News / Canada

Can you really chill yourself healthy with cryotherapy like the celebs?

Cristiano Ronaldo, Demi Moore and Kobe Bryant do it. Minka Kelly and Mandy Moore Instagrammed their sessions.

Glamour called it the “Latest Insane Sports Treatment Celebrities are Obsessed With,” and New York Magazine wrote a gushing first-hand account of doing it at the only place it’s available in New York.

It’s called cryotherapy, and, turns out, it’s available right here in Toronto, too.

Roman Gersh opened Cryotherapy Health and Wellness, located on Finch near Dufferin, about a year ago.

His office is about the size of a walk-in closet. You enter through the side door of a large brown building that also houses a strip club, divorce lawyers and an import-export business.

Inside, there’s a small desk, a couch and the main event: A big, beige cryotherapy chamber.

Gersh himself is kind and personable. He explains that the chamber uses liquid nitrogen to quickly cool the air inside down to -140 or even -180 C.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to force the brain to trigger certain beneficial mechanisms that it wouldn’t naturally do,” he said. “We achieve that by cooling the surface of the skin to about 10 C, which sends a signal to the brain that you’re pretty much freezing.”

People do this willingly for the purported benefits.

Cryotherapy was developed more than 30 years ago. It’s used on individual body parts, or the whole body, largely as a way to help sports players recover faster — and with less discomfort than the traditional ice bath —from intense workouts.

For the average person, there are all sorts of purported benefits.

Your body burns up to 800 calories as it fights to stay warm during each three-minute session, proponents say. Plus, the treatment — which costs $45 to $60 — is also said to release endorphins that relieve stress, collagen that smoothes the skin and give you a shot of adrenaline.

Some use it to relieve arthritis, pain, inflammation and psoriasis.

Gersh says he believes, from his experience alone, it can relieve seasonal allergies. If you’re a runner, hitting the road after a session means you can go half-an-hour longer than normal, he says.

Gersh went into the cryotherapy business after he stumbled across articles about it online, while looking for something else for his wife. He became intrigued.

He has no medical training but took courses in cryotherapy in the U.S. when he bought the machine.

Since then, he’s seen the popularity grow among athletes and people with medical issues, but says, so far, not too many clients come to his office looking for a spa, seeking the beauty benefits of the rich and famous.

“Maybe it just hasn’t gotten that popular in Canada yet.”

But what does it feel like?

Standing in my underwear in -140 C for three minutes won’t hurt me, says Roman Gersh.

I am skeptical.

“It’s a dry cold,” he says.

That phrase is usually used by Canadians parsing the difference between winter climates, mostly, in my experience, Winnipeggers explaining why their winter isn’t really that bad.

I have never really bought it from them, but now think it had better be true.

Gersh leaves the office so I can strip down to my bra and underwear in private. I change my socks, because any dampness will freeze my feet, and I step into the super-thick slippers provided.  I put on my MEC mittens. I am ready.

I step inside the cryo chamber and close the door. It’s a small, insulated cylinder.

Gersh re-enters the room and raises the platform I’m standing on so my head is above the top of the chamber.

A cold steam of nitrogen pours in and Gersh tells me to lift my head — breathing the nitrogen won’t hurt me, but getting some oxygen too is never a bad idea, he says.

Oh it’s cold.

I’d read somewhere that some think this feels like a sauna. You know, a hot one. That is bull.

I’m getting a little scared and wonder what this is doing to me. Gersh tells me to relax, put my shoulders down.

I comply and the cold settles in. I’m getting used to it. I start to shiver — bigger, convulsive shakes than I’d normally get on a cold day, but it’s OK. I realize, this isn’t so bad.

After two minutes and 25 seconds of about - 140 C, Gersh tells me it can go colder and longer after my first try, but he’s going to let me out.

He pops the door and walks out of the office to give me privacy again.

I step out and dress. Over the next few minutes, I realize I’m feeling happy and calm. I’m super chatty with Gersh.

I realize I’m getting a taste of the endorphins I usually get after running a half-marathon or more. This isn’t bad.

It wasn’t fun, exactly, but I think waiting in the cold Finch Station bus bay on my way there was worse. It was longer and, somehow, just felt worse.

Oh right, this was a dry cold.

Step on up. Roman Gersh with one of the cryotherapy chambers available at his business

Step on up. Roman Gersh with one of the cryotherapy chambers available at his business

But does it actually work?

The science backs up some, but not all of the claims Roman Gersh and others make about cryotherpy, one expert says.

Joseph Costello, a senior research associate at England’s University of Portsmouth, is one of the world’s few experts in the field.

His work backs up the basic premise on which health and beauty claims are based, but the exact benefits are less certain.

“There are a lot of claims being made about a three-minute exposure burning so many calories and it being used for weight-loss. However, to my knowledge, there is no quality scientific literature to support these claims,” he said.

While people typically shiver during and after a session, thereby increasing their metabolic rate and burning more calories, claims of burning 800 calories in three minutes aren’t reliable, he said.

There have been limited studies that show people see an increase in adrenaline, endorphins and anti-inflammatory proteins after cryotherapy, which, in theory, could reduce pain.

“But these studies have been few and far between, so the scientific literature is lacking good evidence to support this,” Costello said.

As for immediately being able to run a half-hour longer — that’s unlikely, he said. But there is some limited evidence to show it might improve your sleep, which could, in theory, lead to a better workout the next day.

Costello said his work has found evidence of some risk. It’s possible to be burned by the extreme cold, and cryotherapy is not advisable for anyone with cardiac problems.

“You’re exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures so it’s quite important that safety checks are done beforehand and individuals who are unfit to do the treatment are not put through it,” he warned.