Mind & Body

"Iceman" Wim Hof's Baffling Breathing Technique Lets Him Control His Body Temperature

There are a few things that charlatans and hucksters have been trying to convince people are possible for literally centuries. That it's possible to turn lead into gold, that the human mind is capable of bending spoons, that you can control your body temperature by willpower alone. Obviously, those are all false. Except that last one. Maybe. Meet Wim Hof.

The Iceman Cometh

They call Wim Hof "the Iceman," and it's easy to see why. This is the guy who holds the Guinness World Record for Fastest Half-Marathon Barefoot on Snow/Ice, the guy who climbed 24,500 feet (7,468 meters) up Mt. Everest wearing only boots and shorts, and the guy who held his breath beneath Arctic ice for more than six minutes. The thing is, that all sounds kind of ... impossible. He's a controversial figure, not least because he seems to actually be able to do the things that he promises.

The cornerstone of his entire practice is something called the "Wim Hof Method." It's a technique broken up into in three parts, the most striking feature being a breathing exercise where you take in as much oxygen as you can, as fast as you can, in a kind of controlled hyperventilation (the other two elements are meditation and frequent exposure to extreme cold). It's allegedly got a host of benefits. Chief among them is the ability to exercise precise control over your body temperature, so much so that you can stay perfectly warm even in frosty environments. We know — it sounds like something you'd learn to do from the back of a comic book, and to be perfectly honest, it's difficult to tell where reality ends and flimflammery begins here. But as it turns out, there's at least some truth to this incredible claim.

Armed with an fMRI machine, a PET scanner, and a temperature-changing bodysuit, researchers at Wayne State University asked for a demonstration of Hof's Iceman abilities in a laboratory setting. And believe it or not, he delivered. The team would pump the suit full of water, which would either be 31-34 degrees Celsius (88-93 degrees Fahrenheit) or 15-17 degrees Celsius (59-63 degrees Fahrenheit). If Hof went in without employing his method, his skin temperature would fluctuate between about 33.5 degrees Celsius with the warm water and 31.5 degrees Celsius with the cold. That's about the same as the control group. But when he used the method, his skin temperature stayed almost perfectly steady at just under 34 degrees Celsius.

But how? The PET scan suggested that the rapid breathing exercise worked by warming the capillaries in the lungs, which then circulate more freely through the body — we're reassured to learn that the method doesn't work on pure willpower. There was one interesting result that turned up on the fMRI brain scan. Hof didn't demonstrate an increase of activity in the anterior insula, where higher-function thermoregulation is done. Instead, he had an unexpected spike in the periaqueductal gray matter, which is associated with control of sensory pain. Maybe it really is mind over matter after all.

Hacking the Immune System

Okay, so regulating body temperature might be possible through the Iceman's special breathing exercise. Or at least, when he does it — he might be a bit of a special case. But another apparent benefit of the full Wim Hof Method has been subjected to group testing, and it also passed with flying colors. We're talking about the ability to consciously control your immune system.

This 2014 study split 24 male participants into two groups. One was subjected to the full suite of Wim's whims for 10 days. That means they not only practiced the breathing exercise, but they also learned to meditate with Hof and they took frequent, challenging swims in ice-cold water. The other group was asked not to take any more grueling, hypothermia-inducing swims than they normally would. When both groups were later injected with a purified endotoxin from E. coli bacteria (a common method of stimulating an immune response), the immune systems of the Wim Hof group had a much more subdued reaction than the other group thanks to increased adrenaline output.

You might be asking yourself, why would I want to subdue my immune system's reaction? The fact is, your immune system has a habit of overreacting. Many of the symptoms of the flu are actually caused by your immune system and not the virus itself. That's how it panned out for the participants — the non-method group demonstrated a lot more flu-like symptoms. There's also the matter of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Does that mean that people with rheumatic diseases should take this practice up? "The answer is a very clear 'no,'" said researcher Dr. Peter Pickkers to LiveScience. "People shouldn't start doing this, and definitely not instead of taking their medication — it would be dangerous." Still, a better understanding of how adrenaline affects the immune system could inform the way we treat such diseases in the future.

Temperature Regulation of the Human Body

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 14, 2018

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