2016 is all about inflammation.
Until last month, I felt about inflammation like I feel about Santa Claus, who does not exist, other than to push product. I am a skeptical Midwestern transplant who moved to Los Angeles in 2004, with about two bucks and a taped-together windshield. My beauty routine still consists of one tube of Maybelline lip stain, which doubles as blush. I’ve owned the same one purse for ten years, and it was a birthday gift from a boss who told me my tote bag gave her hives. I’m not so much into stuff. But as a curious human being with 12 years in this glorious, ridiculous city, it’s impossible not to start embracing the aggressive proliferation of obscure wellness treatments. Hypnotherapy! V-steams! Stem cell infusions! All with Groupons! I have accepted the fact that I will never find a meaningful literary salon, so why not gather friends around a leech session, or some micro-needling? In this spirit of open-mindedness, I am now locked in battle with inflammation.
Inflammation is the body’s red, hot response to foreign stimuli, whether splinter, virus, or allergen. Chronic inflammation, beyond what you need to heal, can cause arthritis, heart disease, and a whole mess of problems that an actual doctor should explain. Every loud ding-dong in this ding-dong-riddled town has been yapping about “reducing inflammation” as panacea, and I did not heed their cries until I had a baby last year and could not shake fifteen dogged pounds. Yes, I know women are beautiful in every size, I truly 100% believe that. But I am also too cheap to buy bigger clothes. None of my standard waist-whittling tricks worked – no carbs, raw veganism, juicing. I’ll try anything short of exercising, and even exercise didn’t move the needle.
In desperation (and full-body lycra), I met with a nutritionist named Lauren, who has a cult-like following out here. She told me that her “proprietary blood test” would show which specific foods caused the most inflammation in my body. Eliminating them would help me lose weight, because fighting inflammation slows down metabolism. It all sounded like quackery, but I stared down at my tragic leggings and took the leap of faith, swearing never to mention it to my scientist parents.
After the blood panel, she handed me red, yellow, and green lists of foods to eliminate, foods to monitor, and foods to eat in abundance. Wine and Ciroc vodka (100% grapes, green list!) were miraculously allowed, and it turns out that any diet is easy when I can drink all the wine I want. My big red list no-no’s - flour, sugar, dairy, and red meat - were excised from the kitchen, and I barely missed them, because of ample Sancerre. Some random red-list foods like blueberries, bananas, cabbage and avocado barely made a dent in my psyche, thanks to a splash more Sancerre. Two days in, my energy level skyrocketed. I started floating out of bed at 6 A.M. with a beatific smile, I think, or at least not a murderous mask of rage.
In the first week I lost four pounds, quickly dropped the rest, and the loss is easy to maintain. I have also become an insufferable proselytizer in search of the next anti-inflammatory miracle. If minimizing inflammation resolved my sluggish metabolism, what else could it tackle? PMS? Insomnia? My age-inappropriate sciatica? Let’s get rid of all of the inflammation!
Luckily, just being a woman in LA led me directly to the questionable forefront of the anti-inflammatory war: a newish treatment called “whole-body cryotherapy,” invented as an arthritis treatment, and mostly used by professional athletes for post-injury or workout repair. You walk into a chamber cooled to negative 200 degrees fahrenheit for 2 minutes, and repeat a few times a week, ostensibly to keep chronic inflammation at bay. The website and instagram for Cryohealthcare also claim it speeds up your metabolism by up to 800 extra calories per treatment, and helps with sleep irregularities and jet lag. Even more intriguing was the account of a friend who used it for a bout of mild depression earlier this year, and said that even if was all psychosomatic, was well worth it.
Legitimate medical journals do actually show support for many of these claims, and at $65 a pop, it wasn’t prohibitively expensive, so I thought I’d give it one shot. In addition to general curiosity, I also have hip and wrist pain from lugging my kid’s plump little bod around. I keep it under control with stretching, ice, and my chiropractor, but maybe cryotherapy could cure my aching body? Or at least be a laugh and a respite from our blistering heat wave.
I texted my friend Chloe, who begged me to wait until she got back from her vacation, which ended up being an elopement. We celebrated with our own commitment, to optimal well-being.
I tried to make an appointment, but was told I could just walk in. This seemed logistically improbable. I had just seen a tabloid photograph of Kate Hudson standing outside, and their entire social media feed is famous athletes stopping by after workouts. Wasn’t this the kind of place with paparazzi outside and a line around the block? The cryotherapy centers I had read about were at elite European spas, or Olympic training centers. Surely we were in for a glamorous experience?
