Yes, it’s freezing out there but, while it’s tempting to turn up the heat and huddle by the fire, maybe we’re missing a trick. There’s been a sudden plunge in temperature in the world of health and beauty as therapists, doctors and surgeons are increasingly discovering the therapeutic power of cold.
Actually it’s nothing new. People have believed in the health-giving properties of cold temperatures since classical times. Plato, Hippocrates and Avicena all recommended cold water treatments as a vital part of medicine. In Russia and northern Europe, the therapeutic use of snow, cold and ice are legendary. There is even a specific word in Russian – which translates as tempering – which means to toughen and strengthen the body through the use of cold and ice.
‘Cold makes skin and blood vessels contract,’ explains Alla Svirinskaya, a medically trained healer and a firm advocate of cold and ice therapy. ‘Cold is energizing, reducing fatigue, both mental and physical. It also gives an emotional boost because our blood receives increased levels of endorphins. Cold can help repel toxins and even prevents the desire to overeat. It’s also known to improve memory and concentration.’
In northern Europe it’s common practice to go straight from a hot sauna to a freezing plunge pool or even to roll in snow. Sports therapists commonly use ice packs and cold spray as well as heat, and many cutting edge facials and beauty treatments are now combining heat and cold to gain maximum benefits.
Heat brings blood to the surface of the skin while cold sends it to your organs. Shifting between the two (as many of the following treatments advocate) acts like a pump to your heart, increasing blood flow. This, in turn, boosts circulation and helps to clear the complexion – some say it can even help reduce cellulite. In addition, cold temperatures stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and repair) and can trigger the release of feelgood chemicals.
So what’s cool in the ice-cold world of health and beauty? We look at the latest chills – from high tech, high end treatments to simple treatments you can do at home for the price of…an ice-cube or two.
Whole body cryotherapy: the rejuvenator
Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) involves marching around a cold chamber (basically a giant freezer) at body-numbing sub-zero temperatures. It is touted as a highly effective form of pain relief – particularly for chronic degenerative conditions and is widely used by doctors in Poland, Germany and Austria. ‘Cold therapy has profound analgesic effects,’ says Dr Georg Kettenhuber, who has treated many top athletes (including international footballer Fabiano) at his clinic in Austria. ‘I use it to treat sports injuries, inflammatory rheumatic diseases, degenerative diseases and all manner of chronic painful conditions.’
Sportspeople find recovery time from injury can be halved and sporting performance enhanced. Given that localised cold treatments (sprays, packs and baths) are already common in sports therapy, it’s perhaps not so surprising. What is surprising is that it’s said to affect the mind as well as the body. ‘There are huge psychological benefits,’ says Dr Kettenhuber. ‘It can ease depression and insomnia, and has good effects on stress, partly because it raises endorphin levels.’
It’s not a pampering treatment. I tried it out at the “Ice Lab” at the Alpen Hotel in Seefeld Austria (www.alpenmedhotel.com ). I cut a ridiculous figure in swimming costume, trainers, gloves, headband and a face mask but it’s important to keep the extremities covered and breathing the freezing air without a mask would be uncomfortable. My blood pressure was checked, medical history taken and I was given clear instructions. You go in the chamber alone (or in small groups) but are watched all the time by a therapist.
The chamber had three sections – you acclimatise at a relatively balmy -10 degrees before a brisk turn in the next segment at -60. Then you tug open a heavy door to the main chamber. Icy fog billows out and a large part of your brain balks at voluntarily walking into -110 or below (bear in mind the average home freezer is only -20C). Curiously, because it’s dry cold, you don’t shiver and it’s not particularly uncomfortable. The major hurdle is purely psychological, as you try to forget the fact that you’re turning yourself into the Sunday joint. I did star jumps and jogged on the spot, more for the need to do something to pass the time – which seemed to stretch out unfeasibly slowly. But you’re in control all the time and, if you feel uncomfortable, you can leave at any time. I stayed for the full three minutes and, strangely, could have done more. When I came out, my blood pressure was tested again, I was bundled into a robe and sent to lie down to relax. My skin was alarmingly vampiric to the touch (rather like touching marble) but I felt fantastic – high as a kite, to be honest. More importantly, I was amazed to discover that a painful Achilles injury had noticeably improved.
