“IT’S GOING TO get down to negative 250 degrees,” says the technician, as I step into a steel cylindrical chamber just small enough for me to stand in without touching the walls. It’s already cold in here, and—how do I put this delicately—I’m in a state of undress, save for the thermal gloves and socks. My head is sticking out of the tank like a piece of rogue lettuce from a burrito. I inhale deeply. I’m not sure why, but I’m really nervous. I feel as though I’ve stepped into some sort of contraption from a science-fiction film, you know, one that you go into in human form and—whoosh!—emerge from it as fly-monster or something.
Negative two hundred and fifty degrees. I let that sink in. “That shouldn’t be a number used to describe the weather,” I say. “Ever.” That’s colder than the coldest place on earth, which, in case you were wondering, occurs in certain pockets of the East Antarctic Plateau, where mercury drops to minus 148 degrees. And I’m there. In a space that’s colder than the coldest place on earth, folks. I, the so-called “freeze baby.” I, the decidedly odd duck who never goes anywhere without her jacket, even in mid-summer.
I first heard about cryotherapy a few years ago when my fiance and his dad signed up for a session. But unlike the medical definition of cryotherapy—an umbrella term referring to any treatment that uses low temperatures to alleviate things like pain, inflammation and swelling, i.e. applying an ice pack—they were talking about something more in vogue. Namely, whole-body cryotherapy (WBC), which involves exposing your body to some bonkers subzero temperatures for 2 to 4 minutes in a liquid-nitrogen-filled chamber. And if that’s not difficult enough, you’ve got to do it in the nude. (They give you safety garb, of course, to protect your toesies and fingers.)
I remember rolling my eyes at the time and thinking, Y’all are crazy. LeBron James does it, my fiance mentioned. And it’s true. World-class athletes the likes of LeBron and Cristiano Ronaldo take to these freezing tanks, claiming that the sub-zero temps help heal their injuries and post-exercise muscle soreness. The idea behind the treatment is this: The dry cold pushes your body into “fight or flight” mode, causing blood to rush to vital organs. Upon exiting the chamber, oxygen-rich blood is carried back to the extremities. As you might already know from biology class, oxygen is crucial for post-exercise muscle recovery, particularly in breaking down lactic acid buildup, aka the metabolic byproduct that causes spaghetti legs after, say, a hard run. The spas and facilities that operate WBC tanks go even further by saying it aids weight loss and can help treat other ailments like insomnia, anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, to name a few.
But no offense to LeBron and Cristiano, the medical literature on the benefits of WBC—as opposed to good ol’ ice packs—is a touch lacking. In other words, we need more long-term and large-scale research that proves WBC’s edge over the tried-and-true localized cold therapy. (Also, as someone who’s very aware of publication bias—aka the idea that studies with positive results get published faster and more frequently than studies with negative results—I approach this whole thing with some trepidation.)
In fact, the practice received a firm head shake from the FDA, which has yet to approve and clear it. A very specific quote I found on the FDA’s website from medical officer Aron Yustein, M.D., is swirling around my mind as I prepare to be turned into a human popsicle: “We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.” But I’m here—whether it’s to prove that I’m brave or just because it’s the, erm, cool thing to do—and I’m going to see if there’s something to this freezing-your-whole-body thing.
It all happens so fast. A blast of liquid nitrogen blankets the space around me. “Oh, gosh.” I mutter, already feeling the bite. I have my arms crossed around my chest and tucked under my armpits—as if that’ll do anything to keep me warm. “No one’s allowed to call me a freeze baby anymore!” I exclaim, my voice changing into the high-pitched squeal I use in emergency situations. In my heart of hearts, I know I’m still totally a freeze baby, but you know … a brave one.
An “ahh” escapes my throat as another fog of liquid nitrogen blows into the chamber. Then another. And another. The temperature reader blinks behind me. I turn around slowly—very, very slowly as to not touch the icy walls—to take a look, the way you do whenever you reluctantly venture into a questionable porta potty, careful not to brush up against anything. It’s nearing negative 180 degrees now, and my teeth are already clanking and rattling and making the sort of odd, machine-gun-like noises that garbage disposals produce when something goes down the drain that isn’t supposed to.
“You’re doing great,” the technician supervising the session says before another blast of freezing cold air crawls up my legs. Aside from the fact that my whole body is trembling like a reed in the wind, I’m shuffling my feet and doing a little dance number to stay warm. At this point, the temperature is hovering around negative 200 degrees, and my thighs are so numb that I could easily mistake them for someone else’s. It’s uncomfortable, a tinge painful even. But just when it’s about to get unbearable, I notice I have only 20 seconds to go. Twenty seconds, I think. I can do this.
Finally, the door opens, and I wobble out—not a fly-monster, but definitely not 100 percent myself either. My body is in full fight-or-flight mode, a little relieved, a little jittery and very, very hyped up. I feel even more different when I exit the cryotherapy salon. Walking outside feels somewhat like stepping into a perfectly heated house—complete with a burning fireplace, a cup of cocoa, the works—after being caught in a snowstorm. It’s warm and cozy and definitely not how I would typically describe 40-degree weather.
Admittedly, my energy levels do slowly plummet throughout the day. Maybe this wasn’t life-changing. Maybe it won’t help me sleep better. Maybe it’ll only be something I brag about braving to my friends and family. But at the end of the day, whenever I try a wellness trend, the first question I ask myself is always: Would I do this again? And the answer is, well, maybe … Or at least if it weren’t so darn pricey (a single session can run anywhere from $35 to $40). Next: Did this make me feel good? Yes, like, I-could-run-a-marathon-right-now good. And finally: Do I regret it? Abso-cryo-lutely not.
Want to give WBC a go? You can book a session at several local spas, including one of CryoFactor Wellness Center’s two locations in Bentonville and Fayetteville, or at Restore Hyper Wellness + Cryotherapy in Little Rock.