It's hot to be cold

Cold spells can boost your immunity and help muscle pain and depression. But is plunging into an ice bath or a freezing chamber going too far? A sceptical Ellie Levenson examines the evidence
I'm not good at being cold: a fondness for moaning and a tendency to be pathetic rather put me off the winter months. When I was in Berlin one December and temperatures plunged below -12°C, the only way I could cope was by eating fried food on the hour and drinking hot wine on the half hour. I own more fleeces than I've had hot dinners and I've had quite a lot of those. My hot water bottle is currently one of my most treasured possessions.

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But snuggling up, it seems, is no longer the way to get through winter. Not only has recent research from the Scripps Research Institute in California shown that reducing the core body temperature of mice makes them live for longer, but cryotherapy, where people are exposed for short bursts of time to extremely cold temperatures, is the latest treatment fad. Right now being cold is very hot indeed.
Cryotherapy - which is popular in Poland, where it is available in many conventional hospitals - involves standing in chambers filled with cold, dry air at temperatures as low as -135°C. The London Kriotherapy Centre (which uses the Polish spelling) claims this treatment can help a range of ailments from muscular injuries to depression. Cryotherapy is also used by sports teams to decrease the amount of time needed for muscles to recover between training sessions.

The exposure to extreme cold is supposed to stimulate the temperature receptors in the skin to tell the brain to withdraw blood to the body's core. Once this is over, blood is pumped vigorously back around the body, stimulating oxygen and nutrient supply to areas that need revitalising. "Our motto is that you don't have to feel bad to feel better." says Charlie Brooks, director of the centre, who recommends taking 10 two-minute treatments (at £30 a time) over a two-week period.

Tony Wilson, a physiotherapist at the University of Southampton, says that in theory these claims for cold are true but that such extreme temperatures are not necessary. "What they say about the treatment is correct but you might as well just get in a cold bath and save your money," he says. This is what the marathon runner Paula Radcliffe does before a race, describing on her website her pre-race routine: "... five hours before the start of the race, I eat my last meal. Another big bowl of porridge, some banana, some biscuits, a yoghurt and a little chocolate: fuel for later in the day. After eating, I relax again, take a shower and then go for my pre-race ice bath. Athletes mix the ice and water depending on their appetite for discomfort. Some like it colder than others. I like it very cold."

Source - Guardian