Up in the air

Can a 20-minute oxygen session counteract the effects of living in L.A.?

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I'm sitting in an oxygen bar on the Sunset Strip with a cannula up my nose. The cannula is attached to a hookah, which itself is attached to a hidden oxygen generator. My hostess, a thin Gen-Xer with a 24-karat bellybutton, fumbles with the tiny respirator wires trying to get the air going. "I'm, like, totally out-of-it today," she says. "I can't get this one wire straight." More fumbling. Nothing happens. "Just call me Airhead." Airhead has given me a choice: A regular 20-minute oxygen session for $13, or a booster of Joy, Clarity or Energy for an additional $2. I've been watching too much news, driving too much and warding off compassion fatigue. I go for the Joy.

Located just under the verdant crags of the Hollywood Hills, O2 is L.A.'s first oxygen bar and it's the only place in town where you can legally stick something up your nose, inhale and get, well, kind of high. It owes its existence in part to Woody Harrelson, hemp impresario and Hollywood's man with a social conscience, and it fits right into a city where you can buy aromatherapy and herbal colon cleansers at your local grocery store. With its space-age, hippie-chic decor, O2 is part Hollywood hookah den, part casbah. The building itself is festooned with a huge banner that reminds L.A. motorists to get their priorities straight. ("EAT. DRINK. BREATHE. LOVE," it screams.) Celebrities come and go. Everything is made of hemp (but don't smoke the curtains, we're told). Nouvelle vegan cuisine is served up in the small restaurant along with drinks like the "Love laced Daiquiri" made with strawberry guava nectar, don quai, saw palmetto, damiana and muira puama, whatever that is. Reading material is strictly PC. One pamphlet promotes elephant-free circuses; the other promotes fish-free eating, and it begins with this: "Imagine reaching for an apple on a tree and having your hand suddenly impaled by a metal hook, which yanks you, the whole weight of your body hanging on one hand, out of the air into an atmosphere in which you cannot breathe." There goes the halibut.

Airhead has finally got the Joy going. Putting a cannula up your nose and breathing in charged oxygen is a little like inserting swizzle sticks in your nostrils and trying to inhale fizz. It takes a moment to get used to, but it's not altogether unpleasant, and I sit back for some sort of mildly euphoric experience. To my left, a couple leans back on a purple hemp cushion, quietly inhaling 02. To my right, a man the size of a Ford Explorer has both a nasal cannula and cellular phone strapped to his face. "Hey Bob," he honks, "where are you? What the hell are you doing in Palm fucking Springs? Do you -- Bob? Hello? You in a fucking tunnel?" Outside, the traffic roars. A fuzzy rim the shape and color of an onion ring hugs the city's skyline. My neighbors and I are breathing gas that contains 85 percent oxygen. Air usually contains 21 percent oxygen; in L.A. and other big metropolises the oxygen content dips as low as 12 percent, and that number keeps heading south.

It's old news: Our entire modus vivendi is killing us -- our addiction to cars, our blazing of the planet's forests, our CO2-belching airplanes and smokestack industries. According to researcher Waves Forest, "Our civilization's combined technologies alone consume nearly 20 times the amount of oxygen that would normally be extracted by 5 billion breathing humans."

For our own oxygen experience my neighbors and I drove across Los Angeles' petrochemical highways in a sea of two-ton cross-country vehicles, contributing in our own tiny personal way to the planet's slow suffocation by carbon monoxide poisoning. It is a particular irony of our modern times that we depend on noxious, polluting automobiles to drive us to places designed to counteract the effects of our noxious, polluting addiction to cars, and that we may continue doing so until we are all literally gasping for air or until the polar ice caps melt, whichever comes first.

Be that as it may, if you think oxygen bars are too weird, too L.A., or too much like that pet rock you paid for 20-odd years ago, think again. Consider, for starters, what happens when you breathe. In layman's terms, with every breathe you take your body draws in oxygen from the atmosphere around you and distributes it to your roughly 7 trillion cells. Among other things, your cells use that oxygen for a process called oxidation, which allows your body to chemically convert nutrients into energy and to eliminate toxins. It also purifies your blood, strengthens your immune system, maintains your metabolic functions and calms your nervous system. It lets your brain process the billions of bits of data it needs each second in order to, say, get out of bed and turn on your coffee machine.

More important than coffee, recent studies have established a link between cells, oxygen and cancer, which exists in our bodies when the oxidation process has become radically depleted. "Cancer has only one prime cause," says Dr. Otto Warburg, Nobel Prize winner for cancer research. "It is the replacement of normal oxygen respiration of the body's cells by an anaerobic (ie. oxygen-deficient) cell respiration." In the Journal of Experimental Medicine, Dr. Harry Goldblatt cuts to the chase: "Lack of oxygen clearly plays a major role in causing cells to become cancerous."

