The Cryotherapy Craze: Is It Good For Us?

If someone told you to sit in a booth with the temperature set at minus 160 degrees for between 3 to 7 minutes, you’d probably call them crazy, right? But maybe you’d be wrong…

Cryotherapy is becoming increasingly popular in today’s society, with its advocates ranging from professional athletes and the NHS, to beauticians. Whilst most of us have pressed a bag of frozen peas to a swollen body-part, fewer have probably stepped into a ‘cryo chamber’ and stood for up to seven minutes in circa minus 100 degrees. But maybe we should be: studies about the impact of cryotherapy on our mental health reveal that whole-body cryotherapy can reduce mental health issues such as anxiety and depression by up to 50%.

The scientific theory goes that plunging ourselves into extremely cold temperatures releases (1) norepinephrine, a naturally occurring hormone in our brains, as well as (2) adrenaline which - when released together - trigger the brain’s natural fight or flight response. The endorphins that are released throughout our bloodstream whilst we are exposed to these cold temperatures, can then lead to feelings of elation lasting for hours after each session. On top of this, the hormone norepinephrine also helps regulate the body’s sleep pattern, which is why many people who struggle to sleep use cryo-therapy too.

In a similar vein to the Wim Hof-style phenomenon of cold-water swimming and the Chilly Dippers ‘movement’, that you may have heard of, it appears that the effects of extreme cold temperatures on our mental health should not be overlooked. Cold water swimming or open water swimming is gaining more and more enthusiasts, who rave about the health effects of this activity on both body and mind. If you feel like laughing when seeing people swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park in mid-winter or people jumping en-masse into the sea on New Year’s Day, it may in fact be the swimmers that are having the last laugh.

Whilst it now commonly accepted that cold water swimming is good for everyone’s health, and carries few serious risks, the extreme temperatures of cryo-therapy come with some adverse side effects, which can range from scarring of the skin to nerve damage. Additionally, there is still a lot about the use of cryotherapy for the treatment depression and anxiety disorders that, to date, remains un-researched. One of the most important tips health practitioners therefore give to those undertaking cryotherapy is to have sessions for short periods of time only (so not 7 minutes in one-go please for the uninitiated, build it up..).

But, whilst cryo-therapy comes with its warning signs, it seems that the positive impact of the method is very real and outweighs the possible side effects.

But if you shudder at the thought of open water swimming or stepping into a freezing cryo-chamber, cold showers at home for increasingly longer periods will create a similar effect. Wim Hof is a great advocate of not only practising holding your breath to boost your immune system, but equally of taking cold showers and increase the time you expose your body to the cold water as this will deliver overall health benefits that last much longer than making it through the daily 2-to-3 minute ice cold shower. No reason for holding back then.

So finally, are cold temperatures good for us? Imagine stepping out of your house on a sunny, but ice-cold winter morning with clear skies and crispy fresh air, and how invigorating and exhilarating that is after the first shock of the cold. The answer to the question then can only be yes.