Have you ever felt the urge to frolic in an ice-cold mountain lake in winter, or relax at -165 degrees Fahrenheit in billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen?
No? Me neither. But, have you ever wanted to live a longer, healthier life, with increased physical performance and an optimized mental state? Exactly. Which is why, despite a definite preference for hot tubs, I’ve become fascinated by the physiology, psychology, and science behind cold-stress therapy and its new, popular poster child, whole-body cryotherapy (WBC).
A Little Perspective
Cryotherapy, the use of extreme cold as a medical treatment, has been around for a long time — from every(wo)man applying ice or other types of cold treatment to provide pain relief for inflamed, injured, or overused muscles, to pro athletes soaking a sore limb, or their entire body, in cold water (called cold water immersion, or CWI).
Cold-stress therapy is the latest stage in that evolution. It plays off the phenomenon of hormesis, whereby the body reaps certain benefits when it’s exposed to low doses of a stressor…in this case, cold. It’s important to note that I am neither a doctor, nor a scientist, and that actual doctors and scientists do not (yet) fully understand all of the potential benefits and risks of this process. But, that said, cold-stress therapy (along with its opposite twin, heat-stress therapy) is increasingly credited with a wide-range of positive physical and mental benefits, some of which are supported by international scientific studies.
Whole body cryotherapy involves exposing the entire body to an extremely cold environment for a limited period of time.
You Can Do It Outdoors
Wim Hof, “The Iceman,” earned his nickname and global fame with twenty-six Guinness World Records for exposure to extreme cold and heat — including climbing to 22,000 feet on Mt. Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, and running a marathon in the 120-degree Saharan desert heat without water.
Following the tragic death of his beloved wife, Wim used his understanding of nature and extreme cold to heal himself. Now, his personal bio-experimentation is taking him into fascinating and groundbreaking territory.
In the beautiful, unforgiving laboratory of nature, Wim uses exposure to extreme cold combined with a Tummo-like breathing and visualization technique to empower people to engage their own bodies’ adrenal and immune systems to fight various devastating auto-immune diseases, and the related, debilitating issues of depression, fear, anxiety, and pain. Essentially, Wim is training people how to connect with and influence their own autonomic nervous systems. Which is very cool, and kind of amazing. Thousands of testimonials from people around the world speak to the global reach of, and interest in, Wim’s message. And a number of medical and scientific studies with major universities are currently exploring the underlying medical science and potentials of Wim’s work.
Or Keep It Inside
In the health spa setting, whole-body cryotherapy means standing fully naked — except for socks, gloves, headband/beanie, and possibly a mask to protect your airways — in an enclosed cryotherapy chamber, surrounded by billowing clouds of freezing-cold liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen used to cool the cryosauna may be around -300˚Fahrenheit, but the temperature in the cryosauna itself, i.e. around your body, is more like a balmy -166˚ Fahrenheit.
Needless to say, there are some advantages to the health spa approach to cold-stress therapy…not least among them, the ability to say “stop!” and jump into a warm shower. However, the best things aren’t always the easiest, and there is considerable speculation that the meditative elements and personal challenge that are central to Wim Hoff’s real-world approach are important contributors to the positive impacts people have experienced.
The Benefits…and Risks
Regardless of how you come at it, cold-stress therapy promises an attention-getting list of benefits, including: pain relief and muscle healing, improved rehabilitation post injury, improved athletic performance, reduced inflammation, preventing and treating chronic diseases, preventing dementia, boosting the immune system, and reducing anxiety and depression.
But, be sure to consult with a physician to determine if it is safe for you. Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, faculty editor of Harvard Health Publishing, states “While whole body cryotherapy is generally considered safe and few problems have been reported with its use, some people are advised to avoid WBC because it may worsen conditions such as
• Poorly controlled high blood pressure
• Major heart or lung disease
• Poor circulation (especially if made worse by exposure to cold)
• Allergy symptoms triggered by cold
• Neuropathy (nerve disease) in the legs or feet.”
Come On In – the Water’s Cold!
Yes, it’s a bit frightening, and yes, it’s definitely cold, but at the end of the day most people seem to find whole-body cryotherapy to be surprisingly bearable and (placebo effect or not) somewhat invigorating. And, let’s face it, it’s hard to say no to the idea of unlocking the power within our own bodies to help us live happier, healthier, and stronger.
Disclaimer: John Bard Manulis is neither a scientist nor a healthcare professional and nothing in this article should be interpreted as prescribing or recommending any kind of treatment in connection with any physical, medical, or mental condition.