Aging is an unavoidable aspect of being alive. Humans, on the other hand, have spent decades attempting to halt this natural process. Consumers wanting a youthful appearance have been targeted by a slew of therapies promising to turn back the clock—renew your skin, sharpen your mind, and relieve achiness in your joints and muscles. The most recent attempt to rejuvenate the human body makes use of a hyperbaric chamber, which is an ancient, strange, and somewhat frightening-looking apparatus.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT), which includes crawling inside a pressurized chamber and breathing pure oxygen to enhance circulation and heal injured tissues reportedly, is becoming more widely available at health spas and specialist medical institutions. Some HBOT clinics offer it as a cure-all for aging-related illnesses, from weariness to impaired eyesight, for $400 per hour (and above). Celebrities ranging from Michael Phelps to Justin Bieber swear by it, and a growing number of rich “wellness-seekers” are investing in HBOT chambers for their own homes, which cost around $20,000. It was named one of the top wellness trends to watch in 2021 by Forbes.
However, people wanting to join the HBOT wellness movement should exercise caution, according to specialists. They claim that there isn’t enough research to indicate that this costly therapy affects aging. Furthermore, while hyperbaric oxygen therapy can be safe when performed correctly, it may be highly deadly. The expanding industry for spa treatments and at-home devices is mainly unregulated.
HBOT isn’t a novel concept in medicine—or in the so-called wellness sector, for that matter. In 1662, British physician Nathaniel Henshaw compressed the air within a chamber. He advocated the device, which he dubbed a “domicilium,” as a therapy for various ailments, including respiratory disorders and stomach issues.
Hyperbaric chambers were all the rage among Parisian aristocrats by the 19th century, who claimed that compressed air improved circulation, relieving pain, and gave them a general sense of wellbeing.
Doctors began employing the centuries-old procedure to successfully treat decompression sickness, sometimes known as “the bends,” a life-threatening illness that may strike divers and undersea workers when they resurface in the early twentieth century. Nitrogen bubbles build up in the blood and restrict its flow when the pressure drops, causing symptoms ranging from disorientation to paralysis.
HBOT reduces the bubbles and drives nitrogen out of the blood of those who have the bends.
HBOT is also well-known for promoting healing—but only in very particular circumstances. People with chronic wounds that don’t have adequate circulation, such as diabetic foot ulcers and radiation damage, are examples. When a healthy person sustains an injury to a bodily part, such as a cut or a broken toe, the body responds by sending its healing resources to the affected region. On the other hand, people with chronic wounds have a steady reduction of blood flow through the body’s tissues. Enoch Huang, the medical director of hyperbaric medicine and wound healing at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, explains, “It’s more of a progressive obliteration of your blood vessels, so your body is misled.”
HBOT raises oxygen concentrations in the healthy portions of the body but not as much in the damaged pieces in these individuals. That difference functions as a warning, alerting the patient’s body that something is wrong in the part that is still receiving little oxygen. Their immune and regeneration systems get to work combating infection and forming new blood vessels now that they have more oxygen.
Is hyperbaric oxygen treatment effective in delaying the aging process?
Shouldn’t HBOT be beneficial for those who simply want to avoid the more unpleasant symptoms of aging? If it can jumpstart the immune system of someone ill or injured and instruct their body to mend damaged tissue, shouldn’t it be helpful for those who simply want to avoid the more unpleasant aspects of aging?
It’s not that straightforward, according to experts. According to Marc Robins, a hyperbaric medicine specialist at Utah Valley Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine Center, “people assume that if it’s helpful for one thing, it must be good for another.” The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society lists fourteen distinct HBOT indications, most of which are severe wounds ranging from gangrene to brain infections. “Until we produce the facts, everything else is just wishful thinking,” Robbins says.
However, several hyperbaric spas and specialist medical clinics say that research backs the use of HBOT for anti-aging and overall wellbeing. Researchers are looking at using HBOT as an anti-aging treatment, although the study is still in its early stages.
Shai Efrati, head of Tel Aviv’s Sagol Focus for Hyperbaric Medicine, is at the center of this study. His research group has published hundreds of papers on the use of HBOT for various illnesses, including cognitive decline and aging, during the last ten years. “It’s impressive,” Robins adds, “because they’re cranking out a lot of studies.”
Most hyperbaric spas and clinics reference Efrati’s studies to support their claims, particularly one study published in the journal Aging in 2020, which found that HBOT seemed to reduce some of the cellular changes linked with aging. In this trial, Efrati’s team gave HBOT to 35 patients aged 64 and over daily for 60 days. The length of telomeres, the caps on the ends of our chromosomes that shrink with each cell division, was of interest to them. Cell death is linked to shorter telomeres. “They serve as biological clocks,” says Daniel Belsky, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology who studies biological indicators of aging.
