From placenta facials to bee-sting therapy, there is seemingly no limit to what we are prepared to do in the name of health and beauty. The latest to emerge from the weird and supposedly wonderful trend line is cryotherapy, or more specifically, whole body cryotherapy (WBC), a treatment that essentially involves standing in a deep-freeze tank at -140 degrees for several minutes, all in the name of muscle recovery, youthful skin, stress relief, increased metabolism, a slimmer waistline and even a better night’s sleep.
High profile athletes, the anti-ageing obsessed and celebrities alike have loudly touted WBC’s benefits, but the recent death of 24-year old Chelsea Patricia Ake-Salvacion during a WBC treatment brought about obvious intense scrutiny on the practice that has grown an international legion of loyal followers. Is there any evidence to this cure-all or is WBC merely a soon-to-be-addition to the fad bin with potentially serious risks?
For those not in the know, WBC consists of standing in a tank of liquid nitrogen for several minutes, supposedly in order to trick your body into thinking it’s going to freeze and therefore forcing it into preservation mode. This kicks off a rush of blood to your core to increase body heat and once you return to room temperature, the extra-oxygenated blood circulates through your body, allegedly kicking off the desired anti-inflammatory response, eliminating toxins, boosting cell turnover and relieving muscle aches and pains.
This increased flow of blood and oxygen around the body is why the treatment is so popular with athletes; it is supposed to assist in the elimination of excess lactic acid build up and therefore helps with muscle recovery. Low temperatures have long been used as an anti-inflammatory for joint pain, most commonly in the form of an ice pack or ice bath, which explains why athletes boast about WBC’s benefits.
Using the treatment to boost your metabolism and burn calories, however, is a slightly different, more misleading story to come out of the trend. A closer look at the research on WBC reveals inconclusive results at best. Many of the claims, specifically around weight loss, are not yet grounded in credible scientific evidence. Most of the existing, albeit very limited, literature focuses around the treatment’s ability to boost muscle repair. Although WBC facilities claim it can burn up to 800 calories in the hours following your treatment, as well as increasing metabolic rate, there is no real scientific support to back up the claims. This comes largely as expected considering it has been proved, time and again, that the only way to maintain a healthy weight is through a well-balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.
Even the research around muscle pain and inflammation is ambiguous. While health professionals have used WBC to treat conditions including arthritis, fibromyalgia and muscle injuries, a recent review did not find any compelling scientific evidence that WBC is effective in treating muscle soreness after exercise.
The lack of evidence doesn't entirely discredit WBC. The treatment has only become popularised outside of its origins in Japan very recently. Evidence to support the supposed benefits may well come, but for now it’s not a guaranteed procedure.