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Cryotherapy for Depression

Cryotherapy might not seem an obvious treatment for depression. How can standing in a cabinet for a few minutes’ worth of minus 200 degrees cold give you a sense of hope or optimism? When you say it that way, it seems a little crazy. And yet, I wrote a little over a year ago about a clinical study from Poland that found a measurable benefit in cryotherapy treatments.

This time, however, I’m not going to look a clinical studies. I’m going to look at cryotherapy as a practical tool for managing depression.

When you actually undergo whole-body cryotherapy, the first thing you notice on exiting the cabinet is a positive mood change. You feel great, even elated. The feeling may not last the rest of the day, but just feeling that way for a little while has the power, I think, to break the hopelessness cycle that often characterizes depression.

Depression and Chemical Imbalance

According to conventional wisdom, depression comes from a reduction in synaptic communication. Messages from one brain cell to another can be inhibited by a shortage of neurotransmitter chemicals, such as serotonin. The most popular antidepressants work by reducing brain cells’ reabsorption of serotonin during this communication, which makes more of the chemical available for other messages. When the message traffic between brain cells (that is, across synapses) increases, symptoms of depression are reduced. That’s why antidepressants help a substantial fraction (half or more) of people suffering from depression.

That’s the textbook explanation. Now, I am going to give you my opinion, which is nowhere near medical orthodoxy but which makes sense to me. See if it make sense to you.

Lack of Exercise and Depression

According to Alex Korb, who writes a blog at Psychology Today, “In numerous studies exercise has been shown to increase both serotonin production and release. In particular, aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin.” Furthermore, he notes, the quality of the serotonin production and release depends on whether you exercise willingly or unwillingly. My insight from this is that voluntary exercise increases serotonin and mitigates depression.

The “voluntary” aspect is important. Depression can have a lot of different effects, but one of the most consistent is a desire for inactivity. When you’re depressed, you don’t want to do much of anything, much less exercise. The lack of exercise reduces your serotonin level, further reducing your motivation. It’s down and down, and before you know if, you’re spending the day in bed. This is what I call a depressive spiral.

Cryotherapy Breaks the Spiral

How do you develop a desire to exercise in order to break that spiral? That’s where cryotherapy can help. You might feel listless and unmotivated when you get in the cryotherapy cabinet, but three minutes later, when you get out, you feel euphoric. My theory is that this euphoria can be just enough to make you want to exercise, especially if you’re normally an active person.

I am not saying that cryotherapy will cure your depression. I’m saying it has potential for breaking a depressive spiral, allowing you to gradually work your way out of it through exercise and restoration of serotonin and increase in synaptic activity.

If you’re feeling depressed, allow me to suggest booking some cryotherapy sessions at Peak Recovery & Health Center. Plan your sessions with free time afterward so you can begin exercising right after the session is over. A few good exercise sessions in the course of a week may be enough to break your depressive spiral and set you up to avoid depression in the future with regular exercise. Once you’re well out of your funk, you can reduce your cryotherapy to occasional sessions as needed to keep your exercise on track.

Image: “Lounging Pup” by Teeejayy. Creative Commons license.