Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He has set Guinness World Records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and still holds the record for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow.
Lara Potgieter, also known as The Editor, is a South African extreme non-athlete noted for her inability to withstand cool temperatures. She has set a world record for remaining in an ice bath for the shortest period of time ever completed by a participant on a Wim Hof Method training weekend.
Before he became a global phenomenon, Wim Hof was just an eccentric Dutch guy with a penchant for plunging into frozen canals. For 15 years, he went about his seemingly absurd business in relative obscurity, less health guru and more neighbourhood weirdo.
But there’s no business like snow business, and Hof eventually rose to fame after breaking a number of records related to cold exposure, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle on his bare feet, and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes.
Initially motivated by an attempt to navigate the grief of losing his wife to suicide, Hof came to ‘embrace the majestic force of nature’ as ‘a natural path to an optimal state of body and mind’. Inspired by the effects of the cold exposure in his own life, he developed the Wim Hof Method to share his ways with the world.
The method has attracted a veritable army of followers dedicated to maximising their potential through the three pillars of cold exposure, breathing and ‘commitment’.
Hof asserts that ‘proper’ exposure to the cold - in combination with specific breathing techniques and commitment to the method – has the ability to catalyse a cascade of health benefits. The list includes ‘the build-up of brown adipose tissue and resultant fat loss, reduced inflammation that faciliates a fortified immune system, balanced hormone levels, improved sleep quality, and the production of endorphins – the feel-good chemicals in the brain that naturally elevate your mood’.
That’s a lot of benefits, and at least partly why I found myself spending a Saturday morning in a makeshift ice bath filled with strangers at a Wim Hof Method retreat hosted by Erwann Fabre, Mathieu Schlachet and Jim Harrington of Innate Integrity at Bodhi Khaya in Stanford.
I’d been sent a lengthy disclaimer in advance of the weekend, signing my acknowledgement of the fact that by participating, I may be injured either physically or mentally. But because a ferally handsome and irresistibly charismatic old Dutch guy promised me that his mission is to make me happy, healthy and strong, I took the plunge anyway.
Although the retreat opened with our instructors espousing the benefits of the technique, it was clear that everyone (else) present was already at least R4000 convinced.
While my fellow retreatants revelled in the bizarre cocktail of masochism and selfcare, I found myself longing for the very pleasant, climate-controlled lifestyle that Hof and his proponents maintain to be at the root of much of my malaise.
I can’t say that I’m attracted to the idea that discomfort is in itself productive. I didn’t go to bed the night after my first ice bath thinking, “I may have achieved nothing else today, but at least I have suffered!”
And yet my less than enthusiastic response to the programme appeared to stand in stark contrast to that of most of the other participants.
Perhaps it’s because I gave up. I really like hot showers, and I do not like suffering – even if it will make me stronger and less cancerous. I’m probably exactly the kind of person who would have been devoured by a wolf in the caveman lifestyle Hof so admires. “The comforts of modernity have made us weak and sad and sick,” he asserts. Sounds about right.
While I am left cold by my brief introduction to the experience, there’s no shortage of first-person accounts of people claiming to benefit significantly from the Wim Hof Method, and documentaries on the topic are indeed very watchable.
But anecdotes, while interesting and entertaining, do not constitute scientific evidence. Like pretty much everything Hof says, the line between what is science and what is sophistry is slippery. However there is early research to suggest that he may be onto something.
According to his team, Hof ‘welcomes cooperation with scientists under the motto to measure is to know’.
Researchers at the Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen have investigated Hof’s physical capabilities, finding that he does indeed appear able to assert some control over his immune response.
However, despite his assertion that anyone can do what he does, analysis of the Wim Hof Method – rather than of Hof himself – was still in order. Perhaps the most important scientific result to this end came in 2014, with the publication of Voluntary Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System and Attenuation of the Innate Immune Response in Humans by Kox, Pickkers et al. (PNAS, 2014).
In this research, 12 healthy volunteers were trained in the Wim Hof Method and 12 others were not. They all received an injection of an endotoxin from the e. coli bacteria. Normally the body reacts quite vehemently to this, but the trained volunteers were able to keep the reaction at a far lower level than their untrained counterparts.