So, does it work? Yes. It’s a shame it’s not more widely available for use in sports injuries and to help regulate chronic pain.
Pukka Herbs Refresh Tea: the digestion soother
A hot drink that cools you down? Ayurvedic medicine teaches that our bodies comprise three bio-energies (combinations of the elements fire, earth, water and air). If fire (known as Pitta) falls out of balance, it’s common to find our digestion starting to play up; we become prone to ulcers and also tend to fly off the handle easily. Pukka Herbs Refresh tea is blended specifically to cool down fiery Pitta, with cooling peppermint, fennel and rose, balanced with nourishing liquorice. The hot-cold effect is strangely delicious.
Mail order from: www.pukkaherbs.com
So, does it work? It’s delicious and refreshing but not a surefire cure.
Zerona: the fat melter.
Cold is being increasingly used for non-invasive cosmetic surgery procedures. Zerona uses cool laser beams to target and stimulate fat cells. Unlike other fat busting laser treatments, your fat cells are not destroyed but rather pores are created in the cell walls, allowing fat to be released into the body where it is burned off naturally. The cells are then returned to their natural smaller state. Mr Christopher Inglefield, cosmetic surgeon, says: ‘This laser functions at just the right wavelength to create a natural biological reaction in the cell.’
Zerona helps reduce stubborn fat from difficult to target areas such as the waist, hips, thighs and arms – the kind that, no matter how much you diet and exercise, never seems to budge. The number of treatments needed depends on your weight and age but usually averages around six. The treatment is non-invasive and does not require any downtime.
See http://www.findzerona.co.uk for more information.
So, does it work? Apparently so but for best results you will require a course of treatment and at €200-€300 per treatment, it’s not cheap.
Ice Turban: the headache banisher.
An ice turban is made by soaking a large, light towel in ice water and winding it around the head. Place crushed ice in another small, porous towel (or use an ice pack), and apply over the turban to the top of the head. Dian Dincin Buchman, author of The Complete Book of Water Therapy (Keats) says, ‘Short applications excite mental activity, as well as helping to decongest the head.’ He recommends using the turban to prevent and control headaches, to soothe anxiety and depression and to help control faintness. He also suggests putting on an ice turban to ease tiredness caused by overwork.
So, does it work? The jury is out. Some swear by it; others say that just the thought of an ice turban is enough to bring on a migraine.
Aromatherapy Associates Soothing facial: the skin soother.
The latest facial from this highly respected aromatherapy company uses cold to cool and calm irritated or inflamed skin. A hydrating cleanse is followed by an instantly cooling serum to reduce redness and help to restore the skin’s natural barrier. The skin is massaged with a blend of soothing chamomile oils. Cold stones are placed around the eye area and cooling masks are then applied to the skin while your shoulders, scalp and neck are massaged. A pleasant, relaxing and totally feelgood application of cold.
So, does it work? Yes. It’s not a permanent solution to irritated skin but it certainly cools it down in the short-term.
Fire and Ice facial: the skin brightener
Beloved of Hollywood celebrities such as Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow and Evangeline Lily, this intensive facial combines heat and cold to resurface and brighten the face. The core of the treatment is two masques – the heating one (containing glycolic acid and retinol) which resurfaces and the cooling one (containing hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and herbal extracts) which soothes, hydrates and rejuvenates. It’s a clinical facial so don’t expect it to score high on the feelgood factor – but it’s worth it as results tend to be seriously lookgood.
Contact www.isclinical.ie for more information and your nearest clinic.
So, does it work? Some people swear by it. I found it actually inflamed my (very pale) skin in the short term but, when the redness calmed down, my complexion did look brighter and clearer.
Cold shallow bath: the stomach trimmer.
