Cryotherapy and other thermal agent based modalities are the latest rage in today’s sports performance and fitness industries. But with people shelling out hundreds of dollars on these cryotherapy tanks, float tanks, ice-baths, infrared saunas (the list could go on and on) the question remains, is there any actual scientific benefit to these modalities for fat-loss, recovery or tissue regeneration?
Some effects of cryotherapy are pure common sense. Have you ever noticed why we are hungrier when it’s cold or that we tend to eat a lot more during winter? We pile on food like a polar bear ready for hibernation, and that is our body’s natural way of saying that a human is more metabolically active and burning more calories; therefore, you need to eat more.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It is merely transferred from one form to another. Cold exposure on our body creates the vital need to stay warm, and there are two ways that the human body can transfer energy to heat. The first one is by shivering; when we are cold, we shiver, our body is creating tiny muscle contractions with the goal of creating kinetic energy which then transfers to heat energy.
The second way our body stays warm is by simply increasing the metabolic demand and picking the stored calories or, in this case, fat cells, especially brown adipose tissue which has just one purpose – to keep us warm.
Before I explain how cold thermogenesis works for recovery and fat-loss, you must understand that we have two different fat cells in our body; brown adipose tissue and white adipose tissue.
Brown Adipose Tissue
If fat was a superhero, it would be called Bat-Fat. Brown fat, known as “brown adipose tissue” (BAT) is made up of energy-producing mitochondria and oxygen-consuming capillaries. BAT contains numerous small lipid droplets surrounded by a large number of mitochondria. Mitochondria have a unique uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) in the inner membrane, UCP1 is expressed selectively in BAT, but not in other tissues. Its role is to uncouple oxidative phosphorylation from ATP synthesis, thereby dissipating energy as heat. Heat production from the brown adipose tissue is activated whenever the body is in need of extra heat, and the rate of thermogenesis is centrally controlled via a pathway initiated in the part of your brain called the hypothalamus. (Cannon 2004)
Until now, scientists believed brown fat was found only in newborn babies but was lost with age. Part of our ancestral “caveman” genetic but lost in evolution and the comfort of modern civilization. BAT is recognized as the primary site of sympathetically activated non-shivering thermogenesis during cold exposure and uncontrollable hyperphagia, thereby controlling whole-body energy expenditure and body fat. BAT is metabolically active fat and is found around the collarbones, spine, kidneys and the major blood vessels so that it can help to heat the blood. If a person is subjected to cold on a regular basis, they will increase levels of brown fat.
White Adipose Tissue
Every hero needs a nemesis and, in this case, white adipose tissue (WAT) is our guy.
(WAT) Is what most people typically think of when you mention “bad fat” (the fat on their stomachs, hips, and legs). It’s composed of a single large droplet with a single nucleus. Without citing all of its physiological purposes, I am going to state that its primary purpose is to store energy in the form of fatty acids, which in other terms results in obesity and is related to metabolic disorder and all manner of diseases. This regular white fat (white adipose tissue) that makes up the subcutaneous fat is not completely bad but can be harmful, especially when it grows to the point that one becomes obese.
What Is Cold Thermogenesis?
Cold thermogenesis describes the use of fat metabolism to keep warm during cold exposures such as cryotherapy. The way it does that is by recruiting more of our brown adipose tissue (BAT) which sole purpose is to activate uncouple oxidative phosphorylation (UCP1) from ATP synthesis, in other words dissipating energy as heat.
Heat production from brown adipose tissue is activated whenever the organism is in need of extra heat, and the rate of thermogenesis is centrally controlled via a pathway initiated in the hypothalamus. (Cannon 2004)
Interestingly, brown fat can somewhat convert white fat when we get cold. This process is called “browning of WAT,” and research shows that BAT with the help of a hormone called irisin converts WAT to have similar characteristics. These new cells are called “beige fat” or “brite” cells meaning that it can burn more calories than regular white fat. Beige cells belong to a cell lineage different from “classical” brown adipocytes, but also contribute to adaptive thermogenesis and body fat reduction.
Studies showed that BAT could be recruited with cold thermogenesis and that the increase in BAT presence after weight loss could be a direct effect of a decreased insulation due to loss of adipose tissue. Weight loss significantly changed the thermal distribution, as demonstrated by the observed skin and core temperatures. Therefore cold-stimulated adaptive thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue to increase energy expenditure is suggested as a possible treatment of obesity (Vijgen 2012).
