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A small study found that cryostimulation can help treat obesity. LightFieldStudios/Getty Images
  • More than 1 billion people around the world are affected by obesity.
  • Researchers from the Istituto Auxologico Piancavallo IRCCS have found that whole-body cryostimulation may be a useful add-on treatment for obesity.
  • Scientists found that the treatment helped improve cholesterol and blood fat levels, reduce waist circumference, and lower blood sugar levels.

More than 1 billion people globally are affected by obesity, a condition where a person’s additional weight can affect their overall health.

Treatments for obesity normally include lifestyle changes such as eating healthier foods and exercising more. Additionally, doctors may prescribe medications or suggest weight-loss surgery for people who have morbid obesity.

Now, researchers from the Istituto Auxologico Piancavallo IRCCS at San Giuseppe Hospital in Oggebbio, Italy argue that whole-body cryostimulation may be a useful additional treatment for obesity.

The scientists found that whole-body cryostimulation helped improve cholesterol and blood fat levels, as well as reduce waist circumference, and lower blood sugar levels.

This research was recently presented at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) held in Dublin, Ireland.

Cryostimulation — also known as cryotherapy — is a type of treatment using extremely cold temperatures.

During whole-body cryostimulation, a person sits or stands inside an enclosed chamber. While inside, the chamber is cooled using liquid nitrogen.

Depending on the type of chamber and therapy, the temperature inside the chamber can range anywhere between -166 to -256 degrees Fahrenheit (-110 to -160 degrees Celsius). Because the cold temperatures are so extreme, sessions are limited to 3-4 minutes.

For years, whole-body cryostimulation has been used to help athletes recover from injuries. Cryotherapy chambers can now be found at health clubs and gyms.

Additionally, whole-body cryostimulation is now being researched as a therapy option for conditions such as diabetes, depression, and chronic pain.

It remains experimental, and the limited evidence in support of its effectiveness means it is not a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved treatment. In addition, both the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology caution people about the potential risks of whole-body cryostimulation, which include frostbite, burns, and even asphyxiation.

For this study, Dr. Jacopo Fontana, a scientific researcher in the Research Laboratory in Biomechanics, Rehabilitation and Ergonomics at the Istituto Auxologico Italiano Piancavallo IRCCS at San Giuseppe Hospital in Oggebbio, Italy, and lead author of this study, and his team recruited 29 study participants.

All of them had BMIs greater than 30 kilograms per square meter, which is considered a mark of obesity. The study participants were all hospitalized for a multidisciplinary rehabilitation program including a personalized diet plan, psychological support, and supervised exercise.

Study participants were non-randomly allocated to either a group receiving 10 2-minute whole-body cryostimulation sessions over a 2-week period, or a control group receiving the same intervention at non-cryostimulating temperatures.

Upon analysis, the research team found while both study groups experienced decreased levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol, and HDL and LDL cholesterol, the decrease was twice as much in the group receiving whole-body cryostimulation.

“We were not surprised by this result, but we were more surprised to see such an effect already at -55 degrees, which means that already at that temperature cryostimulation exerts an effect, albeit weaker,” Dr. Fontana told Medical News Today.

Additionally, the scientists found that, while blood glucose levels and waist circumference measurements decreased in both study groups, they lowered much more in the whole-body cryostimulation group.

“We were surprised to see an effect as early as -55 degrees,” Dr. Fontana commented.

“These results further emphasize the importance of temperature. In fact, this study suggests that lower temperatures might induce not only a stronger effect but also a long-lasting modulating effect on the autonomic nervous system and on the metabolic and hematological profile.”

– Dr. Jacopo Fontana

Dr. Fontana said although the study participants were already participating in a multidisciplinary rehabilitation program, whole-body cryostimulation may help people with poor adherence to rehabilitation protocols due to pain and inflammation due to its rapid anti-inflammatory and exercise-promoting effects.

“Its effects on mood, sleep, and fatigue may help reduce possible barriers to adherence to rehabilitation programs in various neurological and frailty conditions,” he added.

“Improvements in fat and blood glucose were particularly evident, but larger controlled studies are needed in the future to define the cryochamber temperature, duration, and frequency of exposure specific to the obesity condition and tailored to maximize benefits for this population,” Dr. Fontana added.

MNT also spoke with Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, not involved in the study, about this research.

He said that some researchers have been thinking for a while now that cold can help stimulate different types of fat cells, speeding up the body’s metabolism to break down more fat.

“It doesn’t seem like a practical solution for significant weight loss,” Dr. Ali continued. “Maybe an adjunct to other modalities like diet, exercise, surgery, medications, but I don’t think in and of itself, by itself, it would be a feasible weight loss solution.”

“The majority of weight loss, no matter what we do, is the diet,” he added. “We have to still change the diet, still need to make significant lifestyle changes to be able to see significant results.”

According to Dr. Fontana, the team decided to study the effect of whole-body cryostimulation on obesity because the effects of thermal stress on the physiological responses of the human body present unique features that could potentially be further exploited as an add-on treatment in the management of this condition.

“A growing body of work suggests that whole-body cryostimulation could play a role as an adjuvant therapy in various conditions of rehabilitation interest, as it can act as a ‘training method’ for the autonomic nervous system, a novel anti-inflammatory and antioxidant treatment with beneficial effects on body composition and adipose tissue,” he told MNT.

This is not the first time cryostimulation has been studied as a treatment for obesity. For example, a study in 2020 found whole body cryotherapy helps reduce abdominal obesity in women at menopause.

And another study in 2015 found that whole-body cryostimulation aids in lowering inflammation in men with obesity. However, a 2022 literature review found that whilst the results to date are promising, we lack definitive evidence of the effectiveness of whole-body cryostimulation in obesity, making larger, high-quality studies essential.