Cryotherapy, Cold Immersion and Cold Shock Proteins: A Deeper, Colder Dive into Cryo

Young lady going to swim in the ice hole

This is part two of our three-part cryotherapy series. To learn the basics of cryotherapy and how it benefits your body, read part one.

When it comes to getting cold to benefit your health, the way it happens makes a big difference. You can dunk yourself in an ice bath, or you can get into a walk-in cryotherapy chamber, which surrounds you with a dry cold. Which is better? Which promises the best results? And just why is cryotherapy so effective? Read on to discover the answers to all your cryo questions.

The difference between cryotherapy and cold immersion

Both cryotherapy and cold immersion are designed to reduce inflammation, soothe pain and provide a number of other health benefits. The way they go about it is different.

In short, cold immersion therapy is an ice bath and cryotherapy uses dry, cold air to achieve the desired effects. There’s also a difference in time. While Wim “The Iceman” Hof swears by cold water, some people prefer dry cryo tanks because sessions are quicker. Cold immersion therapy requires you to sit in the ice bath for longer, but may offer superior benefits.

Your experience with cryotherapy will differ depending on whether you choose an air-circulated tank or a good old fashioned ice bath. Here’s what to expect from both, and why Complete Human advocates for cold immersion.

Physiological reactions

When you’re in an ice bath, your body is primarily focused on warming up your blood and core. This takes up most of your body’s energy, which can be a struggle to recover from. However, the ultimate physiological effects are better.

This study shows that cold water immersion offers greater reductions in thigh skin and superficial muscle temperatures, greater decreases in femoral artery conductance and greater cutaneous vasoconstriction in the thigh and calf muscles. Cold water immersion may therefore be a more effective cooling modality than air-circulated cryotherapy due, in part, to the hydrostatic pressure of water and the greater ability of water to conduct heat.

Getting up-and-at-em after an ice bath also has curious effects on the body. Cold immersion has been linked to higher levels of testosterone in men and boosted weight loss in women. These benefits are the direct result of the body shifting from conservation of energy to expenditure of energy.

Recovery time

When you’re in a cold immersion bath, your soft tissue and muscle begin to freeze. Since your muscles need recovery time to go from “frozen” to “mobile” once more, you may not be able to move around as easily after an ice bath. Cryo pods require less recovery time, but they may not have the same physiological benefits as cold water immersion.

Effect on muscle tissue

Frozen soft tissue causes your muscle to lose capacity—the cold sinks deep into your body. It can be pretty uncomfortable! In contrast, dry air cryotherapy mostly gives your body the signal that it’s cold. The cold air circulates around you, which causes your body to send out “fight or flight” signals. Your blood vessels constrict and more blood pumps to your core and central nervous system.

Cost

There’s a fairly significant cost difference between cold water immersion and cryotherapy, and how their costs take shape. Cold water immersion generally requires a specially-made ice bath, like the Complete Human Cryo Tub. Meanwhile, cryotherapy chambers are necessary to circulate liquid nitrogen to achieve freezing temperatures.

The upfront cost of a cold immersion tub might be thousands of dollars, but the cost-per-use is almost nothing after that investment. The average cost of a cryotherapy session ranges from $15-$40 per use and can add up very quickly at 4-6 uses per week (avg. $3,120-$12,480 annual). Long-term outlook puts cold immersion in the more affordable category, even in spite of a heavier up-front cost.

Environmental

At the end of the day, stepping into a copper tub and soaking in an ice bath is about as nature-friendly as you can get. Unfortunately, cryotherapy chambers are less environmentally-friendly. There’s significant carbon cost associated with driving, storing and using liquid nitrogen. It’s hard to beat the green-minded benefits of ice-cold water.

Health risks

There are health risks associated with both dry-air cryotherapy and cold immersion therapy. Both types of cryotherapy can easily cause tissue damage and hypothermia if you spend too long in the tank.

Both a cryo pod and a cold immersion tub will give your body the shock it needs to kickstart beneficial physiological processes. However, if you’re looking to reap the biggest benefit for the time you spend freezing your butt off, it’s hard to beat cold immersion.

What are cold shock proteins and why should I care?

Your body creates a lot of proteins, which are important for muscle function. When your body is exposed to extreme cold, it creates “cold shock” proteins. They’re designed to prevent excessive stress in your body—and yes, you can produce “heat shock” proteins, too.

Cryotherapy is one way to guarantee your body produces more cold shock proteins. When exposed to extreme cold, your body will try to protect itself and stay alive. As you read above, this is accomplished in a number of ways. Research has shown that when a body produces cold shock proteins, it can support your immune system (just ask Wim Hof). Proteins help power the immune system, and increased levels of cold shock proteins will help boost your immunity.

Another interesting effect of cold shock proteins has been shown in rats. When exposed to extreme cold, rats with a disease like Alzheimer’s produced a cold shock protein called RBM3. This protein actually slowed the disease’s progression. That’s in addition to the fact that cryotherapy reduces inflammation, which can cause or exacerbate a number of diseases.

Cold shock proteins are just another piece of the cryotherapy puzzle. If you have a genetic predisposition to certain diseases or a weak immune system, increasing your cold shock proteins could help prevent bigger issues.

Learn more about the benefits of cryotherapy

Stay tuned for the final piece in our three-part cryotherapy series. In part three, we’ll tell you all about Complete Human Cryo Tubs—how they work, why we built them and how your body stands to benefit.

Want to read part three? Click here and continue reading about the benefits of cryotherapy!

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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