Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

By FL Morris / Star-Bulletin
Bubbles floating up in tubes of water help set the
mood at the Oxygen Bar at Ala Moana Center. The
bar, near the Makai Marketplace, is open from
9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Take a real
breather at the
Oxygen Bar

Fans of the scented air
swear by its soothing qualities

So much oxygen, so little need

Stories by Tim Ryan

First came bottled water, now it's bottled oxygen. Purveyors claim its benefits, if somewhat questionable in terms of physical health, are vital to psychological well-being. Their mantra is, "It's OK to inhale."

Brothers Gary Michael and Jon Guarco opened their high-tech, four-seat Oxygen Bar about two weeks ago in a cart on the ground floor of Ala Moana Center, near Makai Marketplace.

That's right. The pair sells air -- oxygen to be exact -- but not in the piddly 21 percent concentration humans normally breathe. The Oxygen Bar's air is more than 90 percent oxygen, minus that nasty nitrogen, carbon dioxide, argon and other trace elements. The filtered oxygen is infused, or at least mixed with, any number of aromatherapy scents of customers' choice.

(The oxygen used in such bars is industrial, not medical grade, which is considered to be a prescription drug.)

By FL Morris / Star-Bulletin
Oxygen Bar owner Jon Guarco adjusts a headset
for Jackie Rodrigues as she begins her "light and
sound treatment." Customers select music while
they breathe the nearly pure oxygen. The dark
glasses provide a personal laser light show.

While the oxygen bar is new to Hawaii, these have been popular in Japan, Europe, Canada and the mainland for at least three years. There's even an association called NOBA -- the National Oxygen Bar Association -- to define policies and safety procedures.

Actor Woody Harrelson opened an oxygen bar on Hollywood's famed Sunset Strip. More than 60 are open throughout the country.

So how much does air cost? The Oxygen Bar's sessions -- like those of other bars in the United States -- range from 15 to 20 minutes, for about $1 a minute. The Oxygen Bar has a "happy hour" of reduced rates from 9 a.m. to noon daily, at $12 for 15 minutes.

"The theory, from what I've read, is that breathing this concentration of oxygen helps remove toxins and turns sugar into energy for our bodies," Guarco said. "And the different herbal aromas have been used by the Chinese for thousands of years as potential remedies. This is really aromatherapy delivered with oxygen."

At Ala Moana's Oxygen Bar, the air is produced by two oxygen generators, really high-tech filters, hidden within the cart's cabinets. These take in ambient air and "clean" it. Water vapor is added to the oxygen, which in pure form is dry and uncomfortable to breathe.

Guarco and Michael steer clear of making specific health claims because that would make oxygen a drug and it would require a prescription to dispense.

The actual amount of oxygen a person inhales depends on the method the oxygen is inhaled, either through your nose or mouth, and how deeply you inhale. Talking lowers your intake.

Like most oxygen bars, the Oxygen Bar at Ala Moana uses oxygen infused with essential oils. Guarco said research has shown that specific smells produce physical reactions, triggering parts of the brain that control emotions and memory.

Some of the scents used include: hyssop for circulation, colds, coughs, asthma, nerves and depression; lemon for digestion, fever and immune response; marjoram for circulation, migraines, menstrual problems and depression; rose for anxiety and depression; rosemary for headaches, fatigue, gout, obesity, as a nerve stimulant and to boost confidence; tea tree oil for colds, flu, respiratory infections and strength; basil for headaches, migraines, sinus congestion, colds and gout; chamomile for nerves, migraines, menstrual problems, skin and digestion; eucalyptus for sore throat, sinus infection, decongestant, flu, fever, colds and coughs; grapefruit for migraines, depression, obesity, colds, fever, nausea and digestion.

In addition, each session includes a "light and sound treatment," which allows the customer to select music suited to his or her mood. Dark glasses worn by the customer provide a sort of laser light show. (The glasses are worn with the eyes closed.)

Guarco calls this treatment "a mental-fitness system."

"The lights in the glasses synchronize with the music, so depending on the music, it either slows brain waves to relax you or speeds them up for energy," he said.

The brothers plan to bring "air" to nightclubs, bars and other shopping centers statewide.

So much oxygen,
so little need

While inhaling highly concentrated, filtered oxygen may seem like a good idea, there's no medical benefit attached to the practice.

"A normal person with normal heart and normal lungs doesn't achieve anything from these oxygen bars," said Honolulu pulmonologist Dr. Bruce Soll. "Humans have plenty of oxygen in our blood already, almost 98 percent worth."

If someone inhales 100 percent pure oxygen, the maximum amount of the gas that can saturate the lungs is only another 2 percent, he said.

Oxygen saturation is measured by the amount of saturated hemoglobin in the blood, he said. Hemoglobin is the protein inside the red cell that transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, where it's used. The red cells permeate the tissues and are swept back to the lungs to pick up more oxygen and start over again, Soll explained.

"The body has a very sophisticated and adequate system for all of our body functions ," Soll said. "There's absolutely no need for additional oxygen."

Soll did say that people living at high elevations, such as in Denver, Colo., would get some benefits from inhaling pure oxygen.

"But even then, you wouldn't hang out in an oxygen bar all day, so when you do go outside and breathe ambient air you'll be right back where you started," he said.

If you're wondering about those athletes you see on television breathing oxygen from a tube, there's a reason for that.

"They've performed exercise vigorously, beyond their aerobic limits, so they have an oxygen debt," Soll said. "Taking in oxygen this way helps them make up that debt efficiently and quickly."

Soll said people with severe, chronic lung disease should not use an oxygen bar.

"These places are essentially a light show, audio show and aroma show -- a waste of time."

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