By Dr. Jon Ward
Last week was the official start of summer, and the thing in my life I’m most excited about currently is subzero temperatures. Prior to turning 40, I started to look at myself and wonder if I was really focused on things that matter. Work seemed to always be the agenda on the top of my mind. So, back in 2016 with the start of the new year, I made a commitment to my health. It was something I had done in fits and spurts in my teens, 20s and 30s, generally when I got so out of shape that I couldn’t bring myself to look in a mirror. But a few things had happened that redoubled my commitment to my own health. My practice was finally under great management, which meant less after-hours time in the office for me, and my son had started preschool, which meant it was time for me to start getting involved in sports with him.
As a relatively older father, I saw men ten years younger than me, and I began thinking about what I could do 10 to 15 years from now. That was when I came to the realization that, unless I changed course, I wasn’t going to be running on any court or field with my future teenage son. So I started going to the gym and made a commitment to a three-sessions-a-week training regimen. It started with 30-45 minute sessions and then soon increased to 60 minutes. And, the only thing that ever kept me from making the appointments with my trainer was a little vacation time with my family. The great thing about a relatively out of shape person who starts training is that improvement comes quickly, and as long as you don’t get injured, it’s easy to stay motivated. This improvement, referred to as “newbie gains,” can last for up to a year. Inevitably, I hit a wall with the strength gains, and due to trainers moving gyms and other factors, I began looking for ways to improve my performance.
One way, and the easiest thing to do, is to just eat more, which I found was in fact successful for increasing strength, but came with the unfortunate side effect of getting fat. Then, when you try to lose the weight, your strength declines. I began researching more than just how to lose fat and gain lean mass. I started following thought leaders in the fitness and diet industry like Ben Greenfield, Martin Berkhan and Rhonda Patrick. I also began looking at the studies they quoted to gain a deeper understanding of what was shaping their recommendations.
I am happy to report that I soon discovered there was a common thread to their recommendations, and it struck me as something I see every day in our exam rooms. As a dermatologist, we see patients with inflammation of the skin all day long. Whether its cell-mediated inflammation, as in psoriasis, or antibody-mediated inflammation, as in eczema, both conditions and the resulting inflammation and itching are caused by the skin being inflamed. Patients tend to make the inflammation worse by using home remedies that increase inflammation, like alcohol-based “itch” gels, hot water, hydrogen peroxide or creams with irritants. My first recommendation is to always tell them to put ice packs on these areas instead of scratching and putting hot water, irritating creams or ointments on their skin.
As I further researched the effects of extreme cold on the skin, I found forgotten peer-reviewed data on using liquid nitrogen on plaques of psoriasis. It showed a greater than 50% improvement in patients with a durable response. In addition, there are also studies on those with eczema that have clearly demonstrated that the use of wet wraps, which have a cooling effect, rapidly improve the symptoms of itch and inflammation. Also, in the data is the long forgotten treatment for acne that shows how applying liquid nitrogen to pimples results in the rapid improvement of inflammatory acne. The fitness and diet experts are primarily touting whole body cryotherapy (WBC) as a way to recover from muscle soreness and to increase your resting metabolism, all great benefits. Some physicians who treat joint and soft tissue pain have suggested it may improve different forms of arthritis and even fibromyalgia. I believe patients with inflammatory disease of the skin and acne on the trunk may be an unreached market for WBC. These studies are already out there and demonstrate how certain conditions clearly improve when extreme cold is applied to localized areas. I asked myself then “shouldn’t this be true when done on larger areas?”
I am a huge believer in trying before buying, so when I became interested in WBC, I researched where I could get treated, knowing that if it was not tolerable, then I would not recommend it to my friends or our patients. I had a business trip to Tampa in April and had an hour to kill, so I took an Uber to a WBC center and had my first treatment. I was pretty nervous about getting in a machine that cooled down to 120 degrees below zero, but I took the Arctic plunge and did it. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined, hard to believe coming from someone who doesn’t even like a cold shower, and what I immediately noticed right after my treatment was that my sore muscles from training were far less sore. I now had a mental clarity that wasn’t there previously, as if I’d had a double espresso from Starbucks. The result I knew almost immediately; we needed to pursue a machine for our medical spa.
It is not part of established customary medical dermatology care, and it’s not covered by health insurance, so it’s not something I am planning on recommending to patients who I see in the dermatology office. As a physician, until studies looking at WBC using the same unit and same conditions for each individual condition a patient may have show proven results, it will not be something that our team can recommended on the medical side. But on the spa and wellness side, which is not covered by insurance and where recommendations are not held to the same standards, I can say without hesitation it’s definitely worth a try. There are hundreds of testimonials online about how WBC has improved the health and wellness of those suffering from itching, psoriasis, eczema, arthritis and other forms of chronic pain.
Most professional sports teams have purchased WBC units to help their athletes recover faster and improve their overall performance. WBC has the potential to not only help those with inflammation, but it can keep the skin and joints protected from inflammation and injury that can often result. For me personally, it has become part of my daily routine. I still enjoy my espresso in the morning, but with WBC I could probably skip it. My exercise program now includes lifting weights three times a week, high intensity interval training twice a week, a clean diet with some flexibility for cheating, and WBC. I can share with you all that I am confident that when I am well into my 50s, I will still be able to run with the teenagers on whatever fields, courts or other arenas my son chooses.
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