Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Take a deep breath. Feel the wave of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide press against the bounds of your ribcage and swell your lungs. Exhale. Repeat.
Before consciously inhaling, you probably weren’t thinking about breathing at all. The respiratory system is somewhat unique to our bodies in that we are both its passenger and driver. We can leave it up to our autonomic nervous system, responsible for unconscious actions like our heartbeat and digestion, or we can seamlessly take over the rhythm of our breath.
To some, this duality offers a tantalizing path into our subconscious minds and physiology. Control breathing, the thinking goes, and perhaps we can nudge other systems within our bodies. This is part of the logic behind Lamaze techniques, the pranayamic breathing practiced in yoga and even everyday wisdom — “just take a deep breath.”
These breathing practices promise a kind of visceral self-knowledge, a more perfect melding of mind and body that expands our self-control to subconscious activities. These may be dubious claims to some.
For Wim Hof, a Danish daredevil nicknamed “The Iceman,” it is the basis of his success.
Now approaching his 60s, Hof has run marathons barefoot and shirtless above the Arctic Circle, dove under the ice at the North Pole and languished in ice baths for north of 90 minutes — all feats that he attributes to a special kind of breathing practice.
You can easily try it for yourself. While sitting in a comfortable place, take 30 quick, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Then, take a deep breath and exhale; hold until you need to breathe in. Inhale again, as deep as you can, and hold it for 10 seconds. Repeat as many times as you like.
Combined with repeated exposure to the cold, Hof says that his method will lead to tangible health benefits: more energy, lowered stress levels and an improved immune system. For him, it enables seemingly superhuman feats of endurance, brought on, he says, by the physiological changes that his breathing techniques impart.
Breathe properly, Hof claims, and oxygen levels in the tissues increase and adrenaline floods the body, granting strength that we didn’t know we had.
“If you oxygenize the body the way we do it, the oxygen gets into the tissue. [Regular] breathing doesn’t do that,” he says. “What happens in the brain stem, the brain says, ‘There is no oxygen anymore.’ Then it triggers adrenaline to shoot out throughout the body. 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.”
Hof speaks convincingly of the heightened mind-body connection his technique engenders, begging comparisons to a long tradition of semi-mystic practices such as pranayamic yoga, tummo breathing and breathwork.
Over the phone, Hof is loquacious and utterly convincing, perhaps fitting for a man who ran up Mt. Everest shoeless and shirtless, trusting only his breath. He touts the multiple scientific studies he’s been involved with, while tossing mentions of mitochondrial activity, blood alkalinity and adrenaline in a flurry of scientific buzzwords.
Above all, he speaks of a more profound connection between mind and body that allows us to quell the primal desire to run from pain and fear — or from the cold.
“I found by deeper breathing, going into the cold, thinking about it, dealing with it; getting the conviction that my ability to breathe deeper is making connections with my body,” he says. “If you go into the ice cold you have to go deep. There is no other way. It is just bloody cold.”
This mindset aligns with the core tenets of yoga and other practices that aim to grant us more control of our physiology. Breath control is at the center of many of these techniques, and the concept has worked its way into modern medicine as well.
Robert Fried is a clinical respiratory psychophysiologist who retired from the Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Program at the City University of New York in 2010. He’s also written several books on how breathing is related to stress levels and our physiology. In his practice, Fried worked with individuals whose medical conditions made it difficult to breathe, such as COPD patients, as well as people whose lives or professions left them chronically stressed, and his methods essentially involve
“The purpose of deep breathing is to induce a ‘hypometabolic state,’ where autonomic and mental arousal are minimal. It is a resting, restorative state, a counter anxiety, counter stress response of the body induced by using the breathing that goes with relaxation to trigger a similar muscle response in the body,” Fried wrote in an email to Discover.
It’s slowing us down, in other words, to counteract the damaging effects that prolonged stress can have on our bodies — effects that are well known and generally accepted. Fried and therapists like him have used conscious breathing techniques, similar to those found in yoga, for years, and have achieved reliable success. Fried mentions that many of his patients felt rejuvenated after just a few minutes of conscious breathing with him, which sounds similar to what Hof promises.