Efrati’s team studied tissue samples from its participants at the end of the trial and discovered that they had longer telomeres and fewer dying cells. Spas and clinics use these findings to claim that HBOT “reverses aging.” Efrati, for that matter, feels the same way. “It’s possible to go back in time and study the biology of aging, which is incredibly intriguing. Efrati compares it to the first time man set foot on the Moon. Efrati is also the Chair of the Medical Advisory Board of Aviv, a firm that operates hyperbaric clinics in Israel, Dubai, and The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, and his work at the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine. These clinics specialize in anti-aging and dementia therapies. Efrati is also a stakeholder in Aviv, making it difficult for him to remain objective in his study and raises red flags for some analysts. “I assume that anti-aging and dementia prevention are the big-ticket items for them,” says Michael Bennett, an anesthesiologist at the Prince of Wales Clinical School in Sydney, Australia, who studies the evidence for hyperbaric therapy.
Outside of Efrati’s team, other academics believe that the research’s findings are promising, but caution should be exercised in interpreting them. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Robins cautions. For one thing, the study only included a limited number of people, which might lead to biased or misleading conclusions. The effect was considerable, yet there was a significant margin of error. B cells, a kind of white blood cell, had their telomere length grow by 29.39 percent. However, this might be wrong by 23.39 percent. Finally, Valter Longo, a cell biologist at the University of Southern California, notes that cell death can be beneficial—telomeres may signal cells to die before they become malignant. In other words, we don’t know if shortened telomeres are a cause of aging or only a byproduct of it.
The issue with studies on hyperbaric oxygen treatment
Bennett claims that much of the research on HBOT and the more visible indicators of aging (think: cognitive decline and achy joints) do not employ so-called double-blind procedures. Neither the subjects nor the researchers know which therapy they are administering or receiving. Instead, the control group is aware that they will not be getting therapy. That’s a concern because, as Bennett points out, there’s a lot of room for a placebo effect in hyperbaric treatment. “Imagine this: you’ve been coming to this unique area every day for months. All of these individuals are on the lookout for you.” He claims that the psychological influence alone might account for the gains shown in many therapeutic trials. Bennett adds that the placebo effect is unlikely to influence rigorous metrics like telomere length.
Currently, Efrati’s team utilizes a double-blinded randomized control trial—the gold standard of empirical evidence in medicine—to investigate the effects of HBOT on cognitive decline. That’s a terrific start, according to Robins. However, before making claims that HBOT reverses or slows the aging process, he continued, we need to see similar results from other researchers.
Another big issue with the rise of hyperbaric health spas and at-home chambers is that the treatment they provide isn’t the HBOT that has been shown to help with wound healing and decompression sickness. HBOT typically entails a hard-shelled section, pure oxygen, and air pressures ranging from 1.5 to three times that of our atmosphere. According to Lindell Weaver, an undersea and hyperbaric medicine expert at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, most hyperbaric spas contain a bag that is pressurized —1.2 or 1.3 times the air pressure of our atmosphere very slightly. He explained that traveling from high-altitude Salt Lake City to San Francisco would result in a comparable shift in the force.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t work,” Weaver says of low-pressure hyperbaric therapy, “but where is the scientific data if it does?” he asks. Where can I get evidence of efficacy in clinical trials? They aren’t real.”
HBOT isn’t without its drawbacks. HBOT is safe when done at a certified facility for the approved circumstances. But this isn’t anything to toy with. If the treatment is given at the incorrect pressures, it might result in seizures, hearing loss, and visual issues. Not to add that compressed oxygen poses a significant fire risk. When a Florida clinic caught fire in 2009, a hyperbaric chamber killed a lady and her grandchild.
People either create DIY chambers or purchase their own due to the hoopla around HBOT as an anti-aging treatment. One of Huang’s coworkers recently contacted him about a man who attempted to create his hyperbaric chamber at home. Huang explains, “It detonated, and he had to be evacuated with a collapsed lung.” Another patient induced hallucinations by raising the pressure in his chamber to unsafe levels.
HBOT is a medical therapy that should never be performed at a spa or home, according to Efrati. Others go much far. Even at medical institutions, they think it’s too early to sell it as an anti-aging treatment. “While I commend the research and am excited that we see these results,” Huang adds, “I believe more study has to be done to demonstrate that HBOT genuinely achieves what they [Efrati’s team] claim to do,” Longo says that when it comes to cellular aging research, we need to better understand the mechanics of aging before reaching judgments based on telomeres alone.
Evidence-based medicine operates in this manner. You are the one who does the research. Then you repeat the process. And once more. “It’s thrilling. HBOT as an anti-aging therapy appears to be promising, according to Robins. “However, we have no idea how it works right now. As a result, we must exercise caution.”