Cryotherapy for Weight Loss: Does It Work?

Cryotherapy, or “cold therapy,” has long been used by athletes and healthcare providers alike for pain relief, inflammation management, and more. Most recently, cryotherapy advocates have also begun using large cryotherapy chambers for “whole body cryotherapy,” which has been purported to have a huge range of potential benefits, including weight loss.

Key takeaways:

However, the scientific evidence here is still fairly inconclusive as to how well it actually works. Here’s what we know so far about cryotherapy and weight loss.

How does cryotherapy work?

Cryotherapy, which literally translates to “cold therapy,” is a treatment in which you are exposed to very cold temperatures for a short period of time. The exposure of your body to cold (sometimes subzero) temperatures is thought to have a wide range of benefits, especially when it comes to pain and inflammation.

The application of extremely cold temperatures reduces blood flow to the targeted area. This can then minimize swelling and subsequent inflammation in the area due to the lack of white blood cells that are getting to the targeted site and are responsible for your body’s natural inflammatory response. In addition, cryotherapy can also work to temporarily minimize pain in the affected area.

Types of cryotherapy

Since exposure to subzero temperatures during cryotherapy can have a variety of benefits, it has historically had many applications for both athletes and medical experts alike. There are also many types of cryotherapy that are used for different purposes. For example:

  • Targeted cryotherapy. Ice packs and topical treatments can work as a local anesthetic to numb pain and reduce swelling after minor injuries, like sprains, as well as pain from chronic inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Tissue treatment. Doctors can use cryotherapy to treat damaged, diseased, or abnormal tissues since the cold can effectively kill those cells.
  • Whole-body cryotherapy. Athletes use whole-body cryotherapy, like ice baths or cryotherapy chambers, after a major workout to reduce pain, inflammation, and tissue damage, as well as to enhance their recovery.

Does cryotherapy help with weight loss?

In addition to the common cryotherapy applications for targeting pain and inflammation, cryotherapy chambers are becoming increasingly popular for weight loss and, more specifically, getting rid of fat tissue.

Cryotherapy chambers are designed to immerse your entire body in especially frigid temperatures, as cold as -238 Fahrenheit (-150 degrees Celsius) for a very short period of time (generally no more than five minutes). Cryotherapy advocates claim that this version of whole-body cryotherapy can help you burn more calories and, thus, lose weight. While the research on whether cryotherapy can actually help with weight loss is still fairly inconclusive, there is some evidence that it can have a marginal effect on your metabolism.

Ways how cryotherapy can influence weight loss

Cold exposure is thought to increase the activity of your body’s brown adipose tissue. Essentially, your body has to work harder to get back to a normal core body temperature after exposure to cold temperatures in a cryotherapy chamber. Your BAT needs to convert more energy to heat in order to get your body back to a stable temperature, and that means that you burn more calories after your cryotherapy session.

Research has also shown that the exposure to sub-zero temperatures with whole-body cryotherapy can affect several hormones that are necessary for regulating your metabolism, including insulin. It also can combat inflammation, which is associated with obesity.

Cryotherapy does seem to be a potentially useful method to change the way your body’s metabolism uses energy, and thus can help with weight loss. However, the research on cryotherapy for weight loss is still limited, and there is not enough evidence yet to conclusively say whether whole-body cryotherapy is a viable treatment for obesity or obesity-related disorders.

How many calories does cryotherapy burn?

It’s not quite clear how many more calories cryotherapy burns after the session. Cryotherapy advocates often cite that three minutes in a cryotherapy chamber can lead to an extra 500–800 calories burned per day, but there isn’t enough evidence as of now to back up this claim.

How often should I have cryotherapy sessions to lose weight?

Because there is no significant evidence that supports the idea that cryotherapy can help lose weight, there is no clear answer as to how many cryotherapy sessions you need to do to see results.

The research that we do have on cryotherapy chambers is fairly inconclusive here as well. For example, one small study on 14 male subjects found that there was no significant difference in weight, fat mass, lean mass, or body water percentages after 10 cryotherapy sessions. On the other hand, another study found evidence that 20 cryotherapy sessions led to reduced abdominal obesity in menopausal women.

The conclusion here: while cryotherapy may help marginally increase your calorie burn, it is not a good substitute for a good exercise and dietary regimen, and there isn’t enough evidence to support that it can definitively make a difference in your body composition. Consider it a complementary treatment, not the solution itself.

Can cryotherapy for weight loss have side effects?

Because cryotherapy involves the use of very cold temperatures, you do run the risk of affecting your nerves in the process. Normal side effects that you can expect from cryotherapy include:

  • Numbness
  • Redness
  • Skin sensitivity

What are the dangers of cryotherapy?

In addition to these more minor side effects of cryotherapy, you also run the risk of more serious and long-term damage from cryotherapy chambers, especially if you do them too often, or they are not under the supervision of a trusted cryotherapy company.

At worst, exposure to subzero temperatures from cryotherapy can lead to serious dangers like damaged nerves, frostbite, burns, and even eye injuries. In addition, the cold can also affect your vital signs like your heart rate and blood pressure.

Finally, it’s important to note that no cryotherapy equipment has been cleared by the FDA for weight loss, and they also cite that the risk of cryotherapy chambers includes potential asphyxiation/oxygen deficiency due to the introduction of nitrogen vapors.

Final word

The bottom line when it comes to cryotherapy and cryotherapy chambers is that there isn’t enough evidence to say that cryotherapy chambers alone are enough to help you reach your weight and body composition goals. If you do decide to add cryotherapy to your workout and recovery routines, it’s important to make sure that you’re using a reputable cryotherapy company.

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