Wim Hof is a celebrity known to some as “The Iceman”. The Dutch extreme athlete, now in his early 60’s, has earned a number of world records related to survival and performance in extremely cold conditions. These records include climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and a section of Mt. Everest in only shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, and sitting mostly-submerged in ice for nearly two hours. More relevant to our interests, however, is the health-promoting Wim Hof Method he has developed and made popular worldwide. The Wim Hof Method is a 3-pillar practice involving breathing techniques, cold therapy, and focus (or meditation). As Hof says, “the method is a tool to connect with your body and mind”.
Wim Hof states that our modern human lifestyle has become much too disconnected from nature. As such, he believes we have lost touch with an “inner power” as our biological survival mechanisms are rarely triggered. The Wim Hof Method is meant to reconnect us “to ourselves, to others, and to nature” by stimulating specific physiological pathways.
Who is the Wim Hof Method for?
Hof claims that his method can make anyone “happier, healthier, and stronger”. These are lofty claims, but there is a little bit of science to back it up. Studies involving Wim Hof himself and those who follow his method (playfully nicknamed “Hoffers”) have shown that the practice can indeed help to increase energy levels, promote better sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, heighten focus, and manipulate the immune system [1,2].
Much like yoga, Lamaze, and other deep breathing practices, the Wim Hof Method involves breath control practice that can be later centered upon to help withstand discomfort.
There is some evidence that these practices can provide some on/off control of the autonomic nervous system, which is closely connected to autonomic immune system response. While the research is new and will require deeper investigation, there may be a benefit to some autoimmune disorders, especially related to inflammation (more info on this below).
Hof’s breathing techniques can be beneficial for improving circulating oxygen levels of those with respiratory ailments [3,4]. As such, the Wim Hof method has recently been applied and found helpful for some Covid-19 patients .
There are also claims related to the method’s benefits to mental health issues and mood . While Hof’s website recognizes that depression can require therapy and/or medication, he also provides some evidence supporting natural mood-enhancing practices.
What does the Wim Hof Method entail?
Practicing the Wim Hof Method involves starting each day with specific breathing practice, yoga, meditation, and cold therapy, all on an empty stomach.
The breathing practice involves “circular breathing”. This is deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth with no pauses in between. Thirty of these deep breaths are followed by holding an outbreath for extended periods. The beginning practice is three rounds of this with breath-holds that last 30, 60, then 90 seconds. Of course, the first “rule” of Wim Hof is “listen to your body”, so if any of these holds feel too long, go ahead and breathe before you feel stressed or anxious. On the opposite end, if you feel you can calmly hold longer than the suggested time, you are encouraged to do that as well. Your breath-holding abilities are likely to grow over time using this practice daily. If you’d like to give it a try, you can use a free YouTube or a Wim Hof app to guide you through this beginning practice, but to move further, you’ll need to find Hof’s website or buy his book.
The breathing exercise is followed by yoga and meditation. Again, for Wim Hof’s specific brand of yoga and meditation, you will need to pay for his course, but he insists the stretching and exercises are suitable for most bodies. This is followed by a cold shower. Wim himself admits most people will hate this at first but will come to love it over time if committed to the daily practice. Because most people hate it, at first the “cold shower” can start as just a minute of cold at the end of your regular hot shower.
Once people have completed Wim Hof’s introductory course, there are suggested ice baths or cold plunges in near-freezing water. Wim believes the health benefits produced by his method are synergistic and can only be experienced through the practice of both breathing exercises and cold therapy.
How does The Wim Hof Method work?
There are a lot of claims about the benefits of the Wim Hof Method and only a few studies that provide evidence to support them. Some of the studies are more convincing than others.
Perhaps the most convincing data is related to the benefits of deep breathing. Deep breathing and muscle relaxation can induce a ‘hypometabolic state,’ minimizing autonomic and mental arousal to counter anxiety and stress response in the body . Wim claims that deep breathing oxygenates tissues in a way that regular breathing does not. Then, when you stop breathing (during the breath holds), the brain stem is triggered to release an adrenaline rush. Hof says, “Adrenaline is for survival, but this time it is completely controlled … the adrenaline shoots out throughout the body and resets it to the best functionality.”
The “reset” function of adrenaline has yet to be proven, but this rush in adrenaline may be responsible for noted benefits of the Wim Hof Method in regulating immune function. In 2014 researchers reported that a group of people following Hof’s regimen experienced lower levels of inflammation, fever, and nausea after injection with a particular inflammatory agent, compared to a control group . In these subjects, increased adrenaline levels were associated with increased anti-inflammatory proteins, and decreased cytokines (signaling molecules for the immune system).
However, Hof also claims that the surge in blood alkalinity that accompanies hyperventilation allows us to train our cells and “optimize their machinery” . This may be a stretch. There is no evidence that changing the pH of our blood promotes any lasting benefits in the body. In fact, it pushes our body out of homeostasis, in which the body is thought to be optimally functional.
In terms of mood support, meditation (one element of Hof’s method) has been shown to benefit serotonin production and reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels . He also points out how important food and nutrition is to mood balance. He recommends avoiding sugar and processed foods while making sure you are getting adequate omega-3 fatty acids and tryptophan (an amino acid precursor for serotonin). We might suggest adding a B-complex vitamin supplement, as folate and B-12 are especially important to serotonin production.
Is it worth a try?
It is difficult to know which part of the method promotes which beneficial outcomes. By breaking apart the method and studying each aspect –which is good science– we take away the possibility that the noted benefits are truly a synergistic result of committing to the practice as a whole, as intended. Whether or not future research will back up Hof’s claims or refute them, there are many, many testimonials about this daily practice changing people’s lives. If the practice makes you feel good, why not try it? Just make sure you complement your practice by taking care of your body with clean, balanced nutrition.
- Houtman, A. et al. “Testing the Iceman” Biology Now with Physiology (Ch.22, p. 388-394 Endocrinesystems) 2015. Second Edition.
- Kox, Matthijs, et al. “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.20 (2014): 7379-7384.
- BAHENSKÝ, PETR, et al. “Warm-up breathing exercises accelerate VO2 kinetics and reduce subjective strain during incremental cycling exercise in adolescents.”
- Wim Hof Method. “How to Deal with Depression.” Wim Hof Method Website. Accessed January 15, 2020. https://www.wimhofmethod.com/how-to-deal-with-depression
- Scharping, Nathaniel. “Can Breathing Like Wim Hof Make Us Superhuman?” The Crux/Discover Magazine. July 6, 2017.