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Cryotherapy is Coming to SF. Does it Really Work? 

Wednesday, Nov 18 2015
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In the future, everyone will freeze for three minutes. And pay good money for the pleasure.

That, anyway, is the ambition of Glacé Cryotherapy, a Carmel-based company that's marketing itself as America's premiere retailer of boutique cryotherapy.

Cryotherapy, in which humans are subjected to extreme cold for brief periods, is in its infancy. But with four locations already open — two in California, one in Oregon, and another in Florida — and three more in the pipeline, Glacé plans to introduce subzero rejuvenation to San Francisco's Marina District by year's end.

"San Francisco is going to be a huge market for us," says Skyler Scarlett, a 29-year-old former personal trainer who founded Glacé with his older sister last year. "We could probably have 10 locations in the city alone."

It's an awkward time to cut the ribbon. Many Americans' introductions to cryotherapy were the headlines after a 24-year-old Nevada woman died inside a liquid nitrogen-cooled cryochamber last month. She'd been treating herself to an unsupervised after-hours session when something went wrong.

Her body, found the next morning, was frozen "rock-hard solid," the woman's uncle told The New York Times. Although investigators concluded that she asphyxiated due to low oxygen levels, the image of an icebound corpse sent the nascent cryo-industry into damage control overdrive.

"That accident was 100 percent avoidable," Scarlett says. "If you don't follow proper protocol, there are risks."

The mainstream medical community considers cryotherapy a fringe treatment at best, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved it, let alone regulated it. (In an alarming instance of post hoc reasoning, a spokeswoman from the California Medical Board tells SF Weekly that the board would review cryotherapy only if a California consumer filed a complaint.)

But according to the cryotherapy industry, there's a catch-all litany of self-proclaimed benefits: pain management, weight loss, anti-aging, stress relief, detoxification, energy boosts, enhanced athletic performance, heightened mood, and improved skin, hair, and nails.

Skeptics abound. On the blog Science-Based Medicine, clinical neurologist and Yale University School of Medicine professor Dr. Steven Novella writes, "Any medical use of cold or any basic science showing that cold temperatures have some physiological effect on the body are wildly extrapolated into claims that cooling the entire body with extreme temperatures has some overall health benefit." (Novella didn't respond to requests for further comment.)

For cryotherapy's athlete-advocates — LeBron James, along with members of the Oakland Raiders, San Jose Sharks, and San Jose Earthquakes, according to Scarlett — the treatment is a more sophisticated, more effective iteration of post-game ice baths, which sports medicine practitioners say reduce inflammation and speed recovery.

A few weeks before his record-setting "Fight of the Century" with Manny Pacquiao on May 2, undefeated world champion boxer Floyd Mayweather posted a widely shared Facebook video of himself using a cryosauna.

"I'm a science guy, and I find the science behind it fascinating," Scarlett says, sketching a layman's guide to cryotherapy. "It lowers skin temperatures quickly, the brain reacts, vascular restrictions ensue, and white blood cells, or inflammation, leak out."

As the cryochamber blasts air cooled to 255 degrees below Fahrenheit onto a mostly naked body, blood rushes from the extremities to the core, where it becomes richly oxygenated before recirculating, inducing a "natural" high, Scarlett explains.

Cryotherapy is a new fad, but it's not new technology. Developed in Japan more than 30 years ago to relieve arthritis, it wasn't until refrigeration companies in Poland and Ukraine began manufacturing and exporting cryochambers that European trendsetters embraced the treatment. Americans only caught on during the past decade.

Around 2014, Richard Otto, an Atlanta-based healthcare entrepreneur, met an engineer in Kansas City who was building his own cryochamber to treat his mother's arthritis. Seeing an opportunity to corner a largely untapped American market, the duo went into business together and launched Impact Cryotherapy last year. They've since sold their $50,000 devices as far afield as Dubai and Oman.

"We don't make medical claims because we don't have the clinical studies to support them yet, but cryotherapy aids in muscle recovery," Otto says. "People feel refreshed after. Endorphins are released."

Otto's company is one of only two in America built entirely around cryotherapy. Impact has a staff of 20, including three training teams that jet around the country teaching operators the ins-and-outs of their new equipment — which, as Otto says, is "as easy to use as a microwave."

But as with microwaves, results may vary. Does cryotherapy actually work? Last week, I traveled to Glacé's San Jose spa to find out.


The place is so new that it doesn't have permanent signage yet, just a canvas banner to distinguish it from its neighbors in a nondescript San Jose shopping plaza — a nail salon, a seafood restaurant, a massage parlor, a pet hospital.

Inside, techno music glitched and woofed from hidden speakers. A potted silk plant stood in desolate contrast to the hard-angled furniture and arctic color scheme. A markerboard listed prices in multicolored script: a scale running from $40 for first-timers to a VIP monthly unlimited package for $800.

As one of the few cryo spas in northern California, "we have clients coming from San Francisco and Fresno," said Lindsay Weeks, who manages the business with her husband Ryan, a full-time financial adviser who helps run the chamber on weekends. They first learned about cryotherapy in The Wall Street Journal, and after experiencing it firsthand at Glacé's Carmel location, they became "addicted."

"I use it every day," Lindsay said. "I've lost 15 pounds because of it." Regular cryotherapy, Ryan says, relieved his chronic insomnia.

After confirming that I don't have high blood pressure, diabetes, a pacemaker, open wounds, or kidney disease — and after signing paperwork absolving Glacé of all legal and medical liability in the event of injury or death — I was ushered into a changing room where I stripped to my boxers while contemplating a platitude painted on the wall: "DOUBT KILLS MORE DREAMS THAN FAILURE EVER WILL."

I slipped on a cotton robe, knitted gloves, and rubber-soled booties, then trudged past the half-dozen steel canisters of liquid nitrogen standing eerie sentinel in the hall. Ryan was talking, but he might as well have been an in-flight safety video for all the attention I paid. My mind was on the cryochamber, that octagonal, patent-pending box emanating gusts of liquid nitrogen.

"You're going to be thirty degrees colder than the moon," Ryan said, as I stepped into the chamber for my three-minute session.

The first 15 seconds are the hardest, Ryan told me. Your brain tricks your body into thinking it has hypothermia, and a fight-or-flight sensation takes over.

That's a lie. The last 30 seconds are the worst.

I was shivering. My teeth chattered. My legs felt like driftwood lost at sea.

Afterwards, as my body warmed back to 98.6°F, an arpeggio of pins-and-needles played down my arms and legs. I didn't feel more energetic or enhanced, but I also hadn't been in pain when I entered the chamber — perhaps putting me at an unfair advantage.

Glacé San Jose's latest innovation is cryo-parties, wherein the spa closes early on Saturdays to host private sessions with eight or more clients, all paying $40 a head, complete with catered food and customized music. It's the kind of alternative fitness and leisure event that's sure to entice the Marina's Crossfit and SoulCycle demographic.

"There will be 2,000 to 3,000 clinics in the USA in the next 10 years," Scarlett says. "We're ahead of the curve here. People in San Francisco will love this therapy."

Correction: Skyler Scarlett is 25 years old, not 29. We regret the error.

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Jeremy Lybarger

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