Travel can be transformational, but can it be medicinal? According to Wim Hof, it can.
When ‘The Iceman’ himself took to the stage at MATTER today, brought to you by Tourism Australia, PUREists expected to be awed by his daredevil stunts… What they might not have expected was to come away understanding more about how we can harness the power of the cold for the good of our health. (It’s safe to say we’re expecting plenty more ice-bath enthusiasts to emerge in the coming months!)
In the run-up to his MATTER appearance, Katie Palmer chatted with Hof to get the low-down on his ‘Wim Hof Method’ – and find out why he believes anyone is capable of performing such impressive feats.
Wim Hof is a man who understands what it means to be cold. The Dutch daredevil has made a name for himself running a marathon in the Arctic Circle and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts; swimming in glacial lakes in the Spanish Pyrenees; and repeatedly smashing the world record for the longest ice bath, among other teeth-chattering stunts. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why he’s earned the nickname ‘The Iceman’.
Contrary to the popular saying, Hof does all this for the good of his health. He attributes his ability to withstand extreme cold to rigorous training, claiming that his self-developed ‘Wim Hof Method’ not only allows him to regulate his body temperature while, say, taking a naked nap in the snow, but also to consciously modulate his autonomic nervous system and immune system – a feat that’s not only impressive, but humanly impossible… Or so scientists thought.
“Hitherto, both the autonomic nervous system and innate immune system were regarded as systems that cannot be voluntarily influenced”, says a report by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. “However,” the report continues, “results from a recently performed case study on a Dutch individual, who holds several world records with regard to withstanding extreme cold, suggest otherwise.”
The report refers to a study by Radboud University professor Peter Pickkers and PhD student Matthijs Kox, who (despite being initially sceptical) decided to give Hof a chance to prove his claims. Adhering strictly to the principles of scientific process, they took Hof’s blood and tested its reaction to harmful bacteria before and after an 80-minute full-body ice bath, during which he practised his Wim Hof Method. Sure enough, they found very low levels of proteins associated with activation of the immune system and, in a subsequent experiment, increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones associated with the ‘fight or flight’ phenomenon – the latter of which is thought to influence the former.
Interest piqued, they took their study a step further by injecting Hof with the bacteria directly. Where healthy volunteers in previous experiments had experienced fever, headaches and shivering, along with an increased immune response, Hof suffered almost no symptoms. In fact, tests showed that he did indeed appear to have voluntarily suppressed his immune response – while this may seem counterintuitive, an over-active immune system is associated with autoimmune diseases (whereby the body mistakenly attacks itself, such as with inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis), so being able to voluntarily suppress it could have positive implications.
Regardless, the real revelation was that Hof was able to voluntarily alter his immune response in either direction. Of course, medical science has developed drugs that can do this; but never before has there been evidence that humans can consciously activate and utilise our nervous systems to similar effect. And while the psychological benefits of meditative techniques are widely acknowledged, the potential physical advantages have thus far attracted less attention. In short, The Iceman is living proof of ‘mind over matter’.
But, far from being superhuman, Hof believes that anyone is capable of achieving such feats. He set out to prove this by training 18 healthy volunteers in the Wim Hof Method over the course of just four days (with no prior experience), of which 12 were selected at random to be tested in the same way Hof had been previously. Much to the surprise of Pickkers and Kox, the trainees showed higher adrenaline levels than the control participants and a lower immune response – just like Hof, they appeared to have voluntarily controlled both their nervous and immune systems.
So, just what is the Wim Hof Method?
Based on three pillars, the first element in Hof’s training is cold therapy – “The cold is your warm friend”, claims his website. “The vascular system is 125,000 kilometres of blood vessels, channelling inside each and every one of us”, he tells me by way of explanation, “and they have little muscles and little reflexes – with gradual cold exposure you train those little muscles and reflexes to be optimised; thus your heart is going on average 20 beats-per-minute less than a normal, untrained person” (average resting heart rate for an adult is between 60 and 100 BPM, while a well-trained athlete would likely sit in the region of 40 to 60 BPM). “The better the working transportation system of the blood flow, of the fluids bringing the nutrients, vitamins, oxygen immune cells, the fatter the immune cells get and disease has a lesser chance.”
Next up is breathing, which, Hof explains, triggers the release of the ‘fight or flight’ hormones, “making the body achieve its utmost functionality”. “Heightened oxygen levels hold a treasure trove of benefits”, hails his homepage, “and the specialised breathing technique of the Wim Hof Method unearths them all: more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response to swiftly deal with pathogens.”
Finally, and possibly most challenging: commitment. “The third pillar is the foundation of the other two: both cold exposure and conscious breathing require patience and dedication in order to be fully mastered. Armed with focus and determination you are ready to explore and eventually master your own body and mind”, explains Hof’s website. According to the man himself, mentally willing your body temperature to stay high is enough for it to cooperate. “Mindset is a real neurological activity that is able to control our body so much more than we thought, and now I’m showing that in scientific studies”, he tells me.
As Hof explains, each of his method’s pillars offer great benefits; but together he believes they are “a key from nature”. “We are pure beings originally – only we are alienated therefrom; we have to go back to our pure selves, which is a deep understanding of the feeling and connection between the brain and the body”, he says emphatically. “It’s the belief that we are so much more capable of directing our lives, our mood, our health, and our strength; together with the right amount of energy, it’s all there. That is the way nature built us to be.”
I have to admit that, like Pickkers and Kox, my inner sceptic almost rolls her eyes at this; but Hof anticipates my reaction: “If I say, ‘Yes, I found the key, it was in nature and now it is here for you all’, and they say, ‘That man is crazy’, I can understand that, because many people promise things or say things for their own benefit; but this is based in science. It is rooted and backed up by science – by pure, non-speculative data.” Touché. I’m no scientist (in fact, I have to ask a doctor friend whose brain is more scientifically inclined than my own to explain much of the material I come across while researching Wim Hof and his Method), but even I’m swayed by the persuasive power of cold, hard evidence (excuse the pun).
Now on a mission to spread the word, Hof runs a programme of workshops and expeditions for those who want to master the three pillars of the Wim Hof Method and be reacquainted with their “pure selves” – from morning sessions with an official WHM instructor for €99, to a week-long journey to the Spanish Pyrenees with the man himself coming in at just under €2,000. But who, I wonder, is his average customer?
“People who are open to new things”, he tells me. “It can be anybody; it can be from doctors and professors, to carpenters – anybody. It is not just for a secluded clientele or people who are into New Age things, or fitness – it is everybody. The range is as colourful as humanity itself… And you know what? They find themselves like a family. It makes people strong – not only personally, but also in the togetherness: there is no border anymore, there is no individualism anymore. We share, we take care of each other, and we go and blow our minds.”
I’m reminded once again that travel has an unparalleled ability to create connections and change people for the better; only now, this Dutchman is proving that its potential to transform could far surpass anything we previously thought possible. While scientists’ understanding of the Wim Hof Method – indeed, even of the link between the nervous and immune systems – is a long way from being fully developed, Hof is determined to prove its credibility: “I want more science to back this all up, but overall we are convinced that you are able to become a whole lot better [in your physical and mental health] in a very short period of time”.
Travel as medicine? Watch this space: if Wim Hof has his way, a trip to the Spanish Pyrenees for a glacial dip could be just what the doctor ordered.
Katie Palmer is Editorial Manager for Beyond Luxury Media Ltd.