Updated: Nov 4
Cold showers, outdoor swims in chilly water, ice baths, cold plunge tubs, and nitrogen vapor whole body cryosaunas: What’s the difference between them?
Influencers such as “the Iceman” Wim Hof have brought the power of cold into the limelight. Withstanding cold can be an exercise of mental resilience and determination, but it can also be a surprisingly powerful way to defeat chronic pain, sleep, and mood disorders.
But all cold is not created equal. The way the body reacts depends on the medium (water, ice, or air), its temperature, and the length of immersion. Correspondingly, so are the benefits that can be expected.
Let us look at these differences:
What does cold do to the body?
The knowledge of cold benefits has been accumulating for more than 5,000 years! The benefits are rooted in the mechanism of thermoregulation: the body’s ability to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries, despite the changes in the surrounding temperatures that affect the skin.
When the ambient environment is cold, peripheral blood vessels constrict to preserve the body’s heat. The larger the difference between the skin and the outside temperatures in contact with it, the more pronounced the reaction, and the faster the skin temperature drops to protect the core.
In addition, the body seeks ways to stay warm. One of them is burning brown fat for heat; another, making the skeletal muscles shiver.
How cold is cold enough?
When it comes to the reaction of the body to cold, perception of the danger is everything. The more extreme the environment, the sooner the body realizes that it might be in jeopardy and ensures that the organs that are most important for survival are getting enough blood to keep it going in these altered conditions.
In addition, when the body goes into a “shock” mode, it registers that it might need extra help to ward off other potential threats; so it generates more white blood cells to fight infections, bacteria, and viruses.
However, it is the rapid skin temperature drop that determines the efficacy of the reaction: the faster the cooling, the more pronounced and systemic the benefits.
For this reason, if you are seeking health benefits, not just a physical challenge and adrenaline rush, colder for shorter rather than less cold for longer is best. Therefore, standing in a whole body cryosauna filled with -110° C air for 3 minutes will trigger a more pronounced protective reaction than sitting in icy water at about 4°C for more than twice as long, although the feeling will be more extreme in the ice bath. It is because the heat transfer coefficient of water is 24 times higher than that of air, and even more when ice is involved.
Is a cold water/ice plunge for you?
If you are generally healthy and are doing it for just the experience, or to build physical and psychological resilience, then yes. The cold will strengthen your immune system and improve the ability to cope with stress.
But a cryosauna is a better, faster and less painful way to experience cold if your goal is to boost performance, speed recovery, or relieve chronic pain. It also has fewer risks.
A quick immersion in an ice bath ONLY involves topical cooling. It causes a brief vasoconstriction, but it does NOT trigger the beneficial mechanisms of protecting the core. For that, you must endure the cold for much longer: A typical ice bath for therapeutic purposes must last for 10 to 20 minutes.
So, if you want to improve your performance or health but do not wish to endure uncomfortable ice baths for more than 10 minutes per session for several straight months, you should try our whole body cryotherapy instead.
Sometimes, people will say that a cryosauna is an “ice bath on steroids.” This statement comes from trying to explain how much faster and more comfortable whole body cryotherapy is compared with its much older cousin the ice bath. Yet the process initiated by the two is NOT THE SAME. In fact, it is quite the opposite!
What are the different effects of a cryosauna vs an ice bath?
The body’s reaction to extreme cold is radically different from its reaction to “normal cold”, such as being submerged in ice-cold water which is part of the environment around us in many places on Earth.
When gradually cooling in an ice bath, the body’s response is to deal with the discomfort, not a death threat. The body is warming blood in the core and sending it to the peripherals to warm the skin surface while it is struggling with actual, unrelenting, penetrating physical cold, not just signals from the cold sensors on the skin. During a 10-minute or longer submersion, not enough heat is generated to warm the skin, and the cold begins to “lurk” deeper into the body, towards its core. The muscles start to congeal. Blood circulation in them slows.
On the contrary, the extreme, not natural for survival, temperatures in our cryosauna create a perceived death threat, not just a discomfort. Skin temperature in the below -110° C environment drops by 15 or more degrees in just seconds (in an ice bath, it cannot happen, as the temperature of the ice-filled water is about 4° C at its lowest). The rapid cooling of the skin immediately initiates a process of protecting the core, withdrawing blood from the extremities to maintain the core temperature.
This reaction results in a better blood supply to all internal organs, thus supporting all vital functions. The treatment time is too short to harm the vasoconstricted peripheral tissue. Just a few minutes later, once the cryo session is over and the perceived threat to survival is gone, blood is flushed back to all corners of the body. (Note: you will not be consciously aware of this process…most people describe the experience as soothing and invigorating.) Enhanced blood flow results in feeling warm and energized: the body celebrates survival by releasing happiness hormones: endorphins and serotonin.
Since many users of cryotherapy are interested in sports and physical performance, it is important to also mention that a cryosauna does not impact the user’s mobility. During the 10-20 minutes of traditional ice bathing, tissue cools quite deeply, and the cold muscles temporarily lose capacity. As muscle tissue needs time to return to normal, the body must rest after an ice bath: so, regardless of the time of day of this cold treatment, the athlete cannot get back to practice for hours.
In contrast, the extreme cold in the cryosauna does NOT penetrate muscle tissue, it only cools the very surface of the skin. Since the drop of the skin temperature is rapid, it creates a powerful ILLUSION that the body freezes and triggers the earlier discussed rapid response. In just minutes after exiting the extremely cold environment, an athlete can continue to work out or perform.
Resource: GetResultsCo, 2023