What is cryotherapy and why do people pay $60 to feel like they’re freezing to death?

Actress Lindsay Lohan is a among the celebrity fans of cryotherapy. Instagram

There are people who pay $60 to spend three minutes tricking their brains into thinking they’re freezing to death.

It’s called cryotherapy and is supposed to send your body into a “survival” mode that somehow makes you healthier and more attractive when nutrient-rich and oxygenated blood reportedly flushes out the toxins from your body.

There’s virtually zero scientific proof it works.

It also appears to have been deadly: The 24-year-old manager of a Nevada cryotherapy clinic was found lifeless in a chamber last week after being left alone to close up shop.

We don’t know how she died. Official autopsy results can take up to eight weeks. But local police believe she suffocated and chalked the death up to “operator error.” She was alone at the time.

Roman Gersh, who operates the Cryotherapy Health and Wellness centre in Toronto, thinks his operation is both safe and effective.

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He stresses that the doors do not lock and the machine automatically shuts off after three minutes.

That said, “I don’t think anyone should go in without any supervision,” he said.

Hailey Cap, who worked with the woman found frozen in Nevada, told The New York Times that one reason people aren’t supposed to use it solo is because “the nitrous gas used to chill the air can be debilitating.”

How it works

There are one-person cryosaunas and multi-person cryochambers.

Cryochambers could be compared to a big freezer. You have to wear a mask and earmuffs in addition to the mitts, socks, booties, and underwear required in one-person cryosaunas.

In those, which look more like a shower, you’re enclosed from the neck down while liquid-nitrogen chilled air gives you an arctic blast.

The FAQ section of the Toronto centre compares it to “standing nude in front of [a] freezer.”

Gersh says it takes about 30 seconds for your skin to get cold enough to trigger receptors that send a signal to your brain “letting it know that you may be in danger of freezing.”

“Your brain will start to worry about your organs [failing] and send 80 per cent of your blood to the core in an attempt to keep it warm,” he explained, adding that in reality, the cold only penetrates about half a millimetre of your skin.
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Once you leave the chamber and warm up, the rush of re-circulating blood is supposed to rid your body of toxins.

Who’s doing it and why

LeBron James has done it.

Floyd Mayweather also did it to prepare for his “fight of the century” earlier this year.

Robert Ferreira, the owner of a martial arts self-defense and fitness school, first tried it a couple years ago in Los Angeles after friends in their 40s and 50s swore by its therapeutic benefits.

Because he spends up to eight hours a day doing physical training, he thought it could provide his muscles some relief.

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Ferreira has been coming to Gersh’s centre every week since the beginning of this year and says he’s “hooked.”

The 35-year-old admits the first time was “a bit of a surprise” but credits his breathing techniques for helping him bear the cold.

“The second I got out,” he said, “I felt fantastic. My pain was gone and for the rest of the day I was full of energy.”

He’s one of thousands who’ve undergone cryotherapy at the Toronto clinic in the past three years. Athletes, Gersh guesses, make up about sixty per cent of the clients.

Cryotherapy could be compared to an extreme version of ice baths athletes sometimes use to promote muscle recovery. Rather than the typical 20 minutes that might take, cryotherapy only requires two or three. But it’s much, much colder.

I’ll take cryotherapy any day over ice baths,” Ferreira said though. He thinks ice baths are very time-consuming and the cold sticks in your bones for longer, especially in the winter. Cryotherapy, Gersh said, is “a dry cold.”

Twenty to 30 per cent of Gersh’s cryotherapy clients come for “general health” reasons, he said — reasons that include:

He says 10 to 15 per cent come to his centre for the reported cosmetic benefits of cryotherapy, including:

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  • cellulite reduction, and increased collagen production
  • weight loss and higher metabolism.

“As soon as you’re out, your body will try to get back to its core temperature by burning calories,” Gersh claims.

A single session is advertised to burn up to 800 calories per session. “Over time the accelerated metabolic effects last longer between sessions, resulting in a loss of 200-300 calories per day, burning a total of two lbs of body fat per month from Whole Body Cryotherapy alone,” Gersh’s site reads.

The idea of it being a “fountain of youth” has undoubtedly made cryotherapy popular among Hollywood starlets.

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What the doctors say

The consensus: No sound research backs up the claims.

One of the leading experts in the field, Joseph Costello of the University of Portsmouth in England, believes there is an “urgent need” for more studies. His latest research compares ice baths used by athletes with cryotherapy to see if there’s a benefit to using the latter.

Earlier this year he reviewed existing studies and found “insufficient evidence” to determine whether whole body cryotherapy actually helps with muscle soreness and recovery.

“I think the biggest concern is the limited quantity of scientific evidence that has been provided regarding the effectiveness of the treatment,” he said.

Only four studies met the inclusion criteria for Costello’s review. Of the 64 participants in the studies, only four were female.

There’s even less evidence to suggest cryotherapy will help you lose weight.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no studies that have examined this,” Costello said.

And Costello said there’s only anecdotal evidence, nothing data-driven, to suggest cryotherapy can boost your mood or help you sleep better.

Ferreira isn’t deterred by the lack of evidence either for cryotherapy’s health benefits or for its safety.

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“I would sleep like a baby” after cryotherapy sessions, he said.

“You know the old saying, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’? I’m sure there weren’t studies for that back then. But guess how beneficial that is now?”

Over the course of his review, Costello found one case of a person getting frostbite on his thigh from the treatment. 

He pointed out there may be other risks we don’t yet know about. It appears no one has bothered to check.

“None of the studies included any reporting of adverse events. So nobody monitored the participants for any signs of adverse effects or events from using the particular treatment,” he said.

“There’s a need to monitor, and record and report if any adverse events occurred in a particular study.”

Cryotherapy, Costello added, is not recommended for people who have any kind of heart condition or are pregnant.

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