Ice, Ice, Baby: The Wim Hof Method

In the last several years, there seems to have been a rising trend of those in the health and fitness world, partaking in cold water plunges. This includes sitting in ice baths, taking cold showers, or even jumping straight into an icy lake in the midst of winter.

Sounds fun, right?

What’s Up With Cold Water Therapy?

Much of the recent uptick in popularity of cold water plunges can be credited to Wim Hof, (also known as “The Iceman”), who is a Dutch wellness advocate and extreme athlete. Hof, who coined the Wim Hof Method, has broken 21 world records, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in only a pair of shorts and running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle– barefoot. There is a strong foundation of evidence to support the immunity bolstering impact of cold exposure, as well as various other health benefits. While many find time spent in the sauna to be therapeutic, others partake in cryotherapy, which involves stepping into an extremely cold room or chamber that sits at a temperature between -148F and -220F. Cryotherapy is a common treatment for sports injuries due to its impressive utility in treating inflammation. As the world of cold therapy has become more well known for its health benefits, many “cold warriors” are also stepping into cryo chambers, taking cold showers, ice baths, and jumping into icy, outdoor bodies of water simply for the sake of bettering their health.

Wim Hof claims that since his childhood, he had a deep fascination for the cold. “I felt this attraction to the cold water. And then, after I went in, I felt this understanding, an inside connection. It gave me a rush. My mind was free of gibberish,” said Hof, in a Rolling Stone interview, recalling a winter day in Amsterdam from his youth. Although cold exposure is a revolutionary facet of Hof’s method, there is yet another piece to his process. The first is his focused pattern of breathing, and the second is “cold exposure,” (performed in that order). You can take part in either and reap plenty of the benefits, but Hof encourages his followers of the WHM to combine the two!

Hof’s Breathwork

While there are countless breathing patterns available for experimentation that all may offer meditative benefits, the WHM is a specific style of breathwork that is referred to as “controlled hyperventilation.” Controlled hyperventilation has been utilized for thousands of years, particularly in yogic teachings: Pranayama contains breathwork similar to what is demonstrated in the WHM.

You may have heard of big names such as Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise partaking in the WHM. Wim Hof’s method is certainly not exclusive to celebrities and has become a highly popular tool to those of virtually any demographic. The breathing method involves 30 breaths of quickly-paced inhalations and exhalations, followed by a long-held exhale of about one minute or more, then followed by an inhale of about 15 seconds. This process repeats for the completion of 3 or more rounds. Depending on the span of one’s breath holds, many complete the WH breathwork within about eleven minutes.

The Science Behind WH Breathing

While many claim that they feel much calmer after completing several rounds of the WHM, there’s a significant function beyond its calming of one’s nervous system, including being highly effective in regulating various respiratory conditions. What is happening in our body when we follow this breathing pattern? The method involves exchanges in “pooling” CO2 and oxygen. The quickly paced 30 breaths, or “hyperventilations” cause a quick surge in our oxygen saturation and a drop in C02. This reduction in C02 acts as a signal for prompt oxygenation of the body’s tissues, to a degree that standard breathing can not achieve. The “hyperventilation phase, which is followed by a long-withheld exhale, allows C02 levels to rise once again. These “see-saw” like fluctuations in oxygen and C02 have proven to bring on measured, temporary increases in the alkalinity of one’s blood.

Positive Stress

The WHM is a valuable “acute stressor.” We often think of stress as something that negatively affects our health. In many cases, this is true, but we also need certain stressors to survive, such as the needed “stress” of eating a meal and using energy to digest our food. An acute stressor that actually makes our body more resilient in the long term is known as a hormetic stressor. This includes stressors such as exercise, fasting, and of course cold exposure. Wim Hof’s breathing method, in conjunction with cold exposure, has been heavily researched to support a reduction in inflammation and pain, shifts in the neuroplasticity of the brain, strengthening of immunity, reductions in anxiety, COPD management, improvements in sleep, increases in daily energy levels, and much more.

How to Get Started

To begin the WHM, all you really need to get started is a comfortable space to complete several rounds of Hof’s deep breathwork. Many prefer to start their WH breathing on an empty stomach, shorting after waking up in the morning, either lying or sitting upright in bed. If you’re feeling adventurous right off the bat, you can follow the breathwork with at least 10 seconds of cold water at the end of your morning shower. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced “Hoffers” can follow along to sample videos of Wim Hof’s guided breathing on YouTube. Hof also has a mobile app that allows you to track your breath “hold” times to measure your progress and to track other WHM milestones.

-Lara Cwass

Photo by Vidit Goswami on Unsplash

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Lara Cwass is a recent graduate of the University of Vermont with a B.A in Jazz Guitar Performance and a minor in Nutrition and Food Sciences. Since May of 2018, she has worked as a Standardized Patient, coaching students of the University of Vermont College of Medicine in how to perform physical examinations and carry out office encounters with future patients. Lara takes deep pleasure in finding new ways to care for her mind and body, with a special interest in meditation, exercise, and healthy eating. On the weekends, she can be seen performing with various musical groups, singing and playing guitar around Burlington, VT.

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