Wim Hof claims that a regime of cold baths and breathing techniques will stave off the flu and boost your immune system
Cold showers are commonly associated with dousing sexual urges, tropical holidays and plumbing emergencies. But Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, who holds the world record for the longest time immersed in an ice bath, claims they can also teach people how to control their immune system.
Hof was nicknamed The Iceman for his seemingly freakish feats, which include climbing Everest while wearing shorts, swimming under swathes of polar ice, and running a half-marathon in the Arctic Circle. But he wasnt satisfied with merely getting into the Guinness Book of Records. Hof wanted to demonstrate that his techniques allowed him to manipulate his nervous system at will, something biologists consider impossible and also that anybody could do it.
Hofs belief is that cold exposure and breathing exercises can enable people to tap into a neglected part of their brain and control their nervous systems, staving off illness and disease. Eighteen years ago I said in my book that these techniques could influence the immune system, he says. If I had said that on TV, people would have told me I was crazy.
Some will remain sceptical, but Hofs claims have been supported by limited scientific studies. Two years ago, researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands confirmed that he and 12 of his students could consciously control their autonomic nervous system and innate immune response.
The doctors injected the men with an endotoxin, which usually elicits flu-like symptoms, while they practised Hofs meditation and breathing techniques. While the control group sweated and shivered, Hofs group were asymptomatic. The doctors found that their bodies had released epinephrine, triggering a flood of anti-inflammatory agents that fought off the endotoxin.
The authors of the study said that the finding could have huge implications for people suffering autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Hof himself responded by taking people with Crohns disease and coronary problems up and down Mount Kilimanjaro in 48 hours after training them last year.
The efficacy of Hofs techniques on specific illnesses or diseases hasnt been proven, so its far too early to rely on them: research is ongoing at Radboud and other universities. And it shouldnt be ignored that Hof charges $199 for an online video course, even though the basics of the technique are fairly simple (and available for free on YouTube).
The programme is three-pronged: cold exposure, starting with icy showers; breathing exercises that resemble controlled hyperventilation designed to flood the body with oxygen and raise its pH level; and finally, exercises such as headstands and forward bends. Theres no doubt it takes some commitment. A cold shower in the middle of winter, even a cold blast at the end of a hot shower, can leave you feeling permanently chilled rather than refreshed. Hypothermia is a real risk for the overconfident who take the plunge with ice baths. And the breathing exercises can be uncomfortable and dizzying.
So the jurys still out on the health benefits. Some of Hofs supporters are adherents of the ancestral health movement, who believe that mankinds domestication (from agriculture to pharmaceuticals) has been to the detriment of human health. For those who follow the paleo diet, run barefoot and shun antibiotics, his method offers a tantalising opportunity to feel comfortable in wild environments. It may at least be a cure for cold feet.