The Science Behind Wim Hof Breathing

“Let the body do what the body is capable of doing.”

What if your body was capable of hiking mountains in shorts, running marathons barefoot in the Arctic circle, and holding your breath for minutes at a time?

Wim Hof, also known as the Iceman, is a Dutch endurance athlete, adventure, and philosopher. His claim to fame is his unique ability to endure brutally cold temperatures in extreme circumstance and often for extended periods of time.

He developed this ability through a three-part training regime he named the Wim Hof Method that allows him greater levels of control over his breathing, heart rate, blood circulation, immune system, and brain chemistry. He believes every human has the ability to accomplish what he has through a dedicated practice.

He’s known as the Iceman because of his incredible athletic feats in some of the coldest parts of the world and he currently holds 21 Guinness World Records.

  • He ran a half-marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot only wearing shorts
  • He climbed Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro (in two days!) wearing only shorts
  • He holds the record for longest under-ice swim (66 meters or 188 feet)
  • He ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking
  • He stood in a container while covered in ice cubes for nearly two hours

Suffice to say, he’s a pretty badass dude. He credits his achievements to the “Wim Hof Method” a three-fold conditioning regimen that includes breathing exercises, cold showers, and commitment that anyone can do. (We won’t be touching on the cold showers here).

I was first introduced to Wim Hof on the Goop Show on Netflix (I know, don’t @ me). On the episode, Wim led a group of Goop staffers through his breathing experiences and then an icy plunge into a half-frozen lake. They emerged one by one, smiles wide, and declared themselves totally unbothered by the cold.

I was curious yet skeptical at the lofty claims Hof makes of his methods. Could changing the way I breathe for a short period of time each day really have such a profound effect on my mental and physical health?

The Benefits of Wim Hof Breathing

Physically, the Wim Hof method claims to:

  • Give you more energy
  • Boost your immune system
  • Act as a natural anti-inflammatory
  • Promote better sleep
  • Increase sports performance and workout recovery
  • Manage autoimmune diseases
  • Provide arthritis, MS, and fibromyalgia relief
  • Assist with COPD management
  • Relieve migraines
  • Manage asthma
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Improve your metabolism
  • Promote positive stress

Mentally, Hof claims his method will:

  • Improve your mental health
  • Relieve and control stress
  • Assist with burnout recovery and prevention
  • Improve cold tolerance
  • Deal with depression
  • Increase willpower and concentration
  • Improve mind/body connection
  • Increase happiness and creatively
  • Control the autonomic nervous system

The Theory  

Hof claims that through his methods, he is able to regulate both his immune system and his autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls our breathing and blood pressure, and is one of the first systems to change in environments of fear, discomfort, or pain. Breathing is often thought of as an automatic skill, though anyone with a long-term anxiety disorder will tell you conscious breathing is one of the best coping tools available.

So it would make sense to this writer that a greater level of control over your conscious breath would lead to greater control over our autonomic nervous system as a whole.

Frankly, it all sounded a little too good to be true. But after a bit of digging, come to find out the science is on his side for more than a handful of these claims.

The Science Behind Wim Hof

Hof believes that we have more control over our brains and bodies than current science leads us to believe. His theory is that the body is capable of doing astounding and incredible things, when we are in the right state of mind. A mantra he repeats during his guided breathing exercises is “let the body do what the body is capable of doing.”

The Wim Hof method has been studied across the world since 2011 and he has literally changed our understanding of the biological ability of our bodies. Early results show his breathing techniques does affect our brain, immune system and metabolic activity as well as inflammation and pain in the body.

Prior to 2011, it was believed that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and innate immune system were out of the scope of voluntary control. But in the first study done, scientists were shocked to find that these techniques can positively influence the two systems.

In a 2014 study, Hof was injected with an endotoxin known to provoke a violently sick reaction in humans (a strain of E. Coli to be specific). Using just his breath technique, he was able to control his ANS and immune response and avoid any physical symptoms of the toxin. But it’s not just him that this works for. The same 2014 (2014, Knox et. al) study also tested 12 practitioners of his method with the same endotoxin, and like Hof, they were able to control their sympathetic nervous system and immune response.

