By now you've likely heard of Dutch eccentric Wim Hof. He's probably best known for achieving what seem like risky, almost superhuman feats. In fact, it's fair to say that many of the records he holds, would, if attempted, kill the uninitiated. But the goal is to not be uninitiated when attempting these difficult things. What Wim Hof has taught us is that any of us can indeed train our bodies to do remarkable things.
His method gets right down into the basic physiology of our body and changes who we are. It changes what we're capable of.
Take Wim himself, for example. His record for longest ice bath is nearly 2 hours. Imagine turning a basketball game on TV, submerging yourself in ice when the game starts, then not getting out until the end. The untrained person would die of hypothermia within 15 to 45 minutes. So, how did Wim Hof manage this unthinkable feat? And more importantly, how did he manage to raise his body temperature while doing this?
The answer to his incredible self control is what's become known as the 'Wim Hof Method,' or the WHM.
Today, many thousands (and likely millions) of people around the world follow this method. Now, this might sound like hocus pocus, a type of mental trick for weak minds. But, as author Scott Carney found out, it actually works.
Thriving From Discomfort
Carney originally attended Wim Hof's intensive training in Poland as a way to debunk the hype around Hof. His idea being that he would practice the WHM, and this would provide him the proof needed to show the world that Wim was a fraud.
But, upon arriving in Poland to begin his training, Carney soon found that the method actually worked. His physiology changed, and soon he was doing things he didn't previously think were possible. Most notably he was able to spend long periods of time outside, in the winter snow, and not only survive, but even be warm and comfortable. He also doubled his push up ability in a single day by following Wim's breath-holding technique.
The uncomfortable and difficult tasks culminated by hiking up a mountain in frigid temperatures as low as minus 20 celsius.
At the end of the week in Poland, Carney had already adopted the WHM. But then he did what any great investigative journalist would do. He set out to study the WHM in more detail and write a great book about it. The book is called What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength.
In it, Carney develops a more nuanced thesis. It's not just about cold exposure or breathing. It's about forcing our bodies to be uncomfortable. He lays out the case for spending at least part of every day in a state of discomfort. And he explores the science behind why this works and why the WHM has led to some unbelievable results.
Carney's Basic Argument
We are Homo Sapiens, a (somewhat) hairless ape, and we've been 'anatomically modern' for about 200,000 years. In that time, we've created incredible technology. It started early on with things like fire, which today, we couldn't exist without.
Fire impacted our evolution, and we evolved alongside many different types of technology. But generally speaking, our ancestors had to rely on their innate biology to survive. When it was cold in the winter they had huts, open fires, and animal furs to keep warm.
But, they didn't have climate control that would keep them in the same temperature 365 days per year. And that's central to Carney's thesis. In the past 150 years, technology has developed fast.
But our evolution hasn't caught up with it. And our physiology is still basically the same as that of our ancestors from 200,000 years ago. And we simply haven't adapted to things like constant climate control or being immobile for most of the day.
Our technology is beneficial in many ways. But it's also increasingly harmful.
Carney points out that we evolved to survive everything nature could throw at us. And nature throws discomfort, constantly. He says we're healthiest when withstanding regular adversity, even if only in small doses.
Diseases of Comfort
To name just a few, Carney notes that osteoporosis (sedentary lifestyle), diabetes (sugary diet), obesity (multiple causes), and poor sleep cycles (electric light and devices) are all caused by modern comfort.
Even our inherent ability to navigate is weakening due to technology. With the invention and massive spread of GPS technology, most notably Google Maps, we are no longer put in the uncomfortable position of having to find our way anywhere.
There was once a time when you'd have to use a map to acquaint yourself with a new city. Over time, you'd develop an internal mental picture of your surroundings. Not any more. These days, you simply enter your location in Google Maps and the device tells you exactly where to turn.
So, it's easy to see how the overwhelming disruption of our technology is impacting us, and in many cases, making us sick.
