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Cold-water treatment? A weekend with the ‘Ice Man’

Wim Hof claims cold-water immersion can help fight modern diseases.

Best known for trying to scale Mount Everest in only a pair of shorts and hiking boots, Hof has broken more world records than even he can count. His feats include a near-fatal 57-metre swim under ice during which he went temporarily blind, and a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic.

He’s also immersed himself in a tub of ice for almost two hours. Scientists have begun studying his methods to evaluate if they can offer universal benefits to people.

“Live your body, stimulate your body,” he implores. “Arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, depression – all of those diseases are a result of our neglected biochemistry. We need to be stimulated to help fight disease. Cold is a great stimulator.”

Breathing is one of the three main pillars of the Wim Hof Method, alongside cold exposure and commitment. Over a period of 30 minutes, Hof instructs us to fill our lungs rapidly before emptying them passively, in a fashion developed from an ancient Tibetan technique, Tummo. Every so often we hold our breath for as long as we can. The idea is to mimic the natural gasping reflex we experience when we enter cold environments, thereby decreasing the amount of CO2 in our bodies.

Hof claims his method activates the body’s “fight or flight” adrenal response, which in turn reduces chronic inflammation. What’s more, he claims he can regulate his immune response to stress – a feat previously considered impossible because the immune system is autonomic. Scientists have begun to pore over his theories.

In one logic-defying experiment, he was able to maintain his core body temperature while encased in ice. In another he was injected with an E coli endotoxin that would ordinarily induce sickness, yet he showed no major symptoms. Accusations that he is simply a freak of nature were quashed when he taught a group of volunteers his methods and they, too, showed the same remarkable results.

Professor Peter Pickkers, of Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, who conducted the E coli tests, told me: “We found that [his method] results in major changes in oxygen and CO2 levels and an increase in adrenaline to really high levels – higher than observed in people who bungee-jump for the first time.

“Higher adrenaline results in the production of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 and this inhibits the inflammatory response. We were really surprised that we found these results. The fact that you can influence your immune response willingly with these techniques is of interest, especially for patients with autoimmune diseases.”

However, he cautions: “We are very reluctant to say it may cure diseases because we have so little data. Assuming there is a beneficial effect, my guess would be that the effects can only be there as long as you practise the techniques – likely not longer than a day.”

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Posted on: August 14 2019

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