Sometimes it takes a crazy (?) old (?) Dutch man to completely break down a scientific concept that was held true for years and years and nobody (sane) would have ever thought about questioning.
This man is Wim Hof aka the Iceman who from “playing” with ice as a way to support his family (everyone has to pay the bills, some do it in creative ways), an entire biology chapter has to be rewritten.
Who is Wim Hof And Why Should You Care
Wim Hof is an eccentric man from that tiny little country in Europe called the Netherlands (where incidentally I happen to have been living in for the past 4 years).
After the death of his wife who left him to deal with 4 children, Wim entered a stage of depression that it is really easy to understand. Then he found comfort in something everyone else would be far to associate to the word “comfort”. Wim found comfort in the ice. Plunging his body in frozen lakes caused a switch in him that is not far from those plot you see in Marvel movies of a superhero discovering his calling.
Wim became friend with the ice, passing more and more time in it. People called him crazy, lunatic. Are they to blame? Nobody sane would spend most of his time in ice frozen water.
Fast forward 10 years and lots and lots of celebrities around the world are doing exactly the same, screaming “miracles” for the “Wim Hof Method”.
But it wasn’t easy. People had to overlook Wim' slightly “odd" personality and be convinced that there were more to it that just a crazy European spending time
I don’t know if it was part of his plans to “bring cold to the masses” but Wim gained popularity by doing extreme things and getting as much spotlight as possible through internet and TV.
He climbed the Everest and the Kilimanjaro wearing nothing but shoes and shorts, he completed a full marathon above the arctic circle in Finland, in temperatures close to −20 °C (−4 °F) again dressed in nothing but shorts. He also beat several world records for the longest amount of time in the ice that any human being as ever accomplished (1 hour 52 minutes and 42 seconds).
So far you might think: “well, here is this freak of nature doing cool things. Good for him!”.
I wouldn’t been writing this post if there was something more to him, something that science looked into.
If you are reading my blog you’re also a skeptic and your “scam-o-meter” beeps very loudly when it comes to Wim Hof.
The Wim Hof Phenomenon
As with every new “weird” thing, Wim Hof became very popular in
Interviewed by Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, London Real he quickly became a synonym for cold = good.
Many people started applying the Wim Hof Method, posting pictures of themselves swimming in ice lakes, showing themselves in water baths covered in ice and swearing how their lives were changed and whatnot.
To me, this raises so many red flags you can’t even imagine. Here, the patrons of the
I had to look more into it. I’m all about personal development and growth. If there’s something new that could benefit me and you I’m on it but before, I want to know how much truth is in it and how much bullshit is in there.
And here comes the reason for this post.
The Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands has performed some cool studies on Wim Hof and his techniques and found out things so revolutionary that biology books need a couple of chapters to be rewritten.
Wim Hof Techniques To Control The Immune System
There is immunology before Wim Hof and after Wim Hof.
Immunology before Wim Hof said that our defense mechanism is composed of innate response and adapted response. The innate response is the first line of defense of our body against infections as microorganisms (bacteria, etc.). We can’t control it. Millennia of evolution shaped this response to be automatic and quick. We don’t have much to do with it. Or do we?
Enter the Wim Hof Method
In 2012 the
As we will see later on, the Wim Hof method is composed of 3 parts. One of this is a meditation/visualization technique that Hof took from the tibetan monks of the Himalaya. The Tummo meditation technique (details on this later in this article).
In the 2012 study (pdf), the scientists checked several hormones and cytokines (signaling molecules involved in the immune response among other things) in Wim Hof in three conditions: 1) Wim Hof meditation before immersion for 80 minutes in an ice bath, 2) Wim Hof meditation just by itself and 3) Wim Hof meditation after being injected with a component of E. coli cell wall to simulate
The incredible discovery came from experiment number 3. By application of his meditation technique, Wim Hof was able to minimize the immune response of his body.
While everybody else would have had flu-like symptoms, Wim Hof by means of applying his meditation technique, just had a slight headache.
When scientists set out to understand what is so special about Wim Hof meditation technique, they found out that the breathing technique was able to increase his epinephrine (adrenaline) levels. Also, norepinephrine was higher (but to a lesser extent compared to epinephrine) and cortisol levels were lower. This “adrenaline rush” resulted in the release of inhibitory cytokines that would “calm down” the immune system and not making it over-react (talking about meditating to your core eh?! 😛 ).
So, not only he could control the immune system but also the autonomous nervous system (specifically the sympathetic system through the increase of epinephrine).