While the cancer connection may have more uncharted territory to explore, numerous studies support the possibility that lack of oxygen is linked to everything from migraines, memory loss and depression to tumors, infections and just about every form of chronic disease. According to the Townsend Letter for Doctors, "Cells undergoing partial oxygen starvation send out tiny panic signals which are collectively felt in the body as a continuous vague sensation of uneasiness, dread or disaster. This low level generalized warning tends to get tuned out as mere 'background noise' by the individual experiencing it. Or it is attributed to other sources of uneasiness. People rarely suspect that the constant vague feeling of helplessness, fatigue or despair they feel is the result of their cells crying out for help due to oxygen starvation." (And you've been working on those "vague feelings of helplessness" with your therapist?) Overriding scientific studies that support oxygen remedies is the prevailing wisdom of basic survival: You can live without water for days, without food for weeks. But turn off your oxygen supply and stop breathing for just a few minutes, and you are unequivocally dead.

"She totally fucked up that last meeting. WHO? No way, man, I'm not -- hello? Bob? You there? Another fucking tunnel, man." I've been here for 15 minutes and would feel a lot more joyful if my neighbor would shut up. I readjust my cannula. The couple to my left smiles. "Do you guys feel anything in particular?" I ask. They shrug. "I don't know. I mean, yeah, I feel kinda nice. Kinda warm and fuzzy." His buddy adds, "I don't feel that different, but it's nice hanging out here. It's a cool place. Wonder if we're gonna see Woody." Woody, of course, is nowhere to be seen. But while O2 owes much of its notoriety to Harrelson, much of its credit goes to Dr. Richard DeAndrea, otherwise known as Dr. D.

Dr. D, who looks as much like a doctor as the first guy you smoked pot with, began his medical career as a doctor in a New York state hospital. After rapidly losing faith in the traditional medical establishment, Dr. D sowed the fruits of his alternative trade on a road trip through America's inner cities and rural communities. Influenced by various "shamans" of the Native American and Yankee variety, Dr. D eventually set up shop in a clinic in post-riot Watts, where his health crusade -- vegan diets, herbs instead of antibiotics and codeine, breast milk instead of cow's milk -- provoked the wrath of numerous private and special interest groups. Unfettered, Dr. D continued preaching his gospel to the disenfranchised and to those least likely to drink soy milk, get a shiatsu massage or practice Pilates. Today, he runs a clinic in Koreatown that combines Asian medicine, herbology, oxygen remedies and other alternative medical therapies, but his ambitions don't stop there. "I've got one job to do before I die," he says. "To see peace on this planet."

The TV Guide version of how Dr. D and Woody Harrelson came to collaborate on O2 goes something like this: Harrelson heard Dr. D "loudly expressing" his health views on a public radio show called "Raw Health." The two met and together they developed the idea of an oxygen bar. "I planted the seed," says Dr. D. "Woody watered it. His wife nurtured it. At one point we said, 'We're gonna sell air.' We all laughed. This is insane. But how else can we explain what's going on to the world?" Dr. D pauses, then adds, "I basically created a bar where I'd like to go. Maybe that's a little selfish." We forgive him. For a guy whose life goal is to create world peace (a big job that may explain why Dr. D is so hard to reach by phone), a little selfishness is a good thing.

"Fuck this shit. I can't reach anyone on this cellular." My neighbor, who clearly needs more than additional oxygen to liberate his soul from chronic cell phone disorder, untangles himself from his cannula wires and, once disengaged, moves toward the door like a defeated buffalo. Airhead has comped me an additional 20 minutes of Joy and I'm starting to feel, well, joyful. Aside from a tall blond who walks in looking lost ("Is this an Internet bar?" she asks. "Hey, what's with the nose gizmos? You guys in a geriatric ward or are you crack addicts?"), I'm left in peace. Someone gives me a drink called "Doctor D's Dose" (cherry apple cider with echinacea, astragalas, pau d'arco and lapacho) and I finally start to relax. From somewhere through the window, across L.A's vast ozone layer, a distant, familiar smell wafts up my cannula: 1 million lawn mowers have gone off, 1 million sprinkler systems have gone off, and from under the city's Wilshire/Fairfax corridor there's that distinctly L.A. smell of prehistoric tar -- all of it creating a cocktail whose odor inexplicably and vividly evokes my childhood.

The effluvium of tar reminds me that scientists have recently discovered air bubbles trapped in fossilized amber that contain oxygen levels of 38 percent, which suggests not only that the oxygen content in our air has dropped 50 percent since the days when mastodons roamed West Hollywood, but also that our bodies were originally built to run on 50 percent more oxygen than they do today.

The thought is sobering at best, and no $13 shots of oxygen will bring all that back. Once I'm done here, I'll walk back into the soupy air; my cells will cry out for oxygen. Growing up in L.A. before catalytic converters and smog checks, I've lived in a state of semi-permanent O2 depletion all my life. In fact, the only time I got my fair share of oxygen was long ago when, as a child, I'd go camping in the mossy biomass of California's forests. Young, strong and oxygen gorged, I didn't realize how fast those blissful days would pass. Oxygen, I've decided, is like childhood. It's invisible, indispensable, inevitable -- we only seem to miss it when it's gone. And then, of course, it's way too late.

By Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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