Carney suggests finding ways to intentionally put ourselves in a state of discomfort. There are many ways we can do this, but we're going to focus on cold exposure. It's a pillar of the WHM and one of Carney's main focuses.
Wim Hof describes an almost supernatural relationship with the cold. It was as though the cold had called him. And he started swimming in the canals of Amsterdam during the winter. While he started this in teenage years, he ramped up the practice after his wife committed suicide. He was left with 4 children he needed to care for, and the cold became a tool for helping him overcome depression.
Today there are thousands of testimonials of the wonders of the Wim Hof Method. Practitioners have reported curing any number of problems from anxiety to obesity. The more grandiose of these even claim the WHM can cure cancer and other chronic diseases. But for this article, we're going to stick with what's been proven.
Autonomic Nervous System Control?
Scientists always thought the autonomic nervous system worked... well... automatically. But the basic premise of the scientific findings is now shifting. Before Wim Hof it was a simple input --> reaction model. Some outside force would act on the body. Then the nervous system would respond. And there wasn't much we could do to control those responses.
But now that view is being challenged. In one experiment, Wim Hof and his practitioners have been able to 'hack' their nervous system.
"In 2011, under medical supervision, Wim was injected with flu inducing endotoxins and demonstrated that he could control his autonomic immune response. He also raised his cortisol levels and lowered his body’s inflammatory response using his natural technique of breathing and meditation. The immune system is part of the autonomic nervous system, and according to medical opinion at that time, the autonomic nervous system could not be actively influenced."
To rule out the possibility that Wim is some kind of genetic freak, researchers tried the same experiment on a group of Wim's followers.
Again, the same response.
Now, this study refers to WHM practitioners' ability to control their response to endotoxins through the WHM breathing technique. But the cold exposure works on the same system. In being exposed to extreme cold, WHM practitioners train their bodies to respond differently to cold. This also influences the autonomic nervous system.
Another interesting result of cold exposure is vasoconstriction.
Our bodies are full of blood vessels -- arteries, veins, and capillaries. In fact, if you removed every blood vessel from a human and laid them end to end, they would cross the United States twice. And it appears that cold exposure has played an important evolutionary role for our blood vessels, most notably our veins.
When exposed to cold, our veins undergo a phenomenon known as vasoconstriction. This is when the muscles that surround our veins constrict. The purpose of this cold-induced vasoconstriction is to send blood back to the heart. Which makes sense, because, if the body is cold it pulls resources back to the core. Better to avoid death by cold rather than 'waste' energy saving an extremity.
So, brief periods of cold exposure is like a workout for our vein muscles. And this is important, because it improves our circulatory system. We live in a culture that thinks more about surface level appearance and prizes big muscles. But it's entirely possible to be muscular but have weak circulation. Circulation is vital to our overall health.
Have you ever had cold feet or hands in relatively benign temperature conditions? Perhaps your circulatory system could use an upgrade via cold exposure.
There have also been interesting findings about cold exposure and burning fat. And Carney has his own anecdote about losing fat while doing the WHM. When visiting Wim Hof's retreat centre in Poland, Carney lost 7 pounds in spite of eating nothing but sausage the entire time.
But there's a good explanation for it. Researchers have found that cold exposure stimulates brown adipose fat growth. Now, we have such a bizarre relationship to the word 'fat.' But to dramatically oversimplify let's just say that brown fat is good fat.
Carney points out that babies use brown adipose fat to keep their bodies warm. As we grow into children and eventually adults, our normal metabolism 'comes online.' At that point we can produce heat without brown adipose fat. Thus our bodies stop production of this tissue. But there is one activity that helps us produce more brown adipose fat -- cold exposure.
So, how does brown adipose fast help us burn (the other kind of) fat?
Well, brown adipose fat sucks up white fat and directly metabolizes it to produce heat. So, via this process, cold exposure improves our internal fat-burning system. We burn fat automatically.
Isn't this what everyone wants? A fat-burning mechanism that can be switched on?