Participants of the study were found to have fewer flu-like symptoms, increased levels of epinephrine and anti-inflammatory mediators, as well as a decreased proinflammatory cytokine response. The inflammatory response throughout the body was significantly reduced. Since an overactive proinflammatory cytokine response (aka inflammation) is a defining symptom of many autoimmune diseases, this study opens the door to a whole world of new potential treatments.

Another 2014 report showed the Wim Hof method was successfully used to reduce and combat acute mountain sickness (AMS) on 26 trekkers hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro.

A 2018 study of Hof showed that he is able to tolerate such brutally cold conditions by creating an artificial stress response in his body. Hof was able to “willfully regulate his skin temperature” and he was “relatively invariant to cold exposure”, which could explain why he doesn’t get frostbite when trekking up mountains or through the Arctic Circle barefoot. Researched hypothesized that by generating “a stress-induced analgesic response in periaqueductal gray matter, the Wim Hof Method may promote the spontaneous release of opioids and cannabinoids in the brain. This effect has the potential to create a feeling of well-being, mood control and reduced anxiety.”

The same 2018 study showed that through these exercise, when Hof is exposed to cold, he activates the area of the brain that released opioids and cannabinoids into the body (the periaqueductal gray matter). This inhibits the signals of pain and cold in the brain, and can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin, which ultimately have a euphoric effect on the body that can last several minutes.

The researchers concluded that regular practice of the Wim Hof method “may lead to tonic changes in autonomous brain mechanisms”, which has profound implications for managing medical conditions from autoimmune diseases to mood and anxiety disorders. They concluded that “It is not mysterious to imagine that what we practice can change our physiology… These possibilities are too intriguing to ignore.”

While all of the claims Hof makes have not been validated by modern science, he was able to prove that he can control his autonomic nervous system and immune system – two things that were previously thought impossible. Not only that, but Hof is able to teach people how to control these systems in themselves as well.

The Method

The Wim Hof Breathing Method works through a series of controlled hyperventilation and breath retentions.

  • Inhale and exhale rapidly through your mouth with no pauses for 30-40 breaths
  • On the last out breath, retain the breath for as long as possible
  • Once you cannot retain the breath any longer, inhale through the nose and hold for 15 seconds
  • Release the breath and repeat the cycle twice more

During the cycle of breathing, oxygen levels in your blood cells are rising to the maximum amount possible (100% O2 saturation). In the breath retention phase, the O2 levels plummet from 100% to under 80%. This rapid change can trigger a fight or flight response in the brain and send stress hormones level skyrocketing.

According to Hof (and the science) creating artificial stress response in his body actually increases your brain’s tolerance to stress and promotes the increased release of opioid chemicals in the brain.

It’s important to note that because this method involves conscious hyperventilation, it is not without risk, including passing out. Always practice sitting or lying down in a safe place.

My Experience

So what does it actually feel like the practice Wim Hof breathing?

In a word, interesting.

The most notable sensation is the tingling that starts in your chest and spread outward throughout your body. This feeling is due to the changing level of O2 and CO2 in the body. Once you’re done, the tingling sensation spreads and evaporates,.

It was after watching the Goop episode that my fiancé and I decided to download his app and give it a try. It was harder than he made it look, but I was surprised by the rush of energy I felt coursing through my body at the end of round 3. Though I hadn’t held my breath for more than a minute at any point, by the end of the meditation I felt awake, revitalized, and focused.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve returned to the Wim Hof method at the start of my day. By the end, I still have that same rush of energy and a feeling of general revitalization. I’m able to start my day with a greater sense of focus and clarity, and stay focused throughout the day.

It is a lengthy mediation, taking upwards of 20 minutes. It’s also noisy, and you can feel a bit silly hearing yourself rapidly inhale and exhale. Every day is different, but I can regularly retain the breath for over 2 minutes now. It’s an incredible feeling, sitting there in utter stillness, not breathing, and feeling this feeling spread through your body.

It did, and still does, take active work. My brain enters a panic mode during every retention I have to consciously work to overcome, and often I release the retention simply to calm my brain down. But it is also a powerful feeling knowing that you’re capable of going without oxygen for over 2 minutes with no negative effect.

(I’m still not sold on the cold showers though)

Published by Jessica Reilly, Writer

Writer, cannabis aficionado, and poetry lover

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