We can achieve noticeable physical effects with other breathing exercises as well, although they are almost all short-term. The valsalva maneuver, which involves exhaling while closing the throat, quickly lowers blood pressure and raises the pulse, and is used to help stabilize patients suffering from heart arrhythmias. The Lamaze breathing used by many pregnant women has been shown to increase pain tolerance and aid relaxation, while there have been many reports of hallucinations and feelings of euphoria following hyperventilation.
Despite the daredevil publicity stunts and enthusiastic salesmanship, perhaps Hof isn’t so far outside of the norm after all. Perhaps we should simply view his techniques as radicalized version of yoga, albeit one that’s practiced in the middle of a Scandinavian winter.
Still, sitting in an ice bath for an hour and a half is nothing to scoff at. But can we really attribute extreme feats of endurance to the kind of simple exercises we can do while sitting at the office?
The crux of the issue may come down to the question of how well we truly understand the inner workings of the human body. And, though he may edge into hyperbole while discussing myriad benefits of his techniques, Hof has also proven willing to offer himself up as a scientific test subject.
The first true scientific evaluation of Hof came in 2014, when a team led by Danish researcher Mathijs Kox tested the immune systems of people who had followed Hof’s training regimen for 10 days. Kox injected participants with an inflammatory agent while they performed the techniques. Compared to a control group, they experienced lower levels of inflammation, and were less affected by the fever and nausea that usually accompanies the injection.
While the researchers still have no solid theory as to why breathing and cold exposure seem to dampen immune activity, they suggest that the release of adrenaline breathing sparks could play a role. The spike in adrenaline was linked to increased levels of an anti-inflammatory protein, and decreased levels of proteins, called cytokines, responsible for signaling the immune system.
There are a few caveats to the study, however. For starters, Kox’s team hasn’t yet tested the different components of the Hof technique separately, so it’s hard to say if hyperventilation, breath holding, cold exposure or some combination of all three is at play. In addition, Daniel Beard, a professor of physiology at the University of Michigan points out that their study fails to determine whether the effects are short- or long-term.
“None of these people have control over their blood pH or their breathing, except when they’re actually consciously doing this thing. Their heart rates are the same as the other subjects, their pressures are the same,” he says. In other words, the life-altering physiological changes that Hof claims exist could only materialize for the short time during which participants are actively doing the exercises.
A true test of the Hof method would determine whether its effects persist, even when people aren’t consciously altering their breathing. Beard does agree with their fundamental conclusions though, and acknowledges that something is indeed going on in people following Hof’s method.
“Clearly these people have altered their physiological state … this training has changed them, and it’s changed them in a way that has to do with the autonomic nervous system,” he says.
The study lends scientific credibility to Hof’s claims and adds credence to the idea that conscious breathing can allow us to influence deeper processes in our bodies. As is perhaps to be expected, Hof goes one step further, positing that the surge in blood alkalinity that accompanies hyperventilation allows us to consciously train our cells, and, theoretically, optimize their machinery. Neurotransmitters in our blood vessels communicate with our brains and cells to regulate blood pH levels — something that normally occurs without any intervention on our part. Hof believes that by taking control of our breath we can force open a doorway into these normally unconscious processes and hijack them to optimize how our bodies perform.
This is a more controversial proposition, given that trying to alter blood pH is essentially pitting us against ourselves. When our blood becomes alkaline it violates homeostasis, the perfect balance of internal conditions that our bodies strive to achieve. Hof says this is a good thing. Modernity has made us soft, he asserts, and instead of becoming healthier we’ve instead achieved a kind of degeneracy. Dunking ourselves in icy waters and breathing like we’re being chased by a starving tiger “brings about a body more in union,” he says, and claims this translates to real health benefits.
