Can Cryotherapy Really Treat Depression?

Can Cryotherapy Really Treat Depression?

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cryotherapy for depression

This post was originally published on April 29, 2016.

I first heard about cryotherapy from the hippest girl I know, the quintessential person who knows about everything a good year or so before the rest of us. She told me that a Russian debutante she knew took her to a glorious place on La Cienega in West Hollywood where the two of them lost weight by standing in an ice cold chamber for three minutes, rocking out to Tame Impala (note: I didn’t know who that was). Right away, I had three conflicting thoughts simultaneously: one that she was insane, two that I complain that LA summer nights are too chilly so I could obviously never do it and three that I had to try it right away.

A month or two later, I found myself at the place she’d told me about—Cryohealthcare, the leading spot for Angelenos who like to freeze (the company is now expanding to New York). I was there, yes, because I’m a little obsessive and my perspective is admittedly a little skewed when it comes to body and weight and so I will try many things as a result. But I had also learned something else when I spoke to Robin Kuehne, who owns the Cryohealthcare monopoly with his brother Jonas—the MD who was the first doctor to bring cryotherapy to the US—and Jonas’ wife Emelia. Robin told me a social worker was bringing a group of depressed patients in regularly because of the impact cryotherapy can have on brain chemistry.

This really got my attention because if there’s anything that rivals my interest in physical health, it’s mental health. I actually keep an Excel spreadsheet mood chart and every day I give the previous day a 1-10 rating. In addition to suffering from alcoholism (I’m sober a little over a decade-and-a-half), I’ve had bouts of depression since my early 20s. In other words, I was a good candidate to put the “positive impact on mood” cryotherapy theory to the test.

Rest assured, what Kuehne has to say about cryo and brain chemistry isn’t just some savvy marketing. There have actually been numerous studies done on the topic but they’re all out of Poland, where the original cryotherapy machines were manufactured. One of the studies, “Whole-body cryotherapy as adjunct treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders,” focused on a group of 18-65 year-olds who had daily, 2-3 minute cryogenic treatments for 15 minutes. After three weeks, the group had a 50% decrease in symptoms of depression and a 46.2% decrease in anxiety. Fifty percent! I’m no scientist but when you’re talking about depression, a 5% decrease in symptoms is a big deal, let alone 50!

How, exactly, does this happen? In non-scientific terms, when your body is in -200 degrees, it thinks it’s dying and that produces a hell of a lot of euphoria. In other words, the release of endorphins gets triggered in crazy ways—sort of like a spinning class on crack. But the impact isn’t just ephemeral: because cryotherapy decreases the release of cortisol, the benefits don’t disappear once the euphoria has died down. Add in the positive impact cryo has on sleep (I’m a sometime insomniac so this really got my attention), the immune system and serotonin and you’ve got some faces perhaps frozen into perma-smiles.

Initially, I had the same reaction as any cynical denizen in a world where we’re constantly being sold quick, too-good-to-be-true-sounding fixes that will allegedly heal all that ails us. But something happened during my conversation with Robin Kuehne that made me re-think my skepticism. When I asked him about the claims I’d heard that cryo helped with weight loss, he was quick to tell me there were no guarantees. “When people come here they often are trying to be healthier in many ways,” he said. “I would never make a claim that weight loss is solely due to cryotherapy.” If this was snake oil, I certainly wasn’t talking to a snake oil salesman.

And so I started going, every week for two months. Because Cryohealthcare is four miles from where I live and in LA that can mean, during heavier traffic times, a good half hour in the car each way, I couldn’t make it more than once a week (none of the daily treatments those depressed folks in the experiment got, alas).

From the beginning, I felt the immediate euphoria; I remember chatting with the woman at the front desk after my first treatment and she told me I was grinning ecstatically. I actually felt, that first time, a little like I had the first few times I did cocaine. There was no come down, however; I just noticed, a few hours later, that I wasn’t grinning maniacally anymore.

During the period of time I spent going to Cryohealthcare every week, a number of unexpected events occurred—namely, a relationship breakup, the death of my cat and some hormonal issues. It was also winter and even though I live in allegedly seasonless Los Angeles, I’m always more down in the winter, even if some of those winter days are sunny (call it slightly emotional seasonal affective disorder).

Here’s what I can tell you so far: my one-person cryotherapy experiment has been sort of shockingly effective. I told you I number rate my days, right? Well, the past two months have been filled with 8’s (very high on the Anna David scale) and my sleep has been solid. The bumps in the road I mentioned—break-up, cat, hormones—have actually felt just like bumps in the road and not the catastrophic earthquakes similar events have felt like at other times in my life.

Can I credit cryotherapy entirely with this positive state of mind? Of course not. Could it be the placebo effect? Certainly. Is the mere thought that I’m supposedly burning between 500 and 800 calories during the 48 hours after my treatment enough to make me happy? Sure (I told you I’m not entirely healthy in the body obsessive realm). But to me, a positive impact being all in my head when we’re talking about something that’s all in my head is as good as a solution as you can get.

Photo courtesy of Cryohealthcare; used with permission

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About Author

Anna David is the founder and former CEO/Editor-in-Chief of After Party. She hosts the Light Hustler podcast, formerly known as the AfterPartyPod. She's also the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and the non-fiction books Reality Matters, Falling For Me, By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There and True Tales of Lust and Love. She's written for numerous magazines, including Playboy, Cosmo and Details, and appeared repeatedly on the TV shows Attack of the Show, The Today Show and The Talk, among many others.