Benefits of Cold Thermogenesis and Cryotherapy
Cold thermogenesis benefits obviously are related to fat loss but here are some other benefits that are less commonly talked about:
- Increase Hormone levels
- Increase Lean Body Mass
- Increase Athletic Performance
- Reverses Diabetes
- Pain Management
- Strengthen Adrenal Function
- Deeper Sleep
- Increase Immune System
I want to delve a bit deeper into a couple of these benefits because they are very important:
BAT is present in every mammal, but it has been found that those who live in areas that are frequently cold, or who are regularly exposed to the colder temperatures, have much higher BAT levels that generate the heat, keeping them warmer. Although fasting or exercise can increase your levels of BAT, they are nothing when you compare them to the cold.
This strange sounding thing is actually a hormone and, when your body is exposed to the cold, it is released, and it gets to work on breaking down the fat. Then it will shift the glucose over to your muscles, helping to reduce your blood sugar levels. This has two effects – anabolic, which helps to repair your muscles quicker, and recovery enhancement. It has been found that lower levels of this hormone have close links to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Immune System Enhancements
It’s long been proven that cold therapy has some serious benefits for your immune system, mainly by pushing up production of infection and disease-fighting immune cells. More specifically, exposure to the cold has also been shown to bring on agranulocytosis and leukocytosis, probably because the cold stimulates the body to release norepinephrine. Alongside these, we also see a rise in the number and the activity of natural killer cells, along with more interleukin-6 in circulation in your body and that boost the integrity of the immune system no end.
Studies have shown that, when restricted in calories, mice, fruit flies, and worms all live longer, and the hypothesis is that this has something to do with the regulation of mTOR, a protein found in the body. When the mTOR pathway is inhibited, we start to see something called cell autophagy, the process by which the human body cleans itself of any metabolic rubbish that blocks your cells and this, in turn, makes those cells healthier and live for longer. Similarly, cryotherapy will also lengthen the life of your cells using similar pathways to fasting or restriction of calories.
Reduces Blood Sugar and Boosts Metabolism
Exposure to cold can make your body burn off blood glucose very quickly as a way of warming up the body, and unused glucose will then be stored in your muscles as glycogen, providing better performance and faster recovery times. It does all this before the blood glucose gets sent to the liver and turned into fat. But while it might be tempting to just eat what you want and then expose yourself to cold, it really won’t work like that over the long term. It is good for the occasional slip up though!
Also, studies of BAT in humans, using PET scans (positron emission tomography), together with CT (computed tomography) scans, show that the uptake of glucose can increase by 12 times when exposed to the cold, alongside increases in metabolism and in energy expended.
How Do We Cold-Adapt To Cryotherapy?
There are currently no proven methods on how to adapt to the cold. My best advice is to take it slowly, don’t go jumping in a frozen lake or start walking the dog in shorts and t-shirt after reading the article; you are more likely going to catch a cold or cause yourself to have skin burns then have all the benefits stated above.
Protocols like Dr. Jack Kruse cold thermogenesis protocol is one of the best out there. You need to gradually earn your way to the next level of cold and let your body adapt to the cold.
BEFORE every Cryotherapy session:
- Eat a high fat and/or protein meal.
- Immediately drink 16-32oz of ice cold water. DO NOT drink more than 32oz.
What you need: skin thermometer, a timer, ice, and a bathroom sink or larger bowl.
- Remove make-up or facial products.
- Get the water between 50-55 degrees.
- Dunk your face into the ice water and hold as long as you can.
- Record time and dunk again.
- DO NOT let your skin temperature fall below 50-55 degrees.
Compression Shirt & Ice:
- Lie-down flat on your back.
- Place a 20-40 lbs block of ice on your torso (while wearing compression shirt).
- Try to extend your time 5 minutes a time until you get to 60 minutes.
- If you can complete the 60 minutes – remove the compression shirt and place the bag of ice directly on the skin.
*Note: If you develop cold urticaria at this time, this is a sign you have high levels of tissue and serum omega six content. Stop the experiment and adjust your diet until you have a blood omega six to three ratio that is below 10 to 1 using a ketogenic paleolithic diet. When you can tolerate the skin being covered for one hour with pink to cherry red skin you’re now ready for the cold tub cryotherapy step!
Full Body Immersion with Ice:
- Fill the bathtub with cold tap water.
- Wear socks, gloves and a knitted cap to keep the heat in your body.
- Add 20 lbs of ice to chest and abdomen.
- When your body is used to the ice you can remove the socks, gloves, and cap.
- DO NOT let your skin temperature fall below 50-55 degrees.
- Stay for 45 minutes.
- Continue daily 2-5 times a week.
RELATED: “The Complete Guide To Foundations & Fallacies of Soft-Tissue Regeneration”
Full Body Immersion with NO Ice:
- Jump into a pool, lake, or hot tub from the neck down
- Stay for 10-20 minutes.
*Note: Pay attention to skin color.
