From blowing steam up your vagina to placenta facials, there is no limit to what humans are willingly prepared to do in the name of health and beauty. The latest trend to emerge is Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC), a treatment that promises muscle recovery, rejuvenated skin, stress relief and even increased metabolism. The catch? You have to stand in a chamber at -140ºC to reap the rewards.
Everyone from athletes, the anti-ageing obsessed, insomniacs, and those hoping to miraculously drop some pounds (*eye roll*) say they have found their answer in the form of this body-shocking chill. But is there any evidence to this cure-all or are Cryotherapy spas just blowing very cold smoke up our a**? Research on WBC is mixed and dearth, but that hasn’t deterred its legion of loyal followers - from Usain Bolt to Gigi Hadid and Hannah Bronfman - from boasting about its benefits.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
For three minutes you stand in a chamber of frigid liquid nitrogen that tricks your body into thinking it’s going to freeze to death (fun!), forcing it into preservation mode and activating your “fight or flight” response. In order to keep warm, blood rushes to your core increasing body heat and once you return to room temperature, the extra-oxygenated blood circulates back through your body triggering an anti-inflammatory response and eliminating toxins, boosting cell renewal, relieving aching muscles and giving you a natural high.
“The low temperatures increase the firing capacity of the muscles as well as also increasing the level of endorphins, known as happy hormones, for a feel-good effect whilst promoting a rise in anti-inflammatory proteins for joint pain,” he says. This would explain why athletes use WBC in order to speed up recovery and improve their performance. But anything that promises calorie burn and improved metabolism with minimal effort and a hefty price tag warrants mistrust and a raised eyebrow.
WBC has essentially been hailed as a miracle cure-all, which is why I was sceptical to try it. The idea of paying £90 to freeze my body to subzero temperatures sounded like Dante’s Inferno-level of torture, but despite my reservations I wanted to see what all the hype was about.
LondonCryo director Maria Ensabella greeted me and briefed me on what was about to happen. Because it was my first session the treatment would only last two minutes, and a qualified LondonCryo technician would be there the whole time. Maria promised that not only was it a very low-risk procedure, but I would enjoy it and feel lighter and energised after. I stripped down to my unmentionables and took off any jewellery below my ears, then donned woolly socks, impossibly glamorous rubber clogs and mitts to protect my extremities. With just my head popping out of the Cryo chamber, I looked like I was immersed in a galactic witch cauldron with futuristic fog billowing out of it.
After the initial shock of the cold wore off, it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, it was jarringly freezing. I thought my thighs would congeal like a ham hock in a butcher’s meat locker, but it was bearable nonetheless. The two minutes passed quicker than I imagined, aided by the sound of Stormzy’s Cold blaring through the sound system. Admittedly, Maria was right, the experience was fun - and not just because emerging from a sci-fi looking pod enveloped in a pulsating mist of liquid nitrogen made me feel like Hans Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. After just one session I can’t speak to the long term benefits, but those two minutes undoubtedly made me feel sprightly. My limbs felt light as air and the tightness in my hamstrings from the previous day’s workout disappeared completely.
Unlike with ice baths (WBC’s less advanced cousin), after a WBC session your body isn’t too numb to train straight away so I put the energy-boosting benefits to test and headed to the gym. My workout didn’t all of a sudden feel effortless or even enjoyable, but I was definitely bouncier. Perhaps it was just a very expensive placebo effect, but I left feeling euphoric. While those two minutes in the Cryo chamber hands down gave me an adrenaline rush, like most of the evidence supporting WBC’s claims, my experience is purely anecdotal so take it with a hefty pinch of salt.
HEALTHY OR HYPE?
So far, research on WBC is inconclusive at best, but the health-obsessed seem unfazed by the lack of cold, hard evidence (pun intended). Albeit limited, most of the existing literature focuses around the treatment’s anti-inflammatory effect on muscles, and there is no real scientific support that WBC is effective as a weight loss treatment. Although pundits claim it increases metabolic rate and burn 500-800 calories in the 8 hours following your treatment (that’s a 45 minute run), Dr Alexandrides is careful in specifying that “the only way to truly lose weight is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and moderate diet.” Which we all know by now.
The lack of scientific evidence supporting WBC doesn’t mean it won’t eventually surface, it simply means it’s not a guaranteed procedure. It seems like WBC is a good complement to a healthy lifestyle, but certainly not a necessary one. I’m not a professional athlete, nor do I suffer from chronic pain, so WBC merely appeals to the vain, health and beauty aficionado in me. I remain sceptical, but if (that’s a big “if”) I had an extra £90 a week to splurge on a treatment that may or may not deliver, I’d give WBC a real chance.