We are talking about a part of the nervous system that is called autonomous because it cannot be influenced by our conscious thoughts (so we believed). This system controls many core functionalities of our body. Yet, by a breathing technique you can actually influence it.
Now, this could be that Wim Hof is just a badass and that he mastered the techniques so well that he became superhuman. Quite the contrary.
Hof set, together to the equip of Prof.
So there you have, in 2014 the breakthrough paper from PNAS (pdf) describing how the Wim Hof method could be reproduced in people different from Wim Hof himself. The trained volunteers showed the same response Wim had after injection with the E.coli toxin.
Though, after analyzing both papers I noticed a couple of differences:
- In the study on Hof (study 2012), Wim’s cortisol levels were way higher than the control group while in the study with the trained volunteers (study 2014) levels were compatible with those of the control group and they normalized faster. Will the Wim Hof method cause higher cortisol levels in the long run?
- In study 2012, Wim’s epinephrine level were half the one of study 2014. Also norepinephrine levels of study 2012 were lower. Is it just a methodological difference or after years of training the body adapts to higher elevated epinephrine/norepinephrine levels by down regulating its production.
- The levels of IL-10 not only have an inverse pattern between the two studies but also the differences are dramatic. In fact, in the 2012 study, IL-10 levels in Wim Hof reach a peak of 100 pg/mL after two hours and the control group around 350 pg/mL/. In the 2014 study, the IL-10 levels of the voluntaries reach 800 pg/mL while the control 200 pg/mL. Could also here an adaptation have taken place?
Besides these differences that I would really like to see addressed, the papers have shown that through the application of a combination of cold exposure, meditation/breathing (Wim Hof method) the immune response and the autonomous nervous system can be controlled. And this was believed not possible before.
Is fair to mention, as a reader of this article pointed out, that the study didn't use a placebo for the control group. Which means that the control group wasn't performing any kind of "weird" respiratory technique. This is the biggest flaw of this study since the intervention group might have had those effects just because they were doing "something". If you want to read more about the placebo effect and how powerful this is, I would recommend you the amazing book "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre.
This, to the biohackers out there sounds like a lot of fun and another step towards becoming superhuman with legit methods scientifically proven.
But for “normal” people, what does these results mean?
By being able to suppress the immune response, people with chronic inflammation or autoimmune diseases like rheumatism, might be able to heal or alleviate the symptoms of these conditions.
Let’s have a look at how the method is composed and let’s look at each component scientifically to understand what is useful and what (might be) useless.
The Wim Hof Techniques: Description of Wim Hof Method
The Wim Hof method is composed of three parts: cold exposure, breathing exercises, meditation/visualization exercises.
In each section, you will also find out whether such part of the method is compatible with bodybuilding and/or generally getting stronger.
Wim Hof Technique: Cold Exposure (Cold Showers/Baths)
We already discussed how much mysticism is there around cold showers nowadays. From proponents of testosterone booster, to cure for depression, to sleep quality enhancer. All bullshit.
In the context of the Wim Hof method, the technique of cold exposure serves as a stress trigger to prime your body to deal with future stress.
By the way, this is not what Wim Hof says but this is what you can defer from the 2012 scientific paper by
Is This Wim Hof Technique of Cold Exposure Compatible With Bodybuilding And Strength Development?
Immersion in ice cold water or in general exposure to the cold as with cold showers have the effect of increasing your cortisol levels. This will result in decreases in testosterone which is ultimately the “
During the research for this post, I stumbled upon recent research on the effect of cold exposure on muscle hypertrophy, which is to say the effect that exposing yourself to cold temperatures (cold showers, ice baths) has on your muscle gains.
Cold temperatures, in fact, will slow down the recovery process that takes place after a workout. During the recovery process, the inflammation in your muscles will trigger signaling that activates satellite cells in your muscles that will contribute to making your muscles bigger and stronger. By exposing yourself to the cold you’re making this slower, therefore less effective.
So, don’t screw up your gainz and just take a regular shower after a workout.
What about a cold shower far from workouts?
You will still raise your cortisol levels. It
Wim Hof Technique: Breathing Technique And Visualization Technique
Wim Hof didn’t invent this one. He took this technique from the Tibetan tradition of Tummo meditation and brought it “bastardized” to the West.
The original Tummo technique is something very sacred for their professants. It is a complex procedure based on breathing techniques and visualization techniques. The Tummo meditation is also called “inner fire” since its adept can dry wet sheets placed on their bodies while practicing it.
The Tummo Meditation
(I’m gonna simplify here) The Tummo meditation is composed of two components: 1) breathing exercises and 2) visualization.
