Cryotherapy vs. Cold Plunges: What The Science Says

Joey Randazzo

Published: Oct 23, 2023

Last Updated:

I’m about to blow your mind.

Cryotherapy = cold

Cold plunges = cold

And there you go, that’s the end of the article. We now know that they’re both cold.

But on a more serious note, cryotherapy and cold plunges are actually not equal when it comes to the quality of cold exposure.

This guide explains everything you need to know.

Quick Summary on Cryotherapy vs. Cold Plunges

For all you lovely people who hate reading, this is for you.

For all you lovely people who love reading, keep scrolling to see all the data, links to scientific studies, and more.

  • Both cold plunges and cryotherapy have awesome benefits
  • According to some of the experts that we trust, such as Dr. Andrew Huberman, it appears that cold water immersion (cold plunges) may have more profound health effects
  • Ideally, you’re able to get out in nature and safely get into cold water that is flowing (to reduce your ability to build up a thermal barrier). But we know this isn’t possible for everyone so any form of deliberate cold exposure is better than nothing!

Let’s Define Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is a medical and therapeutic treatment that involves the use of cold temperatures to provide various health benefits. The term "cryotherapy" comes from the Greek words "cryo," meaning cold, and "therapy," which refers to a treatment process. 

With this, we’re talking about legit cryotherapy equipment in the form of a chamber.

There are different types of cryotherapy, including:

1. Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC): In WBC, a person is placed in a cryotherapy chamber or cabin, and liquid nitrogen or refrigerated air is used to cool the air inside the chamber. The temperature can drop to around -150°C (-238°F) or lower.

2. Localized Cryotherapy: In this approach, specific body parts or targeted areas are treated with localized cold therapy. This does NOT involve a person jumping into a full-blown cryo chamber. 

For the sake of this article, where we’re talking about the difference between cold plunges and cryotherapy as a form of deliberate cold therapy, we’re going to compare Whole Body Cryotherapy to cold plunges. 

Let’s Define Cold Plunges

I’m going to define it based on how Dr. Andrew Huberman defines it:

  • Cold water immersion up to the neck
  • Hands and feet submerged
  • The water is cold enough that you…
    - Think “shit, I need to get out of here”
    - But feel safe enough to stay in

So it doesn’t matter if you go out and jump in the ocean, use a commercial cold plunge tub, or pack your bathtub full of ice water. All are considered “cold plunges” based on this definition.

Simple. Easy peasy.

Which is “Better”?

I trust Dr. Andrew Huberman and here’s what he says:

Word for word, Dr. Andrew Huberman says that the best forms of deliberate cold exposure, in order of benefits, are:

  • Full body cold submersion up to the neck (cold plunging)
  • Cold showers
  • Going outside in cold weather with minimal clothing
  • Cryotherapy 

Is cryotherapy as good as cold plunge? In Dr. Huberman’s eyes, the answer is a “nope”

As you can see, cryo chambers are last on his list! You can read more about Dr. Andrew Huberman’s thoughts on cryotherapy here.

 I trust Dr. Rhonda Patrick and here’s what she says:

Cryotherapy helps the brain, muscle recovery, and more:

  • Brain: Cryotherapy activates something called cold shock proteins, with a special one called RNA binding motif 3 (RBM3) being a rockstar. This RBM3 thing is found all over our tissues, including our brain. It kicks up protein synthesis where synapses form, helping protect our brains from cognitive and behavioral issues linked to certain neurodegenerative diseases. So, the cold might just be doing our brains a solid!

  • Immunity: Cryotherapy shows promising potential in reducing inflammation. One of its mechanisms involves modulating norepinephrine, which in turn decreases the levels of tumor necrosis alpha—a proinflammatory cytokine that plays a significant role in promoting systemic inflammation. By inhibiting this inflammatory process, norepinephrine may alleviate pain and inflammation associated with conditions such as arthritis.

Moreover, immune function is a critical factor in chronic diseases, and cryotherapy seems to positively influence it. It facilitates the development of a healthy immune cell population, including cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which play pivotal roles in safeguarding the body against cancer and other threats. Thus, cryotherapy emerges as a promising approach with potential benefits for various health conditions.

Ultimately, she doesn’t care exactly which modality you use, whether cryotherapy vs. cold plunges. Here’s word-for-word what she says on her site:

“In choosing a cryotherapy modality – whole-body cryotherapy, cold-water immersion, or ice packs – a few factors should be considered, such as thermal conductivity, body surface area exposure, and temperature gradient. Whereas each modality has its pros and cons, the data are equivocal for whole-body and cold-water immersion, as long as the exposure is sufficiently long.”

You can read more about Dr. Rhonda Patrick thoughts on cold plunges here.

Some more comparisons on cold plunges vs. cryotherapy

Igniting the fight or flight response 

Both can create the fight or flight response.

Sounds scary. And bad.

But it’s actually great!

As shown in this scientific study, deliberate cold exposure (whether cold showers, full cold plunges (submerged in cold water), or whole body cryotherapy) can create the fight or flight response among other benefits:

“Exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and to increase synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain as well. Additionally, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect.”

Penetrating the thermal barrier to promote shivering → they’re not the same

This is where there’s not much data (yet) to definitely answer.

When you take a dip in a cold flowing river (or a cold plunge with great circulation), you can’t build up a thermal barrier.

You’re constantly getting hit with cold water over and over and over again. There’s no opportunity to build up a huge thermal barrier.

There was a recent study called “Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate” that says:

“When body core temperature falls below the lower critical temperature [18], the body is unable to prevent a further fall by vasomotor control alone. In order to prevent a further fall, it has to invoke its second heat defence system, namely increasing heat production by shivering.”

Promoting shivering is actually a good thing when done in a controlled setting.

However, with cryotherapy chambers, the depth of cold penetration is actually less than people originally thought:

“Current evidence suggests the depth of penetration, which is dependent on the type of cold modality used, varies from 1 to 3 cm”

While cryotherapy does promote shivering, it’s just a little different than jumping in icy water.

Other nature benefits - they’re not the same

Forest bathing is a well-known activity in Japan. Not that all Japanese folks do it - but just that they’re aware of the practice.

And forest bathing has some scientific research, such as this article, to back it up.

They say that the findings from their study “suggest that forest bathing trips may have a preventive effect on cancer generation and development.”

When you traverse through towering trees to arrive at cold plunges that look like this…

…you’re getting some extra benefits than you would walking into a strip mall and knocking out a cryotherapy session.

To wrap things up on cold plunges vs. cryotherapy, we ultimately don’t care

What we do care about is that you go out there and do deliberate cold exposure of some sort!

Take cold showers.

Head down the street and jump into a cryo chamber.

Drive to your favorite river and safely take the plunge.

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