I am someone who dipped a cigarette in cocaine before lighting up to see what it was like. I lost a full day of my life after losing my mind on space cakes in Amsterdam, and I did shots of Jagermeister by choice. When I got clean, I went to the other extreme. I had a muscle stimulator wrapped around my thighs in order to lose inches, I spent an hour bouncing between a sauna and shower while downing vats of water in order to cleanse toxins, and had my body scrubbed within an inch of bone matter for smoother skin. In short, putting my body through extreme conditions to reach some height of pleasure or beauty is kind of my thing.
So somehow it all feels predestined that I would find myself shivering and semi-naked in a surgical face-mask, clogs, and beanie in the bowels of West Hollywood.
I decided to do Cryotherapy: a beauty treatment where you stand either in a tub or a chamber cooled to 200 degrees below zero for between two and four minutes. A couple minutes in teeth-freezing arctic conditions costs $35 to $65, depending on where you live. I was in esteemed company. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Floyd Mayweather all use Cryotherapy to quickly recover from pain and injuries. Derek Hough, Mandy Moore, and Minka Kelly are just a few of the celebrities who have Instagrammed themselves pre or post freeze. The news that a 24-year-old salon worker died from suffocation inside a cryo-chamber because oxygen levels were only at 5 percent, seems to have done nothing to slow down its popularity.
If you're wondering why anyone would do such a thing, Cryotherapy's alleged benefits read like a laundry list of quick fixes for everything that could ail a human adult in 2016. Cryotherapy treatments supposedly: kick up your metabolism, expedite tissue healing, speed up blood circulation, improve sleep, increase athletic performance, boost serotonin levels, and fight aging. In other words, if you want to repair the ravages of age, day drinking, and a pancake brunch based-lifestyle, you best join the freeze.
Here's how it works: the chamber is cooled with liquid nitrogen, which chills the surface of your skin immediately so you can get the same alleged results (e.g. firmed up skin) in far less time than you would in, say, an ice bath. Once in there, your body understandably goes into a terrorized fight or flight state where it is trying to preserve vital functions you need to survive because the temperature makes your body think you fell into icy lake or you were in a plane crash in the Andes during a blizzard. Your body sends signals to the nervous system that blood needs to be circulated to different parts of your body. This supposedly speeds your metabolism as your body burns energy to stay warm.
While Cryotherapy seems to be growing into the fad du jour, it's actually been around since the 70s, where it was used by the Japanese to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Then, in 2008, an LA-based doctor named Jonas Kuehne, who was doing his rotation in Germany while in medical school at UCLA, saw Europeans using it to recover from surgeries. Soon after his return to the States, Kuehne partnered with his wife and brother to open Cryohealthcare, which has several other Southern California locations and is about to open as part of the Columbus Circle outpost of Equinox in Manhattan.
When I arrived at their West Hollywood location, I was already shivering, from fear.
"Oh, don't worry, you're going to love it," the cheery brunette clerk who checks me in says. The clerk is now taking my blood pressure.
I stare at a copy of Shape magazine in a rack next to me and try to pretend it isn't weird to have my blood pressure taken before a beauty treatment.
"Did you come alone?" the sweet brunette blood pressure taker asks me.
I nod. Is she asking because this is meant to be a bonding activity between me and the gals at the office or because it's a good idea to have someone there if your blood pressure dropps and she isn't around to administer whatever CPR might be necessary? I don't ask.
After a few minutes of sitting in the lobby, watching cold steam seep out from under different doors and hearing a computerized voice announcing, "30 seconds remaining," "15 seconds remaining," and finally, "3-2-1," I'm escorted back to a one person dressing room. I'm told to remove my clothes and instructed to put on a bathrobe, knee socks, a face mask, and a beanie.
I put on my gear, not allowing myself think to much about it. How much trouble could you possibly get into for $40 bucks on Santa Monica Blvd, right???
I walk into the booth, take off my robe, and enter the arctic chamber. I take a breath and remind myself that the attendant had told me that after the first 30 seconds, I would feel fine.
