I Tried Freezing Myself at Minus 184 Degrees to Prevent Getting Old
It's kind of amazing how far people will go to avoid looking their actual age. From fad diets to literally putting placenta on your face, people are into some weird shit when it comes to looking and feeling good.
As a woman on the cusp of 30, I'm not immune to these societal pressures to maintain that 16-year-old, fresh-faced glow for as long as humanly possible. My morning rituals take thrice as long at the age of 29 than they did at 22, and include twice as many now-"essential" products.
So when I heard that you could become more attractive and nutrient-rich by tricking your brain into freezing to death, naturally I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Journey to the coldest place on Earth
This quest for the frozen Fountain of Youth took me to KryoLife, a cryotherapy center in Midtown Manhattan. What is cryotherapy, you ask? Why, it's a hyper-cooling treatment that involves up to three minutes sealed in a tube that pumps air cooled by liquid nitrogen down to between -184 to -292 degrees Fahrenheit. Sounds fun!
The treatment, advertised as safe and painless, tricks the brain into entering "fight or flight" mode to draw all the blood out of the extremities to your core. When you step out of the chamber, the blood rushes back to your extremities and brain, releasing endorphins and triggering a state of euphoria, among other benefits like boosting metabolism; evening skin tone; alleviating depression, anxiety, and fatigue; probably being happy and beautiful forever. Aside from the whole convincing-your-body-it-was-freezing-to-death tomfoolery, it sounded pretty good.
KryoLife's office, just off Central Park, is washed in white, with that futuristic-minimalist vibe so in vogue. Speaking of the future, my immediate one was soon to be filled with temperatures not usually felt by humans, so naturally I had to fill out a medical history form on an iPad before heading behind the reception desk to the back changing rooms.
I make it a habit not to find myself in chambers often, but one must go the distance when seeking miracles.
A friendly, vivacious staff was waiting for me, smiling and excited for my first foray into subzero temperatures. After being handed a robe, socks, gloves, and clogs, I was instructed to strip down into my underwear, wipe off any excess moisture, and remove any jewelry. You know, lest I freeze it to my skin.
It was then that I was led into "the chamber." I make it a habit not to find myself in chambers often, but one must go the distance when seeking miracles. KryoLife has two subzero chambers -- twin metal canisters with doors that swing open with great gusts of liquid nitrogen smoke like something out of Star Trek. I watched the temperature meter plummet to -184 degrees (it can go as low as -292, but seeing as I was a cryovirgin, they eased me in). Freezing fog billowed out of the top. I couldn't help but think of the a stereotypical mad scientist demonstrating the effects of liquid nitrogen by freezing something random, like a carrot, and smashing it on the floor.
Bring on eternal youth!
With this image in mind, I stepped into the chamber. After the door closed I took my robe off and handed it to the cryotherapist in the room with me. There I was. In my underwear. Chilling in a liquid nitrogen chamber, with only my head peeking out of the hole in the top.
The first few seconds are totally fine, as your brain hasn't quite registered what's happening. Then it sets in, but gradually -- it's not like plummeting into an ice bath, which is actually why many athletes use cryotherapy as an alternative to ice baths. Instead, it's a gradual cold. The first place I felt it was my thighs and elbows, and after that it was more of a dull numbness with the occasional breeze of cold wafting across the surface of my skin. I'm not going to go so far as to say it felt good. But it definitely didn't feel bad; and the therapist giving me time updates as we inched closer to three minutes helped speed the process along.
As soon as we hit the three-minute mark, the therapist handed me back my robe, which I quickly wrapped around my shoulders as I stepped out of the chamber. My body temperature rocketed back up, making my fingers, toes, and legs tingle with warmth as my body realized that it was not, in fact, on the verge of death, and all the blood rushed back to where it was supposed to be.
I felt lightheaded with a dopey smile plastered across my face. Instant youth? Or perhaps happiness is an instinctive reaction to survival. I'll tell you this, I definitely had a natural high, and my headspace felt sharp and focused. Kind of like that high you get when you sneak your college roommate's Adderall. (Never happened.)
So what exactly did happen?
What did I do to myself, scientifically? And is it actually going to bring me back to near-prepubescent youth and energy?
It's hard to say. Cryotherapy was invented in in the late 1970s in Japan to reduce pain and inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Over the next 20 years, advocates claimed it may improve myriad conditions, including asthma, Alzheimer's, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, and obesity.
If that sounds like a pretty broad list, it is, and there aren't enough concrete studies to back up that this is actually the case. Beyond that, the FDA study goes so far as to say that there are significant risks to cryotherapy, namely asphyxiation, especially when liquid nitrogen is used for cooling. I'm glad I read the FDA's advice AFTER doing the treatment.
Still, Dr. Daniela Winston, a physician with her own cryotherapy center, is a firm believer in the science behind it. "Your entire body is exposed to the cold, which causes constriction in the extremities as your body preserves its core. This releases endorphins and catecholamines into the bloodstream because your body is exposed to a stressful situation. Then your blood shoots back through your body causing vascular dilation, and all of those released substances are pushed through to your exterminates and to your brain. It's a wash of the lactic acid that accumulates in the muscles," she says.
"The FDA raises questions about asphyxiation," she continues, "but this is not correct because your head is out of the machine. Your head is above the liquid nitrogen cloud. In addition, no one is left alone in the room with the machine. It's a controlled environment."
As for the benefits, Winston, who has run more than 250 cryotherapy sessions in two months, says that she has seen improvement in chronic inflammatory factors in people and athletes that use cryotherapy. She also sees improved sleep in her patients, as well as significant skin tightening for those who do cryotherapy regularly.
That said, there are plenty of people who do not qualify for cryotherapy, namely people with Raynaud's disease, pregnant women, people with active cancer, or people with cardiovascular issues. These patients, Winston says, already have bodies in stressful situations and it's not a great idea to add more stress.
As for my eternal youth? That remains to be seen. I definitely got carded at the supermarket buying beer later that weekend, but whether that was due to my dose of frozen youth is up to you to decide.
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