I recently took on a new project at Medical News Today: I was asked to find the most unusual therapies and treatments on the market, try them out, and report back.
I jumped at the chance to try out strange, new things and immediately started to examine the enigmatic underbelly of health and wellness.
Early on in my research, I came across whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) — which, in brief, is a short, sharp temperature shock. You stand in a chamber at sub-zero temperatures, and, as the theory goes, reap myriad healthy rewards.
As this was my first foray into the world of weird wellness, my boss Marie asked to tag along. While organizing the session, I "accidentally" booked her in to get frozen as well. She wasn't particularly pleased, but I was somewhat relieved that I wouldn't be facing hypothermia alone. And so, our adventure began.
The clinic I chose is situated on the fourth floor of an incredibly plush department store in London, United Kingdom. As we navigated the grand, convoluted bowels of the store, we joked between ourselves about the gaudy, sequined clothing and overpriced objet d'art in a failed attempt to conceal our creeping sense of doom.
I mean, how could standing in a room at -80°C be any good for you at all? It just sounds dangerous and a little foolhardy. To dilute my concerns, I reminded myself that we weren't the first people to try WBC.
What are the supposed benefits of WBC?
In recent years, WBC has become rather fashionable, particularly among sportspeople; the frigid temperatures are supposed to improve healing times for sports injuries. But studies investigating WBC's ability to speed up recovery have been inconclusive to date. For instance, a meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded:
"Until further research is available, athletes should remain cognizant that less expensive modes of cryotherapy, such as local ice-pack application or cold-water immersion, offer comparable physiological and clinical effects to WBC."
But as we all know, extreme treatments such as WBC aren't just about the medical benefits they offer. There's a strong experiential aspect to these things; it's as much about "guess what I did today" as it is about reducing inflammation in your gastrocnemius.
In an effort to tap into a more general audience who are eager to splash their cash on the latest intervention, WBC practitioners claim that it makes you feel great, too.
Looking at the facts
The clinic's website makes numerous health claims, so I spoke with one of our resident experts. Dr. Greg Minnis, a physical therapist, addressed each in turn.
First of all, the website says, "Exposure to extreme cold induces the primal 'flight-or-fight' response, kick-starting a cocktail of hormones being pumped around the body. Among them are endorphins — 'feel-good' hormones that are released after such galvanizing experiences as exercise and sex; the mind is calm, yet euphoric and positive."
"Meanwhile, adrenaline provides clarity, focus, and determination, as well as enhancing the body's natural energy levels. Prepare for an extreme boost like no other."
Dr. Minnis responded to this by saying, "Body exposure to cold does alter the modulation of the autonomic nervous system. However, most studies that I read showed that cryotherapy triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and not the 'flight-or-fight' response (sympathetic nervous system) [...] It seems that you would not receive an 'extreme boost' but possibly a calming effect from triggering the parasympathetic system."
Another claim is that WBC burns calories as our bodies work overtime to maintain the correct body temperature. The clinic's website states that one session could burn up to 800 calories. To be honest, of all the benefits on offer, this is the one I could do with the most. I had high hopes.
But Dr. Minnis shot down my hopes in frosty flames: "Being cold does boost metabolic rate to try and warm the body. There is no proof that this carries over after treatment is finished and it is not an efficient way to lose weight. [...] I could not find any scholarly articles stating how many calories were burned during one session." Crying shame. There's no shortcut to losing weight, I guess.
The strongest claim, according to Dr. Minnis, is that WBC can help to reduce inflammation. A number of studies have demonstrated an anti-inflammatory response following WBC. Sadly, however, I cannot benefit; I am not currently inflamed.
Entering the fridge
In the waiting room, we were greeted by our therapist. She had an Eastern European or Russian accent, which I found rather reassuring. I imagined that she had spent time in extreme cold and would know how to keep us safe if anything went wrong.
More than a little bit pensive.
She ran through a blurb on the benefits, but I wasn't really listening; I only had one question on my mind: "Am I likely to die?" Of course, I worded it slightly more calmly, instead asking, "Has anyone ever had a bad experience in here?"
