Leasha West’s body has been through the wringer.
As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former combat instructor, she hiked 15-plus miles several times a week with a 150-pound pack on her back. The bottoms of her feet turned raw and blistered, her toenails fell off, her legs went numb. “It’s not uncommon to have blood in your stool” from the training regimen, says West, who served from 1998 to 2002. “My body took a serious beating.”
But the 42-year-old – who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and spends her winters in Texas – hasn’t stopped. In addition to running her own insurance agency, she regularly runs, lifts weights and swims.
And, for three minutes every morning for the past two months, she’s stepped, nearly naked, into a negative 250 degree F (or colder) chamber. That’s more than twice as cold as dry ice.
“It’s the best way to start [the day],” says West, who pays $269 a month for unlimited treatments – called whole body cryotherapy – although single sessions can run up to $100 in some areas of the country. What for? Initially, to ease her back pain and muscle stiffness after hearing rave reviews from her professional athlete clients. But West also appreciates its added benefits. Namely: more energy and focus, a boosted metabolism, improved tolerance to cold and pain, faster-growing hair and nails, younger-looking skin and sounder sleep – even though she never had a problem snoozing to begin with. “You will not believe the crazy energy it gives you,” she says.
Whole body cryotherapy, which essentially means “cold treatment,” is a procedure that exposes the body to temperatures colder than negative 200 degrees F for two to four minutes. While it’s been used to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis andrheumatoid arthritis in Japan since the late 1970s, it’s only been used in Western countries for the past few decades, primarily to alleviate muscle soreness for elite athletes, according to a 2015 paper in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
But now, it’s being promoted by spas as a way to lose weight, improve skin, boost mood and more – despite the fact that it’s not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and isn’t intended to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease,” according to Cryohealthcare, a company that makes cryotherapy equipment.
“Cryotherapy is well-established for treatment of athletic injuries,” says Dr. Jon Schriner, the medical director of the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine in Flushing, Michigan. “To carry it into weight loss and other benefits is not mainstream.”
But people like West swear by it. While it feels cold right away, the time passes quickly, she says. “You’re going to get the shivers; you’re not going to feel like you’re frozen,” she says, noting that the treatment just penetrates the skin, so the organs stay safe. Plus, West adds, “you can open the door at any moment to get out.”
But before opening the door to step in, here’s what the experts and evidence say about some of the procedure’s purported benefits:
The Claim: Alleviates Muscle and Joint Pain
If you’ve ever iced a twisted ankle or sore shoulders, you’ve treated yourself to a form of cryotherapy that works. Applying cold to an injury for 15 minutes at a time, three to four times a day is “highly effective,” Schriner says.
But the benefits of doing that to your whole body are less conclusive. While a growing number of athletes – members of the Kansas City Royals, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Cowboys among them – have reportedly turned to whole body cryotherapy chambers and saunas for quicker recovery, “there is insufficient evidence” to determine whether the procedure relieves muscle soreness or improves recovery any more than simply resting or not using the treatment, the 2015 review of four studies on the topic found.
For West, however, it works. “All of the soreness is gone, and I don’t wake up stiff in the mornings at all,” she says.
The Claim: Promotes Weight Loss
The theory: Cold temperatures force your body to work hard – aka burn calories – to stay warm. Cryotherapy spas claim a single session burns hundreds of calories and that repeated use can boost your metabolism, helping you burn more calories all day. West, for one, notices the difference in her tolerance to Michigan weather. “My metabolic rate has increased, so I don’t get cold,” she says.
The reality: There are better says to lose weight. “Being cold does boost metabolism by trying to warm the body,” but it’s a stretch to sell it as a weight-loss therapy, Schriner says. For a better shot at weight loss, you’ll probably have to change your eating habits, says Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating issues and weight loss. “[Whole body cryotherapy] is a three-minute treatment, and we’re always looking for that thing to solve our issues an easy way,” she says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
The Claim: Makes You Look Younger
Since beginning regular whole body cryotherapy treatments, West says her skin looks better than it has in a long time. “This is taking a lot of years off,” she says. But Dr. Marie Jhin, a dermatologist in San Francisco, doesn’t suggest people seeking the fountain of youth put their money on it.
“With the decrease of temperature, it helps decrease inflammation, so a lot of times, people believe that decrease in inflammation can help with a lot of … inflammatory problems or skin issues,” she says. “But it’s not long term.” It’s better to do what’s known to work: Protect your skin from the sun, don’t smoke and consult with a dermatologist about FDA-approved treatments such as prescription topicals or dermal fillers.
“There’s not one thing that helps with anti-aging,” Jhin says, noting it depends on your skin condition and how much you want to spend. “It’s about being healthy and avoiding things that aren’t healthy and doing treatments that are good for your skin.”
The Claim: Relieves Anxiety and Depression
For West, stepping out of the cryotherapy chamber elicits “a very euphoric feeling,” she says. After all, she survived! But while the procedure might temporarily boost your mood and energy levels, most studies looking at whether it can help treat mental illness aren’t strong or large enough to draw conclusions, Albers says.
“The theory behind it is that it releases endorphins and your natural adrenaline, and it gets your blood flowing throughout your body, which is something that can be helpful for people who are experiencing anxiety and depression,” she says. “But I’m not sure how long term [it works].”
Plus, anxiety and depression are complex conditions best treated by a mental health professional, Albers says. No one’s stopping you from doing both. “With any kind of [alternative] therapy like this … it’s often a nice adjunct to some of the traditional things that you do,” she says. “That could be another way of looking at it – combining it with other treatments.”
The Bottom Line: Proceed with caution.
Check with your doctor (and maybe financial advisor) before diving in. The treatment shouldn’t be used by pregnant women or people with various health conditions, including severe hypertension and various heart problems, warns Cryohealthcare. Children under 18 need parental consent. And, while the treatment seems to be safe when used correctly (for instance, in short spurts without wet clothing that can freeze and cause frostbite), it can be fatal when not: The treatment caught the public’s attention last year, when a cryotherapy spa employee died after stepping into the chamber unsupervised, and never stepped out.
But West, for one, won’t be stopping the treatments anytime soon. After all, for her, it’s a (cold) breeze. “After withstanding the pain level of Marine Corps ‘humps,’ which lasts for hours, a three-minute cryotherapy session is very manageable.”