I first discovered Wim Hof two years ago from a link on Reddit that showed this crazy dutch man setting a world-record for swimming in a frozen lake. That lead me down the YouTube rabbit hole where I watched Wim stay submerged in ice-water for 73 minutes without a drop in his core temp(the average person will die in 15), run a full marathon in Finland in -4F temperatures shirtless and barefoot, and make a bunch of crazy sounding claims about how he can consciously control his immune system and generate body heat at will.
I was intrigued and decided to try taking cold showers. The experiment lasted for three days. The cold was painful and I didn’t stick with it.
I came across Wim Hof again this year with Scott Carney’s book What Doesn’t Kill Us. Scott is an investigative journalist who spent six months practicing and researching the Wim Hof method for his book. I won’t spoil the ending for you but it’s a good book. It had enough guidance on the method and anecdotes from others Scott and others who have found the method to be beneficial that it convinced me to give cold exposure another go.
The timing was perfect too because I was going to spend a week in Colorado house-sitting a mountain cabin in the dead of winter.
My goal with the cold exposure is to see what if any effect they have on depression and whether I can consciously control my immune system to alleviate the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Wim Hof has made claims in interviews that he believes his method can cure depression and that he can consciously control his immune system.
I started by incorporating his breathing routine into my morning meditation. The breathing routine is to take 30 rapid breaths. The breaths should be full belly breaths followed by a quick exhale of about half of the air in your lungs. I’ve read conflicting methods – this Higher Existence page tells you to forcefully push out half your breath while Scott Carney’s book says to let air escape your lungs effortlessly. Either way the idea is to take in quick, deep breaths while releasing only about half of your breath in rapid succession for 30 breaths.
Following the 30 breaths you breathe out fully and then hold your breath. The goal is to stay focused in a meditative state and connect to your body. When I do this I’ll feel tingly all over – I believe this is caused by the flood of oxygen from basically hyperventilating. Wim says to push energy toward parts of your body that aren’t energized. I take this to mean visualize energy flowing to the parts of my body that aren’t tingly. You’ll hold your breath like this for as long as you can. The goal is to wait for the gasp reflex to kick in – wait until your chest starts to convulse in an attempt to get a breath. When this starts to happen the goal is to relax your body. Scott Carney calls it “the wedge” in his book. Where you use your consciousness as a wedge to drive between your automatic gasp response that kicks in when you’ve been holding your breath. Hold it as long as you can while staying relaxed and then take a full breath in and hold for another 15 seconds.
The first time I tried this gave surprising results. I did four rounds one after another and I felt a marked improvement in my energy levels and mood. A bit euphoric, infact.
My first cold shower went as expected. Short and painful. I stayed under the cold water for about 30 seconds before turning it to hot. But the breathing method did seem to help blunt the pain of the cold. It’s hard to say whether it was because of a physiological effect or the fact that by focusing on my breath I wasn’t focused on the pain of the cold.
A Cult of Personality
It’s hard to deny that Wim Hof has a cult of personality. He’s a larger than life figure who has performed numerous death-defying stunts(like climbing to the death zone on Everest, barefoot, wearing only shorts). He is charismatic and prone to making outrageous claims and if you only listen to Wim you would conclude that his method is well-backed by scientific research. However there has only been one scientific study that has shown Wim Hof’s method is effective for others.
Herein, we show that a short-term training program and practicing breathing techniques learned during this training program results in release of epinephrine, induction of early antiinflammatory IL-10 production, and consequently attenuation of the proinflammatory innate immune response during experimental human endotoxemia. Also, trained individuals experienced fewer endotoxemia-associated flu-like symptoms, and a more swift normalization of fever and cortisol levels, which are likely the result of the attenuated proinflammatory response. This study demonstrates that the in vivo innate immune response can be voluntarily influenced in a nonpharmacological manner through voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system. http://new.icemanwimhof.com/files/pnas.pdf
While the results are positive and promising the vast majority of Wim Hof’s claims(like the ability to cure depression and auto-immune diseases) still largely reside in the realm of anecdote and speculation.
The most promising signal that there may infact be something of substance in his teachings is the viral growth of Wim’s cold exposure movement. There are thousands of people all across the world willingly exposing themselves to frigid temperatures who give testimony that the Wim Hof method has changed or even saved their lives. This is what has me interested. Even if it’s all placebo it seems to be a strong placebo that is effective for a majority of individuals who try the method.
My plans for testing the method in Colorado hit a small snag when I picked up a cold two days prior to leaving for our trip. It was only a minor cold and I mostly ignored it but it flared up during our drive out. We chose to drive all night in order to maximize our time at the cabin and my cold went from minor to moderate after staying up most of the night.
I decided to continue practicing the method even with the cold. After all one of the claims that Wim makes is this method will boost your immune system. I did not find this to be true. Infact I believe practicing the cold exposure in the Colorado mountains actually prolonged my cold. I have a naturally strong immune system and I’ve never in my life had a cold that lasted more than 3 days. This time my cold didn’t fully clear up until 6 days later when I came home. My intuition tells me that the added stress of coping with the stress of cold exposure was detrimental to my immune system.
To be fair Wim Hof never tells you to go practice cold exposure when you have the cold.