Naturopaths commonly use a sitz or shallow bath (immersing only the buttocks, thighs and lower abdomen) for a toning effect on the body and, in particular, on the abdomen. ‘This bath can be used every day to increase abdominal tone,’ says Buchman. ‘Because the bath promotes internal intestinal movement, it also helps to overcome constipation.’ Fill the bath with 6-8 inches of cold water (it should be around 50-70 degrees F). Splash your face, neck and hands with cold water before getting in. You only need to stay in the bath for around two minutes. For additional abdominal stimulation, rub the abdomen in an inverted U movement, clockwise. This bath may also help regularise periods and has been known to help impotence. Czech research found regular cold baths increased production of testosterone (in men) and oestrogen (in women).
So, does it work? The research suggests it could. But whether anyone is actually tough enough to endure a daily cold bath is another thing entirely.
Ice swimming: the immune booster
It’s known as ‘walrus swimming’ in Russia – jumping into freezing cold water or even knocking a hole in the ice for a quick plunge. Insanity? Not so. Scientists from the Czech Republic found that being immersed in cold water for an hour, three times a week, caused an increase in white blood cell count – the immune system was given a serious boost. Endorphins, the body’s feelgood chemicals, are increased, circulation gets a boost and energy levels soar. If you can’t bring yourself to jump into the sea around our shores, then try a cold shower. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body (http://fourhourbody.com) says freezing cold showers can also improve your sex drive as well as leading to healthier skin and hair. Need to ease your way in? Have a few minutes of warm water first then go for it!
Or try the thermal suite at Parknasilla Spa, Sneem, Co.Kerry. Alternate warm and hot rooms with cool foot spas, a cold thunderstorm rain shower and end up with a bracing splash at the ice fountain. www.parknasillahotel.ie
So, does it work? Both research and anecdotal reports indicate yes. Unpalatable but true – those hardy winter swimmers aren’t so crazy after all.
Lava Shells Glacial Detox Massage: the natural colonic
A few years ago, it was all about heat in massage: hot stones and lava shell massages were sizzling. Now it’s all about the deep chill as Lava Shells turn cool. This latest massage treatment combines heat and cold to target the stomach and legs. The therapist uses one heated lava shell and two chilled glacial shells to massage the legs and stomach using long flowing movements. The combination of hot and cold pressure is said to help the breakdown of fatty tissue. It can stimulate sluggish circulation and acts as a natural colonic to help shift backed up waste in the bowel. Water retention is also relieved, leaving you feeling less bloated and with a flatter stomach almost instantly.
The treatment also stimulates the lymphatic system, encouraging the body’s natural detoxification system. It can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight (combined with a healthy eating plan and exercise) and people also report it can help ease IBS, menstrual cramps as well as soothing stress – it’s surprisingly relaxing.
For more information see: www.sharedbeautysecrets.com.
So, does it work? It’s a feelgood salon treatment so don’t expect miracles – but the emphasis on abdominal massage will activate the gut while the gentle stimulation of the lymphatic system will improve skin tone and immune function.
Chillicious: the air conditioner in a bottle
A lightweight gel-balm that instantly cools the skin and then slowly and gently lowers your body temperature. It works by activating cold receptors in the skin’s nerve endings and contains dandelion extract which helps to reduce swelling caused by heat. Ideal for women going through the menopause or for anyone who gets a bit hot and bothered after sport (or generally) and needs to chill (in all ways). Not only does it help to eliminate sweat and stickiness, refreshing the skin, but the blend of cooling aromatherapy oils (lavender, chamomile) also helps to calm down anxious feelings. Just rub onto touch-points (back of neck, wrists or behind the knees) whenever you need to chill out. Comes in a neat travel-sized bottle to fit into handbag or sports bag.
Mail order from www.victoriahealth.com
So, does it work? A gel can only do so much but, yes, it cools the skin and the scent is calming (providing you’re a lavender fan).
Note: If you have any health conditions or concerns, please consult your doctor before using extremes of temperature. Some treatments are not suitable if you have a medical condition or are pregnant.
A version of this feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail
For more seasonal health and beauty tips check out my book, The Natural Year…now updated and available for Kindle.