However, our Baltic guide assured me that only one woman had ever asked to leave the booth early. I was put at ease...to a certain extent. So, I tried to push the story of the woman found dead in a Las Vegas cryotherapy chamber to the back of my mind.
We were then given our safety garb: thermal shoes and socks, two layers of gloves, a headband to protect our ears, shorts, a sports bra for Marie, and a surgical face mask to protect our airways from the stinging cold.
That was it — no coat, no hat, and no thermal leggings. We were also allowed to choose a song to accompany our 3-minute freeze. I felt like I was choosing my last meal before facing the hangman.
With the whiff of mild peril filling the tiny treatment room, my boss and I stripped down to our underwear (which wasn't at all awkward for either of us) and slipped on the "safety" apparel. The cryo-chamber's temperature gauge read -91°C as we gingerly stepped inside. I failed to stifle a yelp.
We were in the freezer. The temperature rose slightly thanks to our body heat, pushing it up to a balmy -80°C. Later, we both admitted feeling a degree of panic. It was cold, of course, but it was also a relatively confined space, and due to thick fog, we were able to see little more than 10 centimeters ahead.
It was unusual and not particularly pleasant. Our internal voices were repeating "stay calm, breathe normally, it won't last forever."
As my body adjusted to the cold and the fog began to clear, I realized that I probably would survive after all. I began to take note of my surroundings: the hairs on our arms had turned into tiny icicles, the cold felt piercing, especially on the backs of my arms, and my boss was standing opposite me, dancing in a surgical mask. This was one of the strangest days I'd had for some time.
Although it was cold in the chamber, we had both expected it to feel a lot colder. That said, -91°C is pretty darned cold. To give you some perspective, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Alaska was only -62°C.
Our sheltered chamber was nothing like the snowy tundra of North America, though. There was no wind and virtually no moisture in the booth. If there had been even a slight breeze and damp air, we would have had a significantly worse time. For instance, in a 20-mile-per-hour wind, a temperature of -80°C feels like -111°C.
We both gritted our teeth, expecting the time to drag like molasses in winter, but it didn't. Our 3 minutes in the chamber whizzed by in what seemed like just a few seconds — thankfully.
Did I feel any benefit?
I've had a bad back for the past 10 months, and I was hoping it might be eased. It wasn't. But to be fair, if you want to see benefits for muscular aches, the clinic recommends that you undergo WBC regularly over a period of weeks or months.
The cryo-chamber temperature read out. Not particularly inviting.
Oddly, there was one physical response: both of us now have achy legs. I can't really label that as a benefit, though.
People don't indulge in WBC solely for medical relief; as mentioned earlier, it is also supposed to provide a sense of adrenaline-fueled euphoria.
And we did feel pretty good immediately after the session: we felt lighter and a little more on the ball. We felt relaxed and upbeat as we strolled back to the train station.
But we reminded ourselves that the placebo effect is a strong and pervasive force. Interventions of any kind can affect us psychologically and physiologically. Also, the size of the intervention alters the size of the placebo effect.
For instance, taking two inert pills does more than taking one. Even the color of a placebo pill makes a difference. Embarking on an experience as odd and all-consuming as WBC is almost guaranteed to produce some sort of emotional response, physical reaction, or both.
In other words, the positive emotions that we felt could very easily be chalked down to the placebo effect and the general buzz you get from facing your fears and overcoming them. It reminded me of the elation you feel as you leave the exam hall having completed the final exam of your course.
The clinic's grand surroundings and opulent interior also played their part, giving my subconscious good reason to expect great things.
So, to summarize, I would recommend WBC to anyone — not because it's a panacea for all ills, but because it's strange, challenging, and a little exhilarating. Would I do it again? Only if work paid for it, and I could go during office hours. For sports injuries or other conditions, though, I might follow my doctor's advice and buy a pack of frozen peas.
Before I wrap this up, I would like to make a request: if you find any strange therapies or oddball treatments that you would like me to undergo for the sake of your entertainment, please don't hesitate to contact me via Twitter.