While it didn’t cure my cold I did find the method seemed to be have some positive effects. When I practiced it in the morning my sinuses and congestion would clear up for about an hour. I think this is because the breathing method causes epinephrine to be released. Most decongestants act by increasing epinephrine and epinephrine in the body which induces vasoconstriction of the blood vessels in the throat, nose, and sinuses which results in reduced inflammation and reduced mucus formation.
I jumped into the partially frozen over lake in Estes Park on our way in and out of the city and spent 25 minutes at 12,000 feet wearing only a t-shirt in 20 degree temperatures with a wind of 30-40mph. Nothing to write home about but it felt great to face the cold head on and to push the boundaries of my comfort zone.
I got back from Colorado and finally got over my cold. Jumping in the frozen lakes has made taking cold showers trivial. Just two weeks ago I dreaded stepping under the cold water and now it feels almost comfortable. There’s not too much to report. I’ve kept up with the breathing methods and now perform three rounds of the breaths before my morning meditation. The breathing seems to help clear my mind and gives me an overall deeper meditation experience.
The trees have started to bloom and so my seasonal allergies have arrived again. In my breathing routine and meditation I’ve been using the wedge to suppress my desire to sneeze and suppress the other reactions my body has to pollen. It’s difficult to tell if this is having any effect. But like in Colorado my sinuses do become noticeably more clear after I perform the breath work so it appears that something is happening.
To cap off my 21 day experiment I filled up my bathtub with cold water and dumped in 20 pounds of ice. The resulting water temperature was a frigid 42 degrees F. My goal was to stay in for five minutes.
Woo what a rush. Immediately my muscles started to tense up and I started to gasp for air. Part of the Wim Hof method is to exert conscious control over your autonomic nervous system so I did my best to control my breathing and to relax my muscles. I regained control of my breathing after about thirty seconds. That’s when the shiver reflex kicked in. Again I used willpower to overcome the automatic response to shiver with some mild success. What followed was a cold and painful eight minutes. In total I stayed in the water for 8 minutes and 12 seconds.
According to this hypothermia chart a person can stay in water that is 40-50 degrees for 30-60 minutes before they become exhausted and lose consciousness. So my eight minutes is not extraordinary. But it’s much longer than the one minute that I stayed in the icy lake so I’m happy with the progress.
After getting out of the ice-bath I experienced an initial rush of energy and euphoria that was followed by bone-deep exhaustion. Half an hour after the bath I went to bed and slept for a full three hours. Afterward waking I still felt rather euphoric but tired. The same kind of feeling you get after a long day of strenuous activity. It reminded me of days hiking the Appalachian Trail. At the end of a long day you’re left with the most pleasant feeling of relaxed exhaustion and that’s how I felt for the rest of my evening.
It’s too early to come to any real conclusion on the efficacy of the Wim Hof method. But that’s not a satisfying way to end this post so I’ll give you some of my thoughts. These are just my thoughts after trying out cold exposure for 21 days so take it for what it’s worth.
I think rather than having discovered a mystical path to becoming a superman Wim Hof has simply exposed his body to the elements long enough to awaken dormant adaptation responses that are built in to all humans. Scott Carney makes a good argument that humans have survived for hundreds of thousands of years mostly without the benefit of warm homes and clothes so then it’s logical to think that we can all become more resistant to cold temperatures if we voluntarily expose ourselves to the cold.
Thus far I haven’t found much link between the power breathing and an ability to resist the cold. However I have found the power breathing beneficial enough in its own right to keep practicing them. The two most notable effects I get are an improvement in mood and an improved ability to focus. Science has proven that deep breathing can have beneficial impacts on health so a few minutes of conscious breathing in the morning can’t hurt. There is also an ancient Tibetan Buddhist technique called Tummo meditation or “Inner Fire” meditation with which monk practitioners are purportedly able to withstand extreme cold temperatures.
“During visits to remote monasteries in the 1980s, Benson and his team studied monks living in the Himalayan Mountains who could, by g Tum-mo meditation, raise the temperatures of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees. It has yet to be determined how the monks are able to generate such heat.” – See the Harvard Tummo Experiment for more info.
“The meditators sit on the ground, cross-legged and naked. Sheets are dipped in the icy water, each man wraps himself in one of them and must dry it on his body. As soon as the sheet has become dry, it is again dipped in the water and placed on the novice’s body to be dried as before. The operation goes on [in] that fashion until daybreak. Then he who has dried the largest number of sheets is acknowledged the winner of the competition. Besides drying wet sheets on one’s body, there exist various other tests to ascertain the degree of heat which the neophyte is able to radiate. One of these tests consists in sitting in the snow. The quantity of snow melted under the man and the distance at which it melts around him are taken as measures of his ability.”
There’s enough evidence here of these seemingly superhuman abilities to warrant further investigation. I’m going to continue to explore the realm of cold exposure and dive deeper into inner fire meditation.
I’ve enjoyed the 21 day challenge. It’s taught me to push the limits of my pain threshold. It’s made me face the fear and anxiety of a cold shower and voluntarily step into discomfort on a daily basis. That alone has been worthwhile. But through these 21 days I’ve also seen my energy levels rise from an average of a 3-4 to a 6-7 and my level of depression drop from a 7 to a 2. I encourage you to experiment with cold showers and cold exposure yourself. If nothing else you’ll face fears and push out the limits of your comfort zone which is always a good thing in my opinion.