This is where Hof begins to step beyond the edges of modern science — into the cold, as it were. There is really no evidence to suggest making blood alkaline, even temporarily, is a good thing, and researchers like Fried were skeptical about the possible benefits. The veracity of other physiological mechanisms Hof claims, such as oxygenating the blood and stimulating the immune system with cold are also unproven.
How then should we reconcile Hof’s feats with the apparent flaws in his logic? A cynical read says that he’s an unnaturally gifted individual exaggerating the limits of normal human physiology to profit from hopeful individuals. But, science wouldn’t get very far if it was dominated solely by cynics. Is it possible that Hof has stumbled across a quirk of human physiology, one with with the potential to illuminate previously unseen pathways within our bodies?
Count Andrew Huberman in as one of the optimists. An associate professor of neurobiology and opthamology at Stanford University, Huberman is currently conducting a study that exposes practitioners of Hof’s method to fearful encounters via virtual reality to see if their minds and bodies respond any differently.
His research focuses on how our bodies react to stressful situations, and after stumbling across the Wim Hof method a few years ago, Huberman set out to attempt a scientific exploration of the technique. He’s taken courses from Hof himself, and he says the experience convinced him that the breathing techniques were worth a closer look.
Huberman makes it clear that he has no financial ties to Hof, although he has lectured with him. He is, however, an enthusiastic practitioner of the breathing techniques — he does them every morning, he says — and has developed a theory to explain the calming and mildly euphoric sensations that result. The essence of the techniques, Huberman says, is inoculating our bodies against the stress response. And, as before, adrenaline is the key.
“Normally, when adrenaline goes up cortisol goes up too … and the hypothesis that we’re testing is that when you do this method, what ends up happening is you get an increase in adrenaline, but that cortisol, because you’re in conscious control of your state, you’re remaining calm, cortisol stays relatively low,” he says.
From his own experiences, Huberman thinks that the use of hyperventilation and controlled breath-holding maximizes the beneficial effects of our innate stress response, while suppressing the negative long-term effects of stress.
“This is a highly unusual situation. You’re kind of uncoupling the normal parallel response of these two hormone neurotransmitters,” he says.
Instead of eliminating stress entirely, Huberman thinks that we can learn to twist it to our advantage and condition our bodies to respond in a positive way.
He’s in the early stages of research at the moment, and his project includes a wide-ranging collaboration with other researchers to test a full spectrum of physiological responses. His goal is to perform the kind of testing that will stand up to the intense scrutiny that Hof’s’s claims inevitably provoke.
Key for Huberman will be separating myth from fact. Some breathing techniques common to yoga and lamaze may not confer any benefits for our bodies, and could in fact harm them, according to Fried. Breathing often comes as part and parcel of a larger set of practices, and separating it into its constituent parts can be difficult.
The ultimate goal, says Huberman, is to come up with even better breathing protocols than already exist by examining a range of established practices. Breaking various methods apart to see what works and what doesn’t is simply good science.
Indeed, the initial results of the Kox study may indicate that Huberman’s adrenaline-cortisol theory may not be totally correct. They found that Hof’s cortisol levels actually spiked during their tests, as opposed to dropping as Huberman predicted they should. They didn’t confirm similar results in their other test subject though, so the correlation remains ambiguous. In fact, all we can really say at this point is that this kind of breathing helps release adrenaline into our bodies.
The perplexing power that breathing holds remains a mystery for the time being, even as the quantitative might of the scientific method is brought to bear upon it. Promising research is ahead, however, and Hof and others already hint at the possible rewards.
These studies might end up confirming once and for all what practitioners of yoga and other physical and mental practices have known intuitively for years. It may be that the duality of breath — at once automatic and controllable — runs even deeper. It’s not just our lungs that we can consciously grasp hold of, it’s our physiology as a whole.
All we have to do is find the handle.
[Disclaimer: Neither Discover Magazine nor any of the researchers interviewed here endorse the Wim Hof method. If you choose to follow the breathing protocols, you do so at your own risk]