Nope. We tentatively pushed open an underwhelming storefront door on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, and walked into a room that looked like an over-picked warehouse sale – temporary dressing rooms surrounded two giant black chambers with icy smoke pouring out of them. Wires everywhere, hastily thrown sheets covering unknown eyesores, and white pleather couches in a scattershot configuration. The whole operation reeked of impermanence. A short line of men and women with zero body fat milled about for their turn. The woman in front of us wore her own bikini, knee socks, a face mask, and ear muffs, and walked into and out of the chamber like she does it every day. One guy just took off his delivery uniform, and casually walked right in to the chamber and back out to his van.
One of the form fields on their check-in waiver asked who referred us with a list of publications and web sites, and then “Lebron James.” I entered Lebron James of course, because I don’t know, what if they have a party for him, and he was so charming in Trainwreck.
Chloe sat down next to me and mumbled out of the side of her mouth that the waiver iPads were mistakenly displaying the center’s entire contact list.
“Like who did you see?,” I whispered back.
“Kimora Lee Simmons.”
“Eh, they’ll just have our spam emails.”
“I used my real email,” she groaned. “I don’t have a spam one.”
“Are you 100.”
“I know. My email is in the Ashley Madison dump, from snooping on my boyfriend.”
“Chloe! But also maybe that explains the other women on there?”
They interrupted our budding investigation to usher us into the rickety dressing rooms.
We took everything off except our underwear, and were given minimal protection for frostbite-prone areas: Hanes knee socks, ear muffs, gloves, and surgical masks. My room had these freezer pants I don’t even want to understand, presumably for a more localized treatment:
We covered up in their dingy robes and headed out to the chambers. The young German fellow manning the main room let us into an antechamber together, and we took off the robes. I am pretty brave, which is synonymous with being a chronic under-thinker, so right before we opened the freezer door I remembered I hate being cold more than almost anything. The only thing I hate more than being cold is also being wet.
We couldn’t see much in the chamber, which measured maybe 5x5 and was filled with a thick frosty haze, through which I could make out one of Chloe’s earmuffs. I made that fuzzy oval my focal point, and gritted my teeth as a robotic lady voice counted down in increments of 15 seconds. It felt like standing in a blizzard stark naked, or in a Michigan winter wearing a miniskirt (you state school girls know what I’m talking about). My nostrils immediately stuck together, and the skin on the backs of my thighs and arms burned with cold. Chloe is much thinner than I, and rattled like a marionette until the countdown was over. I was thankful I have a nice layer of padding, and thankful we were together. I would have snuggled with Chloe but she has a thing about being touched and contact would have made it more comfortable, which is beside the point. The point is extreme discomfort, and we certainly achieved that.
When we walked out, the attendant took the temperature of our knees, which were 40 degrees. I don’t totally understand the reason for this flourish, but maybe it’s like showing me the cork of an expensive bottle of wine? Our faces were red for a minute, but otherwise no lasting physical evidence. We crossed the street in a daze afterward, trying to take a moment to recap how we felt different, if at all. I couldn’t separate the strangeness of what had just happened from my actual physical feelings, but as soon as the initial hilarity and mania wore off, we were pummeled by a tidal wave of drowsiness. I wobbled home and sleepwalked through baby dinner and bedtime. Chloe fell asleep on her dog.
I have spent so much of my time since talking about how ridiculous the experience was that it took me three days to realize my hip and wrists don’t hurt. The cost is comparable to what I pay for a session with Charlie, my beloved chiropractor, but he is a handsome and soft-spoken jiu jitsu champion, so cryotherapy is not nearly as pleasant.
Obviously there is no way to tell if one session had any effect on my metabolism, but the pain relief was surprising. After reading more about Cryotherapy’s observed effects on mood and well-being, I’m even more curious about it as a natural upper. Ten sessions are supposedly enough to improve general well-being significantly. With the package prices, it’s a much cheaper method than medication or therapy to flood the body with endorphins, for those who’d rather not resort to (ugh) exercise.
This limited personal experience plus obsessive internet research has taught me that reducing inflammation, whether through diet or... other measures, does seem to keep my body working efficiently, without wasting vital energy on potentially distracting tasks. Kind of like turning off your laptop wifi to focus on important work. However, it remains a mystery to me that paying to stand in a freezing room for two minutes eased chronic pain I’ve had for a year, while seven miniskirted years in northern winters left no discernible mark on my health. Well, it’s a mystery until you factor in my college lifestyle choices, ramen diet, and general disregard for self-care, but ultimately it’s most likely because I wasn’t drinking nearly enough wine.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.