address the current obesity epidemic. According to preliminary research, a lack of BAT has been linked with obesity.
You can begin cold therapy starting with your showers and work your way up to ice baths. Don’t attempt an ice bath by yourself for your first time. At the end of your hot shower, turn the dial all the way cold for 30 seconds. Then increase to one minute, 2 minutes, and up to 3 minutes over the span of a few weeks!
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