I won't call this woman an outright liar but you know how people who are really into cleanses will say crazy things like, "Oh, after two days, you don't even notice you're not eating"? It was sort of like that. The first 30 seconds were awful. And the next 90 seconds were just as awful.
But it was amazing at the same time. My body felt like it had been dipped in a sno-cone machine—even my insides, my heart, felt chilled—and I could feel my heart rate increase. Because I do exercise pretty hard and often, I'm always plagued by some low grade soreness. For those few minutes in the chamber, I was pain free until the cold created a sharp stabbing sensation in the back of my head.
As I stand there, staring out the tiny window in the front of the chamber, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth the way I'd been instructed, I feel immensely proud of myself. The girl who complained about LA weather every January seemed like a stranger. I could do this. Still, I'm not going to lie: it was a goddamn long two minutes. As I stood there, I reflected on a conversation I'd had the day before with a lifetstylist (yes, being a lifestylist is a thing; it's pretty much another term for wellness expert).
"Cryotherapy is like getting back to nature," the lifestylist (yes, that's a thing now too), Luke Storey, told me, adding that he likes to jump in freezing lakes. "You can accomplish in three minutes what you'd normally have to do in 20. So I could drive two hours to Big Bear and jump in the water but it's easier to drive down the street."
Back to nature, I thought. In through nose, out through mouth.
Eventually, I heard the robot voice chime: "30 seconds remaining" and then the final count down. I emerged, victorious.
There's no denying the fact that I felt a high. And, as a former coke addict 15 years clean, I have to admit that when my nose started running, I was mentally flung back to a series of West Hollywood bathrooms circa 1999; yep, the combination of elation and post-nasal drip might be considered what people in recovery circles call a "freelapse."
Upon leaving the chamber, I ask the brunette what I should expect. I would burn 500 to 800 calories in the coming days, she tells me. I'll also feel something like a runner's high. "I can tell by the way you're smiling," she says, "that you already are." I looked in the mirror; goddamn it, she was right.
Determined to make excellent use of my high, I decided—and I'm not kidding—to brainstorm some exciting new ways I could build my career. (I am an addict—I think big.) I would go home, I thought, and make a list of some new ideas I could pursue. I ended up running some errands on my way home but as I went from the pet store to the health food store, I worried that my invigorated state was diminishing every second and I wasn't taking advantage of it.
Days later, the high worn off but still enthused, I spoke to Robin Kuehn, Jonas's brother and co-founder of Cryoheathlcare, to find out what exactly I'd experienced—most importantly, was I really still burning those 500 to 800 calories? "Absolutely," he said. "When the body goes into this sort of shock, it takes 48 hours for it to come back to normal."
While that may sound a bit terrifying, the truth is that no one out there seems to be able to claim that any of this could have deleterious effects. Cryotherapy's main critic is a researcher with the University of Portsmouth in southern England named Joseph Costello, who did a study that indicated cryotherapy didn't lessen muscle damage. He didn't return any of the numerous emails I sent him.
In terms of those burned calories, Kuehne is quick to say that he wouldn't credit cryotherapy with anyone's dramatic weight loss. "When people come here, they often are trying to be healthier in many ways so there are other contributing factors," he points out. Of course, it's not all about external beauty; Kuehne mentions a social worker who's been bringing in a group of people suffering from depression to see how it can help with their mental health.
When I ask Kuehne his feelings about the girl who died in a chamber in Vegas, he sounds wistful. "It was written about very incorrectly," he tells me. "The operator was one of the managers there and she went in after hours and used the machine without supervision, which you should never do." The media, he adds, reported that she was locked in but chamber doors don't lock and are instead controlled by a magnet. "With over two million recorded treatments over 40 years, this is the one time anything negative has happened," he concludes.
I must confess that, though I'm not proud to say it, I'm currently toying with the idea of getting one of Cryohealthcare's unlimited monthly memberships for $299.
Is this because I felt incredibly different from my one try? Well, no. It's because I'm vain or optimistic or silly enough to believe that if I cryo regularly, I will end up transformed as well as possibly more attractive. And freezing my ass off for a few minutes at $40 bucks a pop, seems like a small price to pay for that.