Enjoy this guest post from Wahls Protocol® Health Practitioner, Ed Paget:
Have you heard of Wim Hof?
You may have heard Dr. Wahls say his name when she talks about swimming in her cold pool.
He has developed a system of breathing and cold water immersion that can do wonders for your health and decrease your sensitivity to stress.
Using his method Wim Hof has accumulated almost 20 world records, including the longest ice bath, climbing snowy mountains wearing only shorts, running marathons around the polar circle and the longest swim under the arctic ice.
The method consists of three components:
- Cold exposure
These three components by themselves offer nothing particularly novel. People have been meditating for 1000s of years and interestingly there are many anecdotal stories of Tibetan monks enduring the cold with similar techniques in the Himalayan Mountains.
However, Hof really started to get some attention because of the records he broke. With the attention he gained he asked to get his method tested to see if he was just an anomaly or if there was another explanation of his feats.
In one of those lovely coincidences of science Hof actually has a twin brother. When he was tested scientists found that the brothers are physically very similar, but Hof’s brother cannot do the things he can, so it opens the door to the question, did he train himself to do it?
Hof claims he did, but not only that he knew it was teachable.
In 2011 researchers in Holland decided to give him a chance to prove his claims with ‘normal’ people 1. They allowed Hof to train 12 volunteers over 10 days in his method. At the end of the 10 days they injected the participants, and a control group, with an inactive form of E-coli. This is an established experiment that results in anyone who received the injection feeling like they have an instant flu.
The lead author of the experiment, Peter Pickkers, describes the procedure in more detail;
“We administer endotoxin, a dead cell-wall component of bacteria, to healthy volunteers. The immune system reacts as if real live bacteria have entered the body and mounts an immune response characterized by the production of inflammatory mediators and flu-like symptoms like fever, chills and headache. These experiments are completely safe and have been performed on more than 240 subjects in our centre.”
Essentially after the injection of the endotoxin people get these flu-like symptoms which is caused by the immune system overreacting, not the bacteria. This is important to know, because a lot of what we feel when we are sick is actually a result of our immune system’s response, not the pathogen (virus or bacteria). Our immune systems are so powerful that they can really make us feel sick, in some cases they can actually get out of control and damage us. This is what happens in conditions known as autoimmune disease.
During the experiment, Pickkers and his colleagues noticed that the subjects trained by Hof didn’t get as many symptoms as the untrained control group. When they examined the blood of the people in the study they recorded that the ones who were trained produced about 50% lower levels of several proteins associated with inflammation, and 200% higher levels of inflammation-fighting mediators. This showed that after just 10 days of training it was possible to modulate the immune system. These results opened the door for more investigation to see if Hof’s method can help with persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases.
The method can be broken down like this:
- Take 30-40 deep breaths followed by an exhale and a breath hold (with no air in your lungs).
- When you feel the urge to breath in take a deep recovery breath and hold for 15 seconds
- Repeat the cycle 3 to 4 times, and don’t be surprised if you feel lightheaded or tingly.
- Let your breathing normalize.
Ultimately the method is doing the opposite of most meditation or relaxation techniques because it creates a stress response and produces cortisol and adrenaline. These are both important in fighting inflammation in the body. The stress response is what differentiates the method from ‘regular’ meditation but the concentration involved still allows it to be classified as mindfulness.
For those who want to get geeky, there were a couple of inflammatory proteins that caught the attention of the researchers because their production was significantly depressed. TNF-α (Tumor necrosis factor-alpha) is an inflammatory protein that plays a major role in the body’s inflammation processes. It is considered a decisive factor in the development of inflammation-related diseases such as arthritis and Crohn’s disease. The other one was IL-6 (Interleukin-6) which is a protein that can trigger flu-like symptoms, particularly among individuals with autoimmune diseases and infections. Conversely as well as an increase in cortisol and adrenaline, there was an increase in the production of more anti-inflammatory proteins (cytokine IL-10).
Further research has been done to see if the method can help people who have inflammatory diseases. In another study by Pickers et al 2018, they chose axial spondyloarthritis, which they describe as a prototypical chronic inflammatory condition. The study showed that not only was the method safe but also the participants showed a decline in the inflammatory markers of ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) and C-reactive protein (CRP). These are both well-established markers of inflammation that are commonly raised in people who have an autoimmune condition,
In addition, various measures of disease activity and quality of life were measured and found to improve following the adoption of the breathing and cold exposure. The results suggest that the method does not only enable healthy individuals to voluntarily initiate the immune response in acute inflammation but also it is possible for people with chronic inflammation to influence the body’s response and also change their symptoms of the disease.
Currently, research is being conducted into how the method can affect pain and inflammation in other conditions and how it changes the brain with regards to helping with mental health and stress resilience.
For me, I do it for the breathing practice and mental focus it brings. I’ve noticed an increase in my ability to run without my ‘lungs’ letting me down, which can be explained by increasing the efficiency of the oxygen uptake and the increase in the elasticity of my lungs and rib cage. I can now go into freezing water without freaking out, which when done before bed helps me sleep and I haven’t had a cold or been ill for over as long as I can remember practicing the method.
Online movement-based therapy for people with scoliosis.