It’s never been easier to up-level your health without putting forth any actual effort. You can relieve post-workout soreness by chilling (literally) in a cryotherapy vat, sweat out toxins by lounging in an infrared sauna, or calm your nerves by lying in a floatation tank. And it’s even possible to swap your spin class for a hot bath and still burn as many calories.
But some wellness trailblazers are swearing by a slightly more exotic kind of passive healing: the hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
Yes, this is the same contraption that rose to infamy in the ’80s when Michael Jackson admitted to sleeping in one for anti-aging purposes. It’s re-entered the health conversation in recent years, thanks to the biohacking community. (Bulletproof founder and biohacker-in-chief Dave Asprey has a hyperbaric chamber in his house—in his new book, Head Strong, he says it helps him recover from long flights—while legions of his followers have dedicated Reddit threads and blog posts to the device.)
Essentially, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves laying in a highly pressurized tank for an hour or more while breathing in pure O2.
Essentially, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves lying in a highly pressurized tank for an hour or more while breathing in pure O2. Under these conditions your blood becomes richly oxygenated, creating an anti-inflammatory situation in your bod.
“The [extra] oxygen helps to take away any toxins or inflammatory radicals in the body,” explains Los Angeles-based physician Ehsan Ali, MD. “The added pressure also improves circulation, and that increased blood flow helps reduce inflammation and [speeds up] the healing process.”
Although the FDA has only given it the thumbs-up for treating major trauma—think severe burns and carbon monoxide poisoning—fans of HBOT claim it can remedy everything from skin issues to migraines to brain fog. So when I was offered the chance to test out the new chamber at Ciel Spa in Los Angeles’ SLS Hotel, I decided to make like MJ and get some beauty sleep.
This is what it’s like to catch some zzz’s in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
The pressure’s on
With its plush white furnishings, racks of silk pajamas, and shelves of expensive face creams, the Ciel Spa is definitely not the type of place I would have expected to find a hardcore medical device like a hyperbaric chamber. But, in fact, it’s become one of the top destinations in Los Angeles to get your HBOT on. (Truth be told, there aren’t many places that offer the treatment in the US—it’s mainly found at select medical offices or independent treatment centers.)
According to spa manager Neda Hamzeinejad, local docs frequently send their post-op patients over to speed up the recovery process; she says the treatment’s also popular among those who’ve just had intense facial treatments, like microneedling, as it can help reduce redness and swelling. But lots of Ciel clients use it for general wellness purposes. “People do it for more energy,” she says. “Also, when you’re working out a lot and you’re sore, it makes that healing process happen faster.”
There were two serious buzzkills: The chamber’s extremely loud motor, and the fact that I felt like I needed to pop my ears every few seconds.
Before I got into the soft-sided, spaceship-like plastic chamber, Hamzeinejad handed me a set of earplugs, a spa robe, a bottle of water, and a walkie talkie so I could alert her if I needed anything. She said I was welcome to read a book or bring some work in with me, but that most people choose to take a nap while they’re oxygenating. (Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice.)
After Hamzeinejad zipped up the chamber door and increased the pressure, I settled back against a stack of fluffy pillows and tried to relax. The space was bigger than I’d anticipated, so claustrophobia wasn’t an issue—I couldn’t stretch my arms out all the way, but I also couldn’t touch the ceiling. However, there were two serious buzzkills: The chamber’s extremely loud motor (even the earplugs couldn’t drown it out), and the fact that I felt like I needed to pop my ears every few seconds. Needless to say, nap time didn’t come easily.
After about 20 minutes, I started to feel a little bit lightheaded and eventually fell asleep. When the hour was up, Hamzeinejad woke me and de-pressurized the chamber, resulting in some more intense ear popping. I groggily climbed out and went on my way, waiting for the results to kick in.
Hamzeinejad promised that I’d feel more energized after the session, but to be honest, I didn’t feel much of anything. (Granted, I didn’t go into the experience with any exhaustion issues—or other problems—that needed to be solved.)
The one thing I did notice was that I had a lot more mental stamina that night. Normally, my brain’s fried by about 7 p.m., but after the treatment, I worked until almost 10 p.m. without skipping a beat. (And I totally could have gone longer, except my body was begging for bed.)
According to Dr. Ali, it’s possible all that oxygen gave my brain a boost, but he wouldn’t recommend it to people for that purpose—nor does he think it’s a particularly effective cure for post-workout soreness, beauty woes, or other minor complaints.
“People who’ve had [HBOT] typically experience a significant reduction in swelling and they heal a lot faster compared to those who haven’t gotten it done.”
“Maybe it would help, but you have to consider the entire situation,” he says. “It’s expensive, not covered by insurance, and not the most comfortable thing, since it can cause a lot of pressure in your ears. You’d have to weigh whether it’s worth it for yourself…and I don’t think there’s any kind of evidence proving that everyone should start getting it done.” (For the record, a session at Ciel costs $250 an hour—and in my case, a $5 cup of coffee would have done the same job, in about an eighth of the time.)
But that’s not to say Dr. Ali thinks HBOT’s totally meritless. “I would definitely recommend it after surgery or if you’re recovering from an injury,” he says. “People who’ve had [HBOT] typically experience a significant reduction in swelling and they heal a lot faster compared to those who haven’t gotten it done.”
So if you’re fresh from a knee operation or are nursing a gnarly treadmill spill, HBOT could get you back in the gym a little faster. But for day-to-day aches and annoyances? Unless you’re on a pop star’s budget, save your extra cash for sneakers and smoothies.