Kox and Pickkers suggest that this was mainly due to the breathing technique, as the hyperventilation reduced the normal response of the body to the endotoxin. Importantly, they emphasise that the experiment was conducted with healthy volunteers and has only proven that a short-term effect can be obtained. Suggesting that it might lead to an effective treatment for people who suffer from an overactive immune system remains pure speculation.
Morever, Cambridge-trained cardiologist Dr Rohin Francis urges us to remember that the reports of fewer flu-like symptoms experienced by the 12 participants involved in the intervention group are subjective claims and should be viewed as such. While there were noteworthy objective measurements - such as the transient respiratory alkalosis caused by hyperventilation and the elevated adrenaline levels - there was no difference in cortisol between the groups, and the increase in antiinflammatory cytokines was likely in response to the adrenaline. It’s also worth noting that the 12 people who were randomised to receive no training were in fact disappointed, as they had signed up hoping to learn the Wim Hof Method, and were promised instruction after the study was over. This suggests that the kind of person volunteering for the study was perhaps already a believer in the method, which may compound the effect caused by the placebo.
While the use of a control group in the study was a step in the right direction, it didn’t eliminate the case of the placebo effect, as both groups were unblinded (it was obviously not possible to run a double-blind trial when the intervention group was involved in 10 days of training). In fact, the researchers published a follow-up paper on the role of optimism and mental expectation in the outcome of the study.
One piece of science around the technique that has been outrightly disputed is that relating to brown fat, or - more accurately - brown adipose tissue. In a nutshell, there are two types of adipose fat tissue in the body – white and brown. While white fat is used for energy storage, its brown counterpart is a much more rare species. We have a lot of it when we are babies, and it gradually reduces as we get older. For a long time, it was believed that Hof’s repeated cold exposure allowed him to activate his brown fat in a special way. And despite findings disproving this about five years ago, you’ll still find websites citing it.
Two studies have investigated Hof’s brown fat, showing that he does not activate it in any remarkable way at all. While he does have more than is typical for someone his age, his identical twin brother – who doesn’t practise the method at all – also has high levels. Slightly higher than Wim’s, in fact. So it does seem, in this regard at least, that the Hofs are genetic outliers, and that this could contribute to Wim’s ability to withstand the cold.
All this said, the Wim Hof Method does appear to offer health benefits to many of its practitioners. Scientists speculate that this is likely due to the ‘good stress’ involved - i.e. the activation of the sympathetic fight/flight/fright response in a controlled way through the breathing techniques and cold exposure. While it’s difficult to tease out which elements do what, perhaps this isn’t important if you’re going to do them all anyway.
While the cold exposure pillar is what’s captured the attention of the global media, it’s perhaps the aspect of the method with the least evidence. A committed programme of meditation and breathing exercises actually has a body of hard science behind it, and could be the largest contributing factor to the success of the method (at least after the charisma and feats of its creator).
Can many of the benefits of the Wim Hof Method be explained by the placebo effect? Probably. And that’s ok. It isn’t trying to replace conventional medical treatment, and unlike something like a very restrictive diet, there appears to be little potential for harm.
Dr Francis’ stance on the matter seems to me the most sane in the midst of both the laudatory hype and the sobering scepticism:
“As doctors, we’re not unwilling to try new things. We just need to feel that the potential benefits outweigh the potential harm, and I feel that the Wim Hof Method fulfills that. If a particular ritual or regime helps you tap into the plaebo effect’s potential, why not take advantage of it? I only get uncomfortable when people exaggerate the potential benefits of the method. I wouldn’t regard it as a miracle cure for any specific condition, but more a potential pathway to better overall physical and mental health.”
If you’re interested in the Wim Hof Method, you may as well give it a try. The anecdotal evidence of it helping individuals is supported by some science, and it’s unlikely to cause harm if you follow the basic guidelines.
Are you going to be able to accomplish the same feats as Wim Hof? Probably not. But as Dr Francis quips, “Just because you’re not going to become Michael Phelps, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take up swimming.”
to find out more about joining an upcoming Wim Hof Method retreat and give it a try for yourself.
ABOUT THE VENUE Situated in the picturesque Cape floristic region of the Overberg, Bodhi Khaya hosts a range of different retreats - from Wim Hof Method and yoga workshops to leadership summits, meditation escapes and more. Visit www.bodhikhaya.com for a line-up of their upcoming events for 2020.