The More Practical Side of Cryotherapy
If you think that the above is a little too extreme to start with, there are simpler ways to kickstart your metabolism and get yourself used to it before you start immersing yourself in baths of ice water. These will also give your body a boost of antioxidants and improve sensitivity to insulin.
#1 Start The Day With A Cold Shower
Yes, you could jump into a freezing cold lake or lay in a bath of ice in the middle of winter, but you don’t need to, not if you really don’t want to. Obviously, these would be the fastest ways of lowering your body temperature but there are other ways, and one of them is right there, in your own home.
Simply start every day with a cold shower, that’s all it is. Begin running the water at your usual temperature and then end your shower by standing under cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. This is a very quick way of lowering your temperature, and it is very effective, not to mention a good deal easier than plunging into a freezing bath.
#2 Get Outside
Obviously, it needs to be cold outdoors for this to work so do this in the winter. Just stand out in the cold for a few minutes, a very effective way of exposing yourself to the cold. Don’t wrap yourself up in layers either that will totally negate any effect the cold will have. Just dress normally and stand out for 5 or 10 minutes in the morning. If you don’t fancy the idea of just standing out in the cold, do a little light yoga or take a book out with you-you’ll be surprised at how quickly the time goes. It’s a free way to use cold thermogenesis and cryotherapy without having to leave your own property.
#3 Turn Up The Air Conditioning
If you don’t want a cold shower or you really don’t relish the thought of heading out into sub-zero temperatures, just switch on the air conditioning and turn it to its coldest. Plenty of research has shown that being in a cold room can have significant positive effects on fat burning. One of those study groups sat in a room with the air conditioning set to cool the room to 39° F or 4° C for half an hour. The results showed that their fat-burning levels increased significantly along with their metabolism. However, what boosted the metabolism wasn’t due to any effect on their levels of epinephrine, thyroxin, norepinephrine or any other hormone that targets fat-burning; instead, it was simple shivering, causing more movement in the body.
So, if you needed one, now you have the perfect excuse to head to your favorite wholesale store and wander slowly through the freezer department! It may not increase your BAT levels, but it will certainly pump up your metabolism.
#4 Stay Cold While You Are Sleeping
Not many people like to be cold while they sleep but it’s certainly a better option than lying in a cold bath or diving into a cold river. This is by far the easiest way to take advantage of the effects of cold thermogenesis because it all happens while you sleep.
Studies show that brown fat levels can be upped while you get some much-needed shut-eye; one research group followed people who slept in temperatures between 19° F and 66° F – the results showed that their brown fat levels increased by an average of 42% and they also showed an increase in metabolic activity by 10%, after just one month of sleeping in cooler temperatures.
It doesn’t take much to turn down the temperature at night and doing so can have a significant beneficial effect, Turn the air conditioning up to cold, throw off the duvet and sleep in peace while cold thermogenesis gets to work.
#5 Don’t Overdo Things
This is perhaps the most important tip of all. While cold thermogenesis is great for boosting metabolism and upping your levels of BAT, this really is a case of more doesn’t work better. Done properly, cold thermogenesis is extremely beneficial; done wrong and the consequence could affect your health quite seriously.
Overdo the cryotherapy, and your blood pressure could rise, conserving heat in your body by constricting your blood vessels. It can also seriously affect your sympathetic nervous system so overdoing things can push the risks way beyond any benefit.
Time To Freeze Your Ass Off With Cryotherapy
Cold thermogenesis research is still new but the results are clear, and there are a lot of potentials for it to be used. Whether it’s utilizing cryotherapy to help athletes recover, cold immersion to drop body fat or cure cardiovascular diseases, you should give cold thermogenesis a try. Go back to your inner caveman, stop complaining the cold, and instead, embrace it.
Once adapted, you won’t be as cold anymore, and you start the summer shred earlier than everyone else. Just make sure that you follow the guidelines and don’t overdo things; instead of shredding your body, you could end up shredding your health, and that is the last thing anyone wants. Like any diet or exercise, done correctly, cold thermogenesis cryotherapy is an excellent addition to your fat-burning and recovery regime. While it can’t replace diet and exercise, it can be used as a way of boosting your results, of seeing things happen much quicker than they would have done without the cold exposure.
About The Author
Kevin Masson MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, USAW
is a strength conditioning coach, exercise physiologist, and functional training specialist in Florida. His primary focus is working with athletes and general populations to increase athletic performance but also enhancing biomechanics. Kevin’s passion is focused on enhancing overall quality of life and pain-free performance for his clients.
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Vijgen, G. H. E. J. et al. “Increase In Brown Adipose Tissue Activity After Weight Loss In Morbidly Obese Subjects”. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 97.7 (2012): E1229-E1233. Web.
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