Cryotherapy, generally speaking, is the use of extremely cold temperatures to treat an array of issues; if you’ve ever had a wart frozen off or taken an ice bath to soothe post-yoga soreness, you’ve technically experienced it. Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC), a treatment which involves enclosing oneself in a controlled environment with temperatures of at least -230 degrees Fahrenheit for three minutes, originated in Japan in the 1970’s to treat Arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Its apparent physiological, emotional, and beauty benefits have since made it popular among professional athletes, celebrities, and trend-loving wellness buffs.
Much of the existing research on Cryotherapy focuses on its effects on muscle repair and athletic performance. Sports teams including the New York Knicks apparently have their own tanks, and stars including Kobe Bryant and LeBron take the plunge to speed recovery and enhance performance. A study conducted by the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance, found that Whole Body Cryotherapy significantly decreases pro-inflammatory cytokines, which equals decreased aches and pains and faster recovery from muscle trauma.
While a growing number of doctors and researchers are on board with Cryotherapy for sports injury treatment, the scientific jury is still out for its other uses. According to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Aaron Farberg, who conducted a study on the effects of Cryotherapy on skin rejuvenation, there is no sufficient evidence that it increases collagen production, despite claims from Cryo-spas and celebrities including Jessica Alba and Jennifer Aniston touting its anti-aging benefits. As for Cryotherapy’s effects on mood, many participants in Farberg’s study reported euphoric feelings and increased energy levels immediately post-treatment, though Farberg notes the evidence is, so far, purely anecdotal.
So, I gave it a try. I walk into KryoLife, an unassuming clinic tucked away in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Adorned with succulents, tables fashioned from petrified wood, and organic teas with names like “calm” and “detox”, the breezy clinic is not unlike a trendy Brooklynite’s apartment. I’m greeted by a model-esq receptionist who, in her Australian lilt, tells me to follow her into a room where I’m to strip down to my underwear. I’m given two pairs of super-thick socks, a robe, mittens, a towel, and a pair of rubber slippers. “Make sure you dry off completely,” she warns as she closes the door behind me; moisture increases the risk of frostbite, as per the medical waiver I’d signed moments before. I break out in a nervous sweat, which I attempt to quell with the hand towel I’d be given-- to no avail. “I’m nervous” I peep, as I reemerge into the lobby, robe-clad. “This happens a lot with first-timers,” she assures me with a smile. “Just relax and dry off.”
10 minutes and a few breathing exercises later, I feel as ready as I’ll ever be. I enter the treatment room to an ethereally handsome man whom, I’m told, will operate the Cryo machine while surveying me. (I wonder, half-seriously, why a Cryotherapy practice would hire someone who looks like that: Surely his presence increases the risk of sweating, and thus frostbite?)
The chamber itself looks like some sort of galactic, futuristic coffin; a cylindrical vessel padded with material reminiscent of lunchbox interior. The technician activates the chamber and Nitrogen vapor billows out in intimidating white clouds. Perhaps because he sees fear flooding my face, or perhaps because it’s policy, he assures me that the Nitrogen is safe at such a low concentration. The only rule: Keep my head bobbing above the chamber to avoid dizziness or, god forbid, fainting.
I step in and derobe. I’m naked with the exception of socks, mittens, and underwear. The capsule is chilly, but not at all unpleasant; one could even argue it’s a respite from the sweltering New York City heat. Before I know it--the Cryo is complete. I’m handed my robe and a piping hot cup of detox tea, as I’m led to a stationary bike, where I start pedaling to reinstate blood flow to my limbs.
The theory is this: Exposure to extremely cold temperatures activates the body’s fight or flight response, which diverts blood flow from extremities (arms, legs) to the vital organs to protect them from freezing. Meanwhile, blood leaves any inflamed, injured areas. Upon returning to normal temperatures, reoxygenated blood pumps through the body, leaving you feeling revitalized and refreshed.
After surviving the Nitrogen tank, I found myself craving more Cryo. I ended up at The Fuel Stop; a trendy Cryo-centric wellness center whose celeb-studded Instagram is incentive enough to check it out. The founder of The Fuel Stop, Mila--a seemingly ageless woman--greets me as if I were an old friend. I’d spoken to her about the possibility of coming in for a Cryo treatment and she’d insisted I stop by to try the latest and greatest in Cryo tech: A full-body chamber. Unlike the traditional Nitrogen tanks, the chamber’s technology allows you to breathe ambient air in an actual Cryo room.
But why bypass the traditional Nitrogen tank and subject yourself to an entire room of subzero temperatures? Mila explains she’d used the Nitrogen tank for years, but felt she wasn’t receiving WBC’s full benefits. “It’s like going into a sauna and leaving your head out” she shrugs. As per her research, immersing your head into the extreme temperature stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the top of your head all the way down your spine, and is responsible for regulating the body’s nervous systems. Stimulating the vagus nerve, she explains, regulates everything from mood, energy levels, and immunity.
Scantily clad, I step into the chamber, which is about the size of a walk-in closet. DJ Khaled’s "Wild Thoughts" plays through speakers (I’d chosen the song before my treatment) and I shimmy as if I’m not prickly and numb. Admittedly, the whole-body treatment is miles more uncomfortable than the Nitrogen tank--an almost lung-crushing cold at the two minute mark-- but I keep my eyes on Mila, who is dancing along with me on the other side of the glass. After three minutes, I practically fly out of the chamber, numb, wobbly, and--to my surprise--grinning uncontrollably. I feel unexplainably energized yet zen, as if I’ve chugged a vat of coffee while lying in savasana. The “Cyro High” is real, and it’s truly indescribable. “That’s dopamine and endorphins,” Mila beams. “I told you!”
After the treatment, I'm relaxed. It costs $75 a treatment, and, though research is limited relative to conventional treatments, Cryotherapy is one of the most all-encompassing wellness treatments to date. Besides, surviving subzero temperatures is one heck of a story to tell.