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Cryotherapy is the coolest (literally) way to boost skin glow, bolster your immune system and ease aches and pains after exercising. The wellness craze counts Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Alba and RHOB's Lisa Vanderpump among its A-list fans. Cryotherapy is even something that Harvard professor David Sinclair discusses in his book, Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don't Have To, as a lesser-known tool for living longer. Knowing this, I decided to try it for myself—not once, but 10 times in 14 days to see what all the fuss was about. Keep scrolling to read my honest thoughts.
What is Cryotherapy?
Whole-body cryotherapy involves standing almost naked in a chamber that has been cooled to around -170 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three minutes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cryotherapy can enhance deep sleep, ease acne and eczema symptoms, prevent colds and flu, alleviate arthritis aches and post-workout pain and even boost metabolism.
Benefits of Cryotherapy
Dr. Rhonda Patrick, who talked to podcaster and cryotherapy fan Joe Rogan, noted that "cryotherapy inhibits enzymes that breakdown collagen, called collagenase, which is part of the reason why it helps with arthritis. Which means it would have an effect on your skin, too." It's worth noting that the American Associate of Dermatologists does caution that, if the procedure isn't carried out properly you could suffer from some skin issues, so be sure to head to a reputable cryotherapy center.
During my 10 days at Freezlab, I spoke to a few people who have been going every day for months and, in one case, every day for four years because it's the only thing that has helped alleviate their arthritic pain. Dr. Patrick explains that "the cold itself is a hormetic stressor that activates a variety of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant pathways and increases norepinephrine, which can help make you feel good and is a potent anti-inflammatory."
Not only does it have anti-inflammatory effects, but Dr Patrick also notes it can help your body burn fat. "When you release norepinephrine, it activates a pathway inside your cells that causes your energy metabolism to ramp up because your body wants to heat up," she explains. "[Your body] shivers, which is where your muscles contract, but your body quickly adapts to non-shivering thermogenesis where the norepinephrine causes your mitochondria in your adipose tissue to activate... You get a side effect of 'browning' fat, which means you're burning fat." People with lower BMI tend to have more brown fat.
You can watch the conversation, in full, here...
My Experience of Cryotherapy
Here in Amsterdam, where I live, there is a place called Freezlab that is dedicated to whole body cryo. It offers a Freeze Challenge, where you do 10 freezes in 14 days for just €49.
For starters, you have to fill out a health form; then, the team checks your blood pressure to ensure you're healthy enough to withstand the cryo chamber. What you wear inside the chamber is up to you. Some people go in wearing swimwear; I wore shorts and a sports bra. You're given a pair of socks, thick boots, a pair of gloves, a headband and a face mask to cover your mouth and nose—essentially, these accessories are protecting your extremities from potential frostbite (stay with me!).
Each chamber at Freezlab is big enough to accommodate four people. You step into the first part of the chamber which is cooled to around -80 degrees Fahrenheit and is meant to help you to acclimatise to the cold. After 30 seconds, you're given a signal to open the interlocking door to the very cold -170 chamber. You then hang out in there for the remaining two and a half minutes. It doesn't sound like a long time, but the chamber is breathtakingly cold. And I say "hang out", like it's a casual thing you do on the daily, but it's a mental and physical challenge that feels like you're pushing your body to the limit with each passing second. And then, before you know it, you're done. Suffice to say, I have never been so cold in my entire life. Also, you're wearing next to nothing in a room with strangers. They play music, which helps to pass the time and, if you're lucky, you'll get a chatty bunch of people. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is close your eyes and try to meditate or make mental lists of what you need to do that week to help pass the time.
When I'm in the chamber I find that my legs, chest and elbows start to go really tingly, but when I went with a friend, she only experienced that sensation on her stomach. Everyone reacts slightly differently. Some people dance around, others stand as still as a statue. The team at Freezlab told me that it feels less cold if you stand still, but sometimes a little swaying to the music can help you, mentally, to get through it.
During the first five days, I was finishing work, going to cryo, coming out and feeling super energized, but then heading home and falling straight to sleep. Instead of feeling a prolonged high, I was completely wiped out. But during the latter 5 sessions, I found I was far less tired and my energy levels were nicely even. I was sleeping soundly and waking up feeling refreshed. I'm a serial snoozer so that was a miracle in itself.
I also noticed that after each session, my skin was seriously glowing, as if I'd just had a 60-minute facial. My makeup glided onto my skin with ease, and I didn't need to use quite as much foundation as usual.
Some people even say cryotherapy can help smooth and reduce the appearance of cellulite, and while I did notice my cellulite looked a little less obvious, I think it would take quite a few more sessions to tell if it really does work for this.
Lastly, it's thought cryotherapy can bolster your immune system. I don't know for sure that it's the cryotherapy that has kept me well, but my boyfriend and colleagues have all had terrible colds in the last fortnight and I have—knock on wood—managed to swerve coming down with anything.
When you choose to go to cryo makes a difference, too. One day I had a terrible hangover and while the chamber felt colder than usual when I was inside, it completely cured my hangover by the time I emerged. Which is good to know!
On my last day, I headed to a reformer Pilates class and then swiftly jumped into the cryo chamber for a freeze. But, it appears this wasn't my smartest move. In the video above, Dr. Patrick notes that doing cryotherapy within an hour of exercise could blunt some of your body's muscle-building ability. So, going straight from my reformer Pilates class into a cryotherapy session probably wasn't the wisest decision when I'm trying to build lean muscle. Noted for next time, because even though I've finished the challenge, I'll definitely be back for more. The post-freeze high is enough to keep me coming back, and the idea that it can prevent collagen breakdown and inflammation is a big draw, too.
I've also noticed that combining cryo days with workout days (as long as they're not too close together) is smart because the freeze definitely helps reduce post-workout aches and pains. I'm still on the reformer train but haven't, post-challenge, been to cryo for a few days and the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the morning after a Pilates class are very real. I wasn't getting any post-workout aches and pains during my 10-day challenge and put that down to me just getting used to Pilates but boy was I wrong.
Who Can Do Cryotherapy?
It's worth knowing that whole-body cryotherapy isn't for everyone and a reputable cryotherapy outlet will talk through the contraindications, as there are quite a few. For example, people with respiratory illness, high blood pressure or a history of seizures should avoid it.
At €29 per freeze and with packages that drive down the cost of each individual freeze, it's far more affordable than the cryotherapy treatments in London and New York (that can cost upward of £70 and $80 respectively). And since you need to head for cryotherapy often to see long-lasting results, the Freezlab format makes total sense.