Weight loss? Fewer wrinkles? Body soothing? Within a fraction of the time it takes to boil an egg? Sounds miraculous, sign me up!
And that is how I ended up spending three minutes (mostly) naked in a minus 130 degree Fahrenheit chamber within London's luxury shopping mecca, Harvey Nichols.
Slightly larger than an old-fashioned red British telephone box, this is the U.K.'s first electric whole body cryotherapy (WBC) chamber and the clinic has hosted around 2,500 appointments since opening last August. Its more established forebears - cryotherapy chambers which use liquid nitrogen to achieve the same freezing temperatures – have been around since launching in Japan in the late 1970s.
Both methods tout a similar litany of benefits. In addition to those listed above, cryotherapy's proponents claim the treatment can help with improving sleep and focus, restoring exercise-beaten bodies and bringing pain relief for certain conditions.
"The extreme cold in a way shocks the body into a response and we want to trigger this response which is a response of fighting back. So all systems are on. The heart starts beating faster, the blood flow increases and the brain wants to contain this stimuli that it's getting from outside," explained Dr. Yannis Alexandrides, founder of 111CRYO, the clinic that developed this chamber.
The key difference between electric and liquid nitrogen chambers is that in order to avoid gulping down toxic fumes, the gas-fuelled version requires the client's head to remain outside the box.
This is both commercially impractical and triggers less of a physiological response given the body is subjected to a variety of temperatures, claims Dr. Alexandrides whose electric version allows the client's entire head and body to be treated at once. Given that hot liquid nitrogen rises, the feet are submitted to the lowest temperatures, with the vapors warming marginally as they rise up to the neck and head, which are exposed to room temperature.
Pouring cold water on the idea
Yet some critics say that there is insufficient evidence that either version is capable of delivering on its inspiring claims. Indeed neither the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) nor the U.K.'s Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has yet approved WBC.
"Based on purported health benefits seen in many promotions for cryotherapy spas, consumers may incorrectly believe that the FDA has cleared or approved WBC devices as safe and effective to treat medical conditions. That is not the case," Aron Yustein, M.D., a medical officer in the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, is quoted as saying on the regulatory agency's website.
In terms of physical risks, once the client has signed the regular list of medical disclaimers, the same blog on the FDA website warns frostbite, burns or eye injury could result from the extreme temperatures.
It is worth noting that the glass door to my chamber opened very easily and with a clinician watching me intently throughout I feel confident I could have ended the experiment rapidly if necessary.
Inside the chamber
At risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the chamber was extremely cold. I was slightly surprised as I had thought that the shock to my body from the instant temperature drop would have caused a less intense reaction. As it was, it felt like standing in the snow with no clothes on or throwing open a window to icy winds after a hot shower. The impression was compounded by the tiny, fluttering snowflakes (due to condensation) around me. I was very focused on the large, neon countdown clock and relieved when it expired. That said, there was certainly no pain or discomfort beyond the generic feeling of coldness.
For the rest of the day, I did feel a persistent and pleasant light tingling sensation all over my body – similar to the warm feeling of invigoration provided by the recovery period shortly after diving into cold water. My body felt a little firmer and I also felt spritely and buoyant – both physically and psychologically. I must qualify this with the fact I took the treatment on a Friday with the weekend only hours away...but nonetheless, I can understand how clients become hooked on the lingering sensation and keep returning.
I subsequently had the facial version which involves the blowing of the freezing air onto your face for around half an hour and is a very pleasant feeling. While I could see the results instantaneously – smaller pores, perkier composition, shallower creases – about half of those I polled couldn't tell which side of my face had been treated in a control test. Three days later and I can still both see and feel marginal improvements.
Not frozen in time
The technology and research around electric cryotherapy is constantly evolving and Dr. Alexandrides looks forward to the treatment assuming an ever broader application.
"We are going beyond the top athletes and the people who are professionals who know the benefits and now the wider public starts realizing that this is a treatment for every day. Like in the same category as going to the gym, keeping healthy, I think we'll see it more and more being used as a way of life," he predicted.
Treatments courtesy of 111CRYO at Harvey Nichols London and the Devonshire Club London