Cryotherapy is gaining popularity amongst elite athletes, weekend warriors and the health conscious but what does it mean and what can it do for your body? Cryotherapy expert Sean Button, founder of Koa Recovery, breaks down the science to help us understand what’s really going on in the ‘cryo’…
Exposure to cold temperatures and cold therapy is becoming increasingly recognised as a therapy to help manage a magnitude of conditions, as well as improve overall health and wellbeing. Cryotherapy is a form of cold therapy which exposes the body to temperatures of approximately -120°c for up to three minutes. Cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen, meaning that you don’t get wet during your treatment, the air is dry. But what is the science behind it and how does it work?
CRYOTHERAPY + NOREPINEPHRINE
One of the most outstanding physiological responses to cryotherapy is the release of norepinephrine into the bloodstream. In fact, a recent study found that people who had whole body cryotherapy for two minutes at -110°c, three times a week for 12 weeks, experienced an increase of norepinephrine levels in their blood by 200 – 300%! This powerful hormone and neurotransmitter has an important role in our focus, attention, cognition, energy and mood. Norepinephrine also has positive effects on metabolism, pain and inflammation as well as results in vasoconstriction – the constriction of the blood vessels.
During a cryotherapy treatment your body also releases cold shock proteins. Cold shock proteins are involved in the metabolism of lipids, which means that your body becomes more efficient at burning fat.
CRYOTHERAPY + INFLAMMATION
Cryotherapy was initially invented by a rheumatologist over 30 years ago to help reduce inflammation and chronic pain for his client. Yes, inflammation is an important process to initiate tissue repair in the event of cell injury. However, at times our body goes a little overboard with the inflammatory process and it continues despite any injury. Inflammation has been named ‘the silent killer’ as it is found to be a key player in the ageing process and is associated with multiple chronic and complex health conditions. To highlight the detrimental impact of inflammation, a research study looked at pathology of people between the ages of 85 – 110+ and found only one bio marker that predicted survival and level of cognition – low level of inflammation! And guess what reduces inflammation – norepinephrine.
How? Norepinephrine inhibits the inflammatory pathway by limiting the amount of TNF-alpha (or tumor necrosis factor alpha) which is released. TNF-alpha is known to increase inflammation and have implications for disease including cancer and diabetes when in excess in our body. If that isn’t a reason to expose yourself to the cold in the cryo, then we’re not sure what is!
CRYOTHERAPY + IMMUNE SYSTEM
Exposure to the cold has also been proven to improve the immune systems functioning, playing a crucial role in disease prevention and the ageing process. Basically, you want to have a good supply of immune cells in your body however, you want them to remain dormant, unless of course there is a reason for them to become active and do their job. Research has revealed that exposure to the cold appears to increase our ‘stock’ of immune cells. One study found that exposure to the cold increased the body’s white blood cell numbers, including cytotoxic T Lymphocytes – these immune cells play a vital roll in killing cancer cells.
CRYOTHERAPY + MITOCHRONDRIAL BIOGENESIS
Exposure to the cold also increases the production of mitochondria in our cells, giving our body more energy and increasing our aerobic capacity. Particularly useful for people looking to increase their endurance…Chief athletes, listen up!
What does this mean for my performance? Whole body cryotherapy is a powerful tool to help enhance athletic performance. The use of cryo has been shown to increase strength, power and agility. One research study demonstrated that whole body cryotherapy worked 1 hour after plyometric exercise resulted in improved power and pain relief (at rest and during the next workout). Another study revealed that runners who did a cryotherapy session 1 hour, 24 hours, or 48 hours post hill sprint running had a 20% increase in speed and power…that’s 20% performance enhancement after the cryo session! Need more convincing? Cryo 1 hour and 24 hours post exercise was also found to enhance muscle recovery by decreasing the overall inflammation. Finally, Cryotherapy has also been found to improve stroke effectiveness and accuracy in ball sports, including tennis, giving those who use cryo an advantage over those who didn’t.
People have been exposing their body to the cold for many years and have been feeling better, looking more youthful and enjoying a range of benefits for their health and wellbeing. With the comfort of research, we can now understand what is happening to our body during regular cryotherapy and why it feels so good!