Cold therapy, or cryotherapy, involves cooling the entire body with an extreme cold for a brief time. Studies show that this type of treatment may have long-term physiological benefits. The health benefits of cold therapy have long been touted. For example, Hippocrates claimed it cured lethargy, and Thomas Jefferson bathed his feet in cold water every morning to maintain good health. This view is still prevalent in modern times, including cold morning showers, swimming in open water, ice baths in athletic training rooms, and cold mineral water spa treatments. However, what does science say? Let’s take a look.
Cold therapy is used for medical purposes and to improve your physical and mental well-being.
Cold therapy looks very promising and could increase longevity.
Depending on your needs, you could choose various types of cold therapy.
How does cold therapy work at the molecule level?
What happens to the human body on a molecular level when it experiences an extreme cold? The answer is that it activates so-called “cold shock proteins”. Many of these proteins are always present in the body. However, extreme temperatures spike their levels.
Why is that? In short, these proteins protect the body against excessive stress in extraordinary situations. So when the brain senses that we’re entering one of those situations, shock protein production kicks into high gear as a protective measure.
In studies, mice afflicted with an Alzheimer’s-like disease were exposed to extreme cold in the early stages of the disease. The result was a massive production of cold-shock proteins, which slowed the disease’s progression. The protein acted as a mechanism that protected and shielded important nerves in the brain from the degenerative damage that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease. Because of their dramatic changes in expression in response to cold stress, these proteins may be involved in the underlying mechanisms by which cold stress might provide health benefits.
Cold therapy benefits
The cold application alone may be effective in some people suffering from migraines. One study found that applying a neck wrap containing two ice packs to the arteries in the neck significantly reduced migraine pain. It’s thought that this works by cooling the blood passing through intracranial vessels.
Reducing pain in irritated nerves
The cold can numb an irritated nerve. Exposing the affected area to extreme cold can help treat pinched nerves or neuromas, chronic pain, or even acute injuries. Cryotherapy also is routinely used for a large number of sports injuries. Research shows that 10-15°C is optimal. It is also known that whole-body cryotherapy significantly reduces pain in people with arthritis. The pain levels after cold therapy decreased significantly. Treatments have been shown to provide pain reduction lasting about 90 minutes.
Humans store active brown fat tissue (BAT). Brown fat is active when burning calories for energy. Cold exposure increases BAT activity which leads to increased calorie expenditure. A lack of BAT has been linked with obesity. In one study, subjects were exposed to an environmental temperature of 15–16°C for 6 hours a day for 10 consecutive days. Afterward, individuals showed an 80% increase in their metabolism, activated thermogenesis, and BAT activity.
Mood and sleep improvement
One study showed that 15 daily visits to a cryogenic chamber for 2–3 min at –160°C reduced depressive and anxiety disorders in 50% and 46.2% of participants, respectively, according to Hamilton’s depression rating scale (HDRS). Temperature appears to be a major regulator of human sleep duration and timing. The National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping bedroom sleeping temperatures between 15°C and 19°C.
Cold therapy and longevity
The majority of longevity findings for cold therapy have been seen in mice and fruit flies. For example, one study found that flies lived twice as long when kept at 21°C rather than 27°C. Another study lowered the core temperature of mice by 0.3 °C (males) and 0.34 °C (females), resulting in an increase in the average lifespan of 12% and 20%, respectively. Biologically, mice and humans are quite similar. Therefore, scientists expect that cold therapy will also have positive effects on humans.
There are several hypotheses about how cold therapy could improve longevity. For example, hormesis is defined as a phenomenon in which exposure to a harmful substance is beneficial if the dose is small. In this case — the harmful small-dose substance is extreme cold.
Other researchers prefer the ‘rate of living hypothesis’. This theory suggests that lower temperature promotes longevity by slowing down the rate of reaction of various metabolic processes. It has been postulated that increased energy expenditure results in shortened survival. With a very intensive metabolism, there’s a greater chance of inducing oxidative stress. Oxidative stress could initiate cancerogenesis, mutations, and telomere irrigation. All of these are key to a shortened lifespan. On the other hand, metabolism can’t be reduced too much because it is necessary for life. Hopefully, researchers will find the perfect medium for using cold therapy.
Promising animal research in this field should spark further investigation and clinical trials that would examine the anti-aging effects of cold exposure in humans. In October 2022, a new clinical trial started. Over 3000 participants (no cold shower taken regularly) will have exposure to cold therapy (cold shower) for 30 days. Researchers are monitoring various health parameters of participants.
Furthermore, nine different simultaneous clinical trials are underway to study the effects of cold therapy. It’s important to remember that performing clinical trials with humans to prove a correlation to longevity is challenging. However, there is strong evidence that exposure to cold activates “cold shock proteins” that protect our cells and slow aging.
Types of cold therapy
Cold therapy only requires brief exposure to cold temperatures. The following are some examples:
Ice bath — add ice to water until the temperature is between 10°C and 15°C and stay submerged for 10 to 15 minutes.
Cold whirlpool bath — typical whirlpool treatments last for approximately 15-20 minutes at 10°C-15 °C.
Cold shower — short exposure (5-7 min) in cold water — between 10°C and 15°C.
Cryotherapy — whole body cryotherapy involves exposing the body to ultra-low temperature vapors — ranging from -120°C to -150°C.
Ice massage — ice massages should not be applied for longer than 10 minutes to avoid frostbite. Ice massages can be performed as often as comfortable but should be done at least once daily.
Caution: be cautious with any form of sudden temperature change in your environment, especially if you have heart disease or other chronic conditions. Make sure to consult your doctor before making any major changes to your daily routine.