The wellness trend for our frazzled times: breathing pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber to boost body, mind and spirit. Kerry Potter goes in – and comes out superhuman
I’m lying a confined cylindrical container, trying to pretend it doesn’t remind me of a coffin. Instead I focus on the biohacking promises of this weird process: improved energy and sleep, a reduction in aches and pains, and maybe even better skin. I have a heavy oxygen mask on my face, and there’s a hissing noise while the air around me is gradually pressurized, making my ears pop. A nurse, who stays in the room throughout, gets me to do a thumbs-up through the window (at least it’s a coffin with a view) every few minutes to confirm I’m OK. I can’t say that a hyperbaric oxygen chamber is the most relaxing wellbeing experience I’ve had, but it’s certainly the most interesting.
This is my first time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, at the newly opened flagship clinic of Get A Drip on Kings Road in Chelsea, London. The company is known for its IV vitamin infusion hubs (there’s even one at Westfield shopping centre just up the road) but is now branching out into other wellbeing services. Get A Drip has ambitious expansion plans, with 120 new clinics due to open across the country in the coming years, driving by the surge in interest in health optimization (it certainly makes sense to strive to stay well enough to avoid having to go to a hospital). Many of Get The Drip’s new sites will have a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. It’s definitely coming to a high street near you.
We’re slap-bang in the middle of party season – I’m going out too much, I have too much work to finish before the holiday and I’m panicking about having no time to prep for the big day. So I’m curious to see what hyperbaric oxygen can do for my frazzled body and mind.
I first became aware of the concept as a pop music-obsessed child in the ‘80s when bizarre photos emerged of Michael Jackson napping in his personal hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Everyone laughed at him then, but it seems he was on to something. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has actually been around since the 1950s, used initially as a treatment to stop divers getting the bends and then to help with wound healing. Athletes use HBOT for recovery – middle distance runner and Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes is a fan, as is tennis champion Novak Djokovic.
It has also being adopted by biohackers and longevity seekers. Google searches for ‘hyperbaric oxygen therapy near me’ have shot up by 120 per cent over the last 12 months.
How does a hyperbaric oxygen chamber work?
You breathe in extremely pure oxygen, via a mask, in an atmospheric pressurised chamber. “It exposes your body to up to 100 per cent oxygen, which in turn will increase the amount of oxygen within your blood and tissues,” says Dr Matthew Calcasola, GP and Get A Drip’s chief medical officer. For comparison, the air we breathe is only 21 per cent oxygen, most of the rest is nitrogen. “The pressurisation means it delivers oxygen that is two to three times higher than normal air pressure. This then helps your lungs to absorb more oxygen. Oxygen helps the tissues in your body not only heal from the inside out, but also aids your white blood cells to withstand current and future infections.”
What are the benefits of using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?
“Benefits include faster recovery, boosted cellular rejuvenation, the promotion of collagen production, reduction of pain and bruising, the soothing of swelling and inflammation, assistance with mental clarity, and enhanced energy levels,” says Dr Calcasola. “It can also accelerate the healing of infections and has a positive impact on the immune system.”
There are medical studies to show its effectiveness for many things; it helps treat long Covid and with the healing of wounds and infections. There is also growing evidence that regular use can have an anti-ageing effect on cells – it increases the length of our telomeres, the structures at the end of our chromosomes which shorten with age.
That’s not all. “We use it to help with hangovers all the time!” says Miranda Holder, co-founder of Hyb02, which offers sessions in its specialist Winchester clinic but also rents and sells the chambers.
Holder, a fashion stylist, learned about HBOT a decade ago in her mid 30s, when she faced the horrific prospect of having her leg amputated, following severe nerve damage caused by a car accident.
She tried the therapy out of desperation and after 20 sessions, an especially troublesome bone in her foot had, against the odds, repaired itself. “My doctors, who’d been very sceptical, couldn’t believe it when they saw the X-ray. It was life-changing for me,” she says.
With her husband, she launched Hyb02 just before the pandemic and notes that the clientele, initially mainly people with serious injuries and illnesses like hers, now includes those looking to optimize their wellbeing. She also believes the beauty industry has yet to realise the collagen-boosting potential of HBOT. “I use it several times a week and the change in my skin is amazing – it’s so radiant,” she says. “Who needs Botox when you have a hyperbaric chamber! And my hair and nails grow so quickly.”
How much does a hyperbaric oxygen chamber cost?
My 30-minute session at Get A Drip was £55, an hour is £70. Luxe specialist clinic Hyb02 charges from £100 for a one hour session in one of its high-spec chambers and you can rent one from £1700 per month. Fancy installing one at your place? You’re looking at anything from £20k to several hundred thousand pounds for a bespoke beauty.
How often should you use a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?
It is safe to use daily, up to about four or five times per week. “People interested in optimizing their health will increasingly use a hyperbaric oxygen chamber once a week or once a month as part of their wellness regime,” Holder predicts.
Who should not use a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?
Anyone who’s recently had surgery, has lung or ear problems or has a cold or fever. You can’t use it if you’re pregnant either.
What happened when we tried a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?
I didn’t feel any immediate effects but carried on with my day, which involved an unusually high amount of running around town with heavy bags plus a long drive home. The next morning, I expected to feel tired, but normal Kerry had seemingly been replaced by a Duracell bunny. I was full of beans to the point of being annoyingly perky and highly productive. I went to a weight-training session at dawn and cheerfully nailed a PB lift, while later at my desk, I typed at a million miles an hour, had superhuman focus and finished my work to-do list in record time.
My Oura ring health tracker data backed all this up. My ‘readiness’ rating (ie how ready you are to face the day) was 91/100; on a good day, I make it into the 80s. I’d had a great night’s sleep; 17 per cent of my shut-eye was ‘deep’ as opposed to my usual less than 10. And my HRV was truly excellent at 66, the highest it’s ever been. HRV is the variation in time between your heartbeats – if it’s high, it usually means you are relaxed, fit and healthy. If it’s low, your system is probably under pressure. When mine dips for a period of days (usually into the 30s) it often means that I’m about to fall sick.
Cost allowing, I’d definitely clamber back in the chamber. If I had a hangover so bad it required intervention this radical, I’m not sure I’d be physically able to make the journey but I can see it being useful if I’ve overdone it at the gym, feel like I’m on the verge of falling ill or need an energy boost ahead of a busy week. Next time, I’ll take a book and try to actually relax.
Get A Drip costs £55 for 30 minutes