In the breathing part, the person does something very similar to what the Wim Hof method entails (we will see the details in a sec). It consists of repeated inhalations, breath holding, and contraction of abdomen and pelvis.
In the visualization part, the person imagines flames running inside his body (this is an oversimplification).
Turns out that there is one amazing research paper out there about the Tummo meditation.
Kozhevnikov and colleagues went to Tibet, got a bunch of Tummo practisants, put a bunch of sensors on them and measured their body temperature and their brain waves during the breathing part and during the visualization part.
They found out that the legend was actually true!
These expert Tummo practitioners could actually increase their body temperature for up to 1 hour with temperatures above normal (almost fever temperatures!).
It’s fascinating to see how these people, having to face the unforgiving temperatures of the Himalaya figured out a way to face the cold. Screw external impediments, am I right?
But these enterprising researchers didn’t stop there and did something that I find super cool.
They thought: “well, ok, these people are expert and stuff, but is this visualization part really needed or it’s just the breathing that makes the temperature rise?”.
Can Just The Tummo Breathing Work?
So they recruited a bunch of American women and gave them the instructions to perform the first part of the Tummo meditation, the breathing part. The idea was to see if just by breathing in a certain way, one could achieve the increased body temperatures as the more expert Tibetan Tummo meditators could.
Indeed, these women were capable of increasing their body temperatures by only practicing the breathing techniques of the Tummo meditation!
Although there were two differences of the breathing techniques alone, compared to when associated with the visualization techniques as the expert Tummo meditators do:
- The temperature rise is within the normal body temperature (not in “fever-zone” temperatures).
- The increased temperature cannot be sustained for long times.
This showed how the meditation/visualization part even though not crucial to get increased body temperature, is important to get higher temperatures and to sustain them.
The Tummo meditation
Wim Hof Breathing Technique Instructions
Let's see now the actual breathing technique used by Wim Hof in his method as reported from his website:
Sit in a meditation posture, whatever is most comfortable for you. Make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction. It is recommended to do this practice right after waking up since your stomach is still empty or before a meal.
30 POWER BREATHS
Imagine you’re blowing up a balloon. Inhale through the nose or mouth and exhale through the mouth in short but powerful bursts. Keep a steady pace and use your midriff fully. Close your eyes and do this around 30 times. Symptoms could be light-headedness, tingling sensations in the body.
After the 30 rapid successions of breath cycles, draw the breath in once more and fill the lungs to maximum capacity without using any force. Then let the air out and hold for as long as you can without force. Hold the breath until you experience the gasp reflex.
Inhale to full capacity. Feel your chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold the breath for around 10 seconds and this will be round one. The breathing exercise can be repeated 3 rounds after each other.
After having completed the breathing exercise take your time to enjoy the feeling afterward. This feeling will be more and more like a meditation.
When you start doing these exercises we recommend to take your time recovering from the breathing exercise. After doing the breathing exercise and you feel good, you can start with taking the cold shower.
WIM HOF BREATHING TECHNIQUE CHECKLIST
- +-30 times balloon blowing
- Breathe in fully
- Breath out without force and hold until gasp reflex
- Inhale fully and hold for 10 seconds
- Repeat until finished and recover from the breathing exercise
Is This Wim Hof Breathing Technique Compatible With Bodybuilding And Strength Development?
I read dozens and dozens of papers trying to figure out the effects of high epinephrine without cortisol increase on muscle hypertrophy and strength development but the conclusion
From the 2012 study of
But then I wonder, wouldn’t a workout be considered a stress stimulus?
If so, the Wim Hof method may slow down the recovery process by increasing cortisol levels and/or decreasing immune cells activity.
The only way to know this would be to have a research study in which two groups have a workout and one undergoes the Wim Hof method in its totality or just the breathing/meditation part and then see the differences.
Conclusions cannot be drawn at the moment with the present data (sorry).
The Wim Hof method seems to be a very interesting new “toy” in the biohacker arsenal or just if you wanna try something different (and be “hip and cool”).
Here I reported a critical review of its merits and raised some questions. On his website, way too many claims are made as it concerns its benefits (auto-immune diseases healing, cardiovascular system strengthening, increase in brown fat to fight obesity, increased energy).
They have to sell something, of course. To their honour, they use the word “could” for many of the described benefits.
For one thing, this method might be useful for people with auto-immune diseases or chronic inflammation but more research has to be performed to say this as a certainty.
Be critical, check the papers mentioned in this post and my analysis and, as usual, see what best works for you.
As concerning people into bodybuilding and strength training I would not recommend this method, given the current evidence we have on the matter. The breathing technique might be fine but there is not enough data to draw conclusions.
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