Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, summer is sliding inexorably away. With heavy hearts, we pack away our shorts and sandals and dig out our autumnal garb. This is it, guys: we’ll be layered up until next spring.

So why haven’t I worn a jumper or a coat since Tuesday?

Because I’m an idiot. And I started reading some things that made me think twice about my desire to turn up the central heating.

It starts with the humble hypothesis that the human body has evolved over millennia to respond to its environment. That includes seasonal periods of cold exposure. Over the last century, however, with our central heating, fleece-lined winter coats and stocky walking boots, we’ve lost this connection to cold. It’s possible to live in one eternal summer. No wonder we’re scowling when winter scrolls around.

The temperature over the last few days has been around 13 to 18 degrees. It’s not outrageously cold – just cold enough that you’d notice if you weren’t wearing a jumper. Even with the gorgeous sunshine, my morning stroll around the lake is chilly. I’m sitting out here in trousers, a short sleeve shirt and sunglasses and my hands are cold, no doubt.

But there’s also something invigorating about sitting out here and feeling the body as it responds to its environment. This mild cold stress isn’t going to kill me, and it might just signal to my immune system that we’re entering winter and it should buck up its ideas, germs-wise

Where did this all come from?.

Well, I’ve been experimenting over the last few days with the methods of Wim Hof, a man who has trained his body and mind to be able to walk most of the way up Mount Everest in just a pair of shorts – no fancy climbing gear and no oxygen tank.

What’s more remarkable is that he has allowed scientists to study his techniques, and he has trained complete novices to be able to master their own body and mind over the course of just a few days.

The method consists of just 15 to 20 mins of controlled hyperventilation, a few yoga stretches, and cold showers. Very cold showers. Preferably ice baths.

The scientific processes underlying the physiological changes that Wim Hof is able to engender in both himself and his students are fascinating. The central idea is that, contrary to all conventional scientific wisdom, human beings can exercise conscious control over their autonomic systems – including our adrenal, immune and cardiovascular systems.

Wim Hof’s method can help us regain control over these autonomic processes by using the cold as a teacher. When we step under a cold shower, our body launches into a whole host of apparently automatic and unconscious physiological reflexes.

Wim Hof says that, by practising his breathing technique, we can teach ourselves to control our cold reflex. Once we have learnt to take back conscious operation of our cold reflex, we can extend our mastery over other autonomic systems.

It seems unbelievable, but this is a man who has taught dozens of people how to climb snow-bound Mount Kilimanjaro in nothing but a pair of shorts – hiking at a speed that all mountaineering experts say should cause debilitating altitude sickness and death. (No one died, btw.)

What gives me some confidence in his outlandish claims is that, unlike most hucksters, Wim Hof has subjected himself – and his students – to scientific examination. While freeze-packed in 700kg of ice, Wim was able to maintain his core temperature of 37 degrees. For 80 minutes. (SOURCE)

In a study at Radboud University in the Netherlands, Wim Hof was able to control his immune response to a strain of E. Coli. Then, to prove he wasn’t a genetic freak, he taught 12 strangers to do the same. (SOURCE)

In some ways, western medicine is just playing catch up. Wim’s breathing technique is very similar to one found in ancient yogic teaching. The idea that the brain can directly modulate the immune system is old news for yogis. Over here, it’s still mainstream scientific heresy – but the first evidence of such a direct connection has recently been found in mice. (GUARDIAN REPORT / SOURCE)

As unbelievable as it sounds, perhaps it’s time to take Wim’s methods seriously. Especially for anyone who, like me, suffers from autoimmune disease. Wim Hof’s promise that humans are able (once again?) to master our immune response offers the tantalising possibility of regaining control over dysfunctional systems and healing ourselves.

And even if we can’t, the morning breathing and meditation exercises followed by the smack-down of a cold shower certainly wakes me up. So why not?

See also: Tipton et al. (2017) Cold water immersion: kill or cure? in Experimental Physiology, especially their conclusion:

although in most instances there seems to be a credible rationale for the benefits or otherwise of [cold water immersion], in some instances the supporting data remain at the level of anecdotal speculation

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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