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I Tried Cryotherapy as a Treatment for Depression

Can going into a chamber chilled to -200 degrees help your mental health?

I first heard about cryotherapy from the hippest girl I know, the quintessential person who knows about everything a good year or so before the rest of us. She told me that a Russian debutante she knew took her to a glorious place on La Cienega in West Hollywood where the two of them lost weight by standing in an ice-cold chamber for three minutes, rocking out to Tame Impala (note: I didn’t know who that was). Right away, I had three conflicting thoughts simultaneously: one, that she was insane, two, that I complain that LA summer nights are too chilly so I could obviously never do it, and three that I had to try it right away.

The Cold Hard Facts

A month or two later, I found myself at the place she’d told me about—Cryohealthcare, the leading spot for Angelenos who like to freeze (the company is now expanding to New York). I was there, yes, because I’m a little obsessive and my perspective is admittedly a little skewed when it comes to body and weight, so I will try many things as a result.

But I also learned something else when I spoke to Robin Kuehne, who owns the Cryohealthcare monopoly with his brother Jonas—the MD who was the first doctor to bring cryotherapy to the US—and Jonas’ wife Emelia. Robin told me a social worker was bringing a group of depressed patients in regularly because of the impact cryotherapy can have on brain chemistry.

This really got my attention, because if there’s anything that rivals my interest in physical health, it’s mental health. I actually keep an Excel spreadsheet mood chart and every day I give the previous day a 1-10 rating. In addition to suffering from alcoholism (I’ve been sober for a little over a decade and a half), I’ve had bouts of depression since my early 20s. In other words, I was a good candidate to put the “positive impact on mood” cryotherapy theory to the test.

The Research

There have been some studies done on the topic, largely out of Poland, where the original cryotherapy machines were manufactured. One of the studies, “Whole-body cryotherapy as adjunct treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders,” focused on a group of 18-65 year-olds who had daily, 2-3 minute cryogenic treatments for 15 minutes and found that they showed more improvement after three weeks than a control group.

How, exactly, does this happen? In non-scientific terms, the idea is that when your body is in -200 degrees, it produces endorphins—sort of like a spinning class on crack. Add in the positive impact cryo is said to have on sleep (I’m a sometime insomniac so this really got my attention), the immune system, and serotonin, and you’ve got some faces, perhaps, frozen into perma-smiles.

The Skeptic

Initially, I had the same reaction as any cynical denizen in a world where we’re constantly being sold quick, too-good-to-be-true-sounding fixes that will allegedly heal all that ails us. But something happened during my conversation with Robin Kuehne that made me re-think my skepticism. When I asked him about the claims I’d heard that cryo helped with weight loss, he was quick to tell me there were no guarantees. “When people come here they often are trying to be healthier in many ways,” he said. “I would never make a claim that weight loss is solely due to cryotherapy.” If this was snake oil, I certainly wasn’t talking to a snake oil salesman.

And so I started going, every week for two months. Because Cryohealthcare is four miles from where I live and in LA that can mean, during heavier traffic times, a good half hour in the car each way, I couldn’t make it more than once a week (none of the daily treatments those depressed folks in the experiment got, alas).

From the beginning, I felt the immediate euphoria; I remember chatting with the woman at the front desk after my first treatment and she told me I was grinning ecstatically. I actually felt, that first time, a little like I had the first few times I did cocaine. There was no comedown, however; I just noticed, a few hours later, that I wasn’t grinning maniacally anymore.

The Long-Term Results

During the period of time I spent going to Cryohealthcare every week, a number of unexpected events occurred—namely, a relationship breakup, the death of my cat, and some hormonal issues. It was also winter and even though I live in allegedly seasonless Los Angeles, I’m always more down in the winter, even if some of those winter days are sunny (call it slightly emotional seasonal affective disorder).

Here’s what I can tell you so far: My one-person cryotherapy experiment has been sort of shockingly effective. I told you I number rate my days, right? Well, the past two months have been filled with 8's (very high on the Anna David scale) and my sleep has been solid. The bumps in the road I mentioned—break-up, cat, hormones—have actually felt just like bumps in the road and not the catastrophic earthquakes similar events have felt like at other times in my life.

Can I credit cryotherapy entirely with this positive state of mind? Of course not. Could it be the placebo effect? Certainly. Is the mere thought that I’m supposedly burning between 500 and 800 calories during the 48 hours after my treatment enough to make me happy? Sure (I told you I’m not entirely healthy in the body obsessive realm). But to me, a positive impact being all in my head when we’re talking about something that’s all in my head is as good as a solution as you can get.

This post also appeared in AfterPartyMagazine.

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