The first cryotherapy treatment I remember experiencing happened when, as a child, I visited Disney World. My parents took my two sisters and I camping there during the winter of the year it first opened.
My father, who enjoyed a good prank, tricked me into thinking that lake near the campgrounds was warm (even in Florida, the water is cold during winter). I laughed on the way down a slide into the lake to the shock of finding water so cold it took my breath.
But, when I got out of the water, and dried off, I felt wonderful and happy and together with my two sisters, who took pleasure in my being duped, laughed there by the lake as the sun warmed my 12-year-old body.
Later, as a teenager, I discovered how joyful I felt when I went from something hot (the steam bath at the YMCA) to something cold—the swimming pool, kept cold for the competitive swimmers.
When I was 17, as a scuba enthusiast, I went diving every month of the year. In the winter, after I would come out of the icy water, for the rest of the day, I would feel amazing—mentally and physically.
By this time, I became very clear that exposure to both hot and cold did something amazing for my clarity of mind and for my emotions.
So, as a teenager, it became my practice to go for a short swim when I encounter a body of water, especially in the winter, as a way to feel better.
The research shows that my experiences then were not the result of my imagination.
Whole-body cryotherapy is now used by most pro football and baseball teams for strong reasons—not only for recovery but as a way to enhance performance.
We have three to ten times as many cold receptors on our skin, as we do heat receptors, indicating a strong response occurs with cold.
Cold can affect the body at least two different ways. First, chronic, all-day-long, every-day cold is not so good for you. People who are exposed to all-day cold tend to develop a more round body habitus and gain weight. But, research shows that the second way, intermittent cold, affects the human body in many helpful ways—including making a more lean body.
For example, intermittent cold causes the body to convert white fat into brown fat, which is associated with a higher metabolism leading to a leaner healthier body. In one study of people who routinely swim in cold water, the cold water swimming caused an improvement in lipids, a drop in cholesterol, and an improvement in homocysteine levels.
With athletes, research showed that if athletes experienced cold therapy immediately after training, then pain and soreness decreased.
There was one rat study that showed that cold treatments actually change the gut flora, which is associated with improvements in metabolism and protection against problems with the brain.
Just like with the other savage factors, there’s the swapping on and off of genes. So, there’s truly a metabolic effect (from the change in gene expression) from the cold. We know of over 200 genes that are affected by savage factors. Gene activation and deactivation cause a change in cellular metabolism and the way the body regenerates itself and the way the brain works with improvement in mood and clarity of thought.
Professional athletes essentially experiment on themselves daily since they “practice” then measure the effects of their practices when they perform their sport; so what elite athletes find helpful gives a clue to what the more formal medical research will eventually show.
I remember as a medical-school resident, in the 1980’s when the research still claimed that anabolic steroids did not make professional athletes stronger (the extra weight was thought to be water weight). But, I could see what happened to the strength of my friends at the gym who took anabolic steroids and knew that the athletes knew what the research did not yet show.
So, the practice of the professional athletes is worth noting as a clue to what the medical research may eventually prove and their practice demonstrates best performance and best recovery with whole body cryotherapy treatments down to minus 160 to minus 220 degrees Fahrenheit for two and a half to three minutes.
With regard to effect of cold on men compared to women, there was one study that showed that, somewhat surprisingly, women drop their core temperature faster than do men. So, a woman at a minus 180 for two and a half minutes would drop her core temperature similar to a man at minus 200 at two and a half minutes. You may think that women would drop their core temperature more slowly than men because women usually have, on the average, a higher percentage of body fat. But the research shows that they don’t have to go as long and as cold to have the same effect as does a man.
Women also think better in a slightly warmer environment. Women were shown to perform better mentally if their office was slightly warmer at 74 degrees, versus a man at 72.
Cold can also be used to treat depression.
Cold decreases inflammation, improves sleep, heightens sexual function, and helps with recovery and pain. So, how would practice the savage factor, cold?
If you’re submersed in the cold ice bath, to a whole-body cryotherapy machine, you’re exposed to a cold shower, or to cold water swimming, all four are possibilities.
Taking a cold shower is my least favorite because sometimes the shower is just not cold enough. The shower does act like a sort of a shock therapy because it’s so sudden and the water conducts heat more quickly than does the air. Also, the shower doesn’t cover the entire body.
Another option is to swim in very cold water. The Gulf of Mexico, near where I live, only grows cold enough to be therapeutic in the winter months. When the water is very cold, I prefer not to “swim” as much as to just walk to chest-deep water and dip so that my head is submerged. Swimming in very cold water could be dangerous and should only be done with supervision. If you’re swimming anywhere, someone should be watching in case you get in trouble—the “buddy system” taught by the YMCA and the Red Cross. The buddy system becomes crucial in cold water.
Another option is to sit in an ice bath. If you put four 10-pound bags of ice in your bath tub, then fill the tub with cold water, you can submerge yourself and experience a wonderful effect. If you sit in a sauna or steam just before jumping in the ice bath, that’s even better. Ten minutes in a sauna that’s 170 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit followed by 5 to 10 minutes in the ice bath works wonders.
When you’re sitting in the bath, use a kitchen timer so you don’t have to keep looking at your watch and you can meditate or simply focus on your breathing instead of your watch. This routine (10 minutes in the sauna an 5 in the ice) gives you a 15 minute routine where you can experience both hot and cold and meditation.
Repeat the routine up to 3 times on days when you have time. I’ve found if I do more than 3 cycles, then I experience headaches and increase fatigue.
Tips: Water temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit work best. Fill a large chest freezer (in your garage or basement) with 10 or 20 pound bags of ice. Then 3 to 5 times a week, just grab 40 pounds of ice and have fun.
The other option for practicing cold is a whole-body cryotherapy treatment. It’s faster than making an ice bath and it’s only a two and a half to three minute treatment. I find that for some reason, exposing the skin to -200 to -210 degrees Fahrenheit give me a better effect than 5 minutes in an ice bath at 45-55 degrees. If you have a whole-body cryotherapy chamber near you, then this method can be conveniently integrated into a busy day for tremendous effect. I think there’s something about the skin experiencing a temperature of less than 200 degree, Fahrenheit and also slowly breathing the cold air that activates a different and powerful set of metabolic changes that may be missed by the cold-water bath. To see this profound effect, a true whole-body chamber is needed (where the head is in the chamber too, not sticking out of the top of the chamber).
Both the cryotherapy chamber and the cold-water bath work. Which you use will depend on what you have available and your budget. You may live in an apartment in a big city where you have a small freezer (not large enough to hold 40 or more pounds of ice) but have a cryotherapy chamber in a commercial location nearby. Or you may live in a rural area with no cryotherapy chamber available for 200 miles, but you have space in your garage for a large freezer where you store 300 pounds of ice (30 bags that are 10 pounds each) and you simply grab 4 bags every morning and throw them in your tub for your morning routine.
All of these methods work better than doing none of them.