For years I have been hearing about the benefits of cold showers and cold plunging, but I never really understood the entirety of the concept until I learned about the father of ice baths himself, Wim Hof.
Hof is a Dutch motivational speaker and author as well as an extreme athlete who is best known for his ability to withstand and perform in freezing temperatures. He has set Guinness World Records for swimming under ice and for prolonged full-body contact with ice and cold. He previously held the record for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and in snow. His explanation for how he can achieve all of this is through his use of the Wim Hof Method, which is a combination of frequent, progressive cold exposure, specific breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation.
“I was very interested in esoteric disciplines,” he tells me of his young years. “In Buddhism, Hinduism, traditions, languages, anything! Anything I could get my hands on. Mental and psychic… reading a lot. Debating a lot; thinking a lot, I did [it all.]”
Hof has voluntarily been the subject of several medical assessments as well as the book What Doesn’t Kill Us written by investigative journalist Scott Carney. In his book, Carney used Hof’s methods in order to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 28 hours wearing just a pair of running shorts and tennis shoes.
So where did it all begin for Hof? He tells me that in his youth he always had interest in changing the world.
“At twelve years old, I promised myself, or I pledged my oath to do something about what people think is normal,” he says. “And what people think is normal is that there is war, disease, cruelty, pollution, and all that. And I think it is not normal and I’m going to do something about it. It’s a road or track of faith and belief, and you know it’s like water. Faith is like water. If you just keep on going, it’s like a water drop every moment and that will break the wall at a certain moment.”
Hof wasn’t sure how he was going to change the world, but when he was 17, he had a sort of epiphany. He says he was walking along a frozen canal in Amsterdam when he felt what he describes as a powerful attraction to the cold water. He stripped down and for the first time experienced a cold plunge, although that term wasn’t in the zeitgeist back then.
“It was a hunch,” he tells me. “You feel attracted to do something and you just go do it. Since then I’m hooked. And that [was] forty-six years ago. I’ve never skipped a day.”
Hof returned the next day to experience the cold water again and he was hooked. He felt more energized, he felt like he could concentrate better, he felt healthier. It would be years before he’d have the resources to understand the science behind what he was doing, bu he knew it was working for him. The results were hard to deny.
“A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away is what I say to make it simple,” he says. “But it’s real. It’s real because it’s absolute cardiovascular fitness exercise. In doing so [people] will soon have a lot more energy because the vascular system is just working a whole lot better. And the mindset…when people feel better within their bodies, their mindset will make them able to commit to it. Once you feel more energy; once you feel the anxiety go out of your body and the inflammation go down, you’re hooked anyway.”
Hof continued this habit through that winter in Amsterdam and as he experimented, he began evolving his breathing techniques which is actually based on an ancient Tibetan Buddhist technique known as Tummo.
For more than a decade after this, Hof continued his daily routine of cold plunging and breath work. He didn’t really expect that it would become a viable career and at the time he was working whatever odd jobs came along to make ends meet and care for his wife and four children. Tragically, Hof’s beautiful and vibrant wife was struggling with mental health issues, what was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. It was a time when mental illness was vastly misunderstood and stigmatized. Without any signs or dramatic build up, Hof’s wife one day kissed her children goodbye and in an instant took her own life. Hof says that at this point fear and despair crept in and it was the most difficult time in his life.
“If you have a [partner] and you have four kids with her and she is declining in her mental health, then fear comes in disproportionately,” he says. “You can’t hold it; you have no control. And you see the decline. Back then I was full of fear. My dreams were completely shattered. I was in the deepest of darkness possible while I couldn’t be there because I had to take care of four kids without money. So there the faith came in. I went into the cold then much more frequently because in the cold I didn’t feel the emotional agony. In the cold you survive. You learn to control and to connect with deep stressful mechanisms inside the brain. And what is emotional agony? It is stress.”
Hof felt that his techniques might have been able to help his wife, but it was too late. In her honor he began wanting to popularize his methods in the hopes that it could help other people to live lives unencumbered by fear and stress and mental anguish.
“We are born to be happy, strong and healthy,” he says. “Only we’re not schooled therein. We are schooled to fit into a society, to have a job, a career, and to go into the stress and go for the deadlines and I got a lifeline and I’m passing it on through you right now… It’s my mission to bring this to the world.”
Today, Hof is convinced that his breathing techniques paired with controlled exposure to cold can heal a lot of people. It’s important to note that mental illness as a category of medical study has been widely researched and great advances have been made. However, the human brain is so complex and there is still so much we don’t understand about prevention and treatments. Certainly, proper medication in the care of an expert medical professional is merited for people who suffer from serious conditions. Hof is bold with his assertions about the benefits for cold therapy but no one should abandon the advice of their doctor, especially those who are at risk with legitimate diagnosed mental health issues and those with potential of harming themselves. That said, cold plunging and controlled breathing could be the answer for millions –or billions of people who suffer from high stress, anxiety, low motivation, inflammation, cardiovascular issues and other treatable conditions where doctors usually prescribe medication that doesn’t cure but temporarily controls the symptoms.
This isn’t woo-woo stuff for yogi’s or conspiracy theory rhetoric against the pharmaceutical industry. Hof’s method is now backed by science. For the past 5 years I have struggled with bad headaches and mild sleep apnea. Since I have approached that magical middle age where big ticket health problems begin to emerge, I decided to consult several doctors to find the answer but no one was able to help me. Feeling hopeless and with my symptoms getting worse, I stumbled on to Wim Hof after being introduced to his methods by big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton in a previous episode of Behind the Brand.
I started with daily cold showers as well as his breathing techniques. With a little more eating right and lifting weights at my gym, I dropped about 10 pounds in a month. Whatever I did eliminated the sleep apnea and I noticed a big difference in my physical and mental health. I felt great for the first time in a while. The headaches didn’t completely go away but they came less often so I doubled down and found a cold plunge tub.
I did a lot of my own research on cold plunge brands and chose the RENU therapy tub. RENU was very well made and in my opinion the safest on the market. When I first started cold plunging I set the water temp to 48 degrees. I did a few rounds of Wim Hof breathing and immediately popped in the tub up to my chest. I tried easing in with feet..then knees…waist and eventually body, but it was more torture than just going for it! I started with short intervals of time, beginning with 30 seconds.
The best time of day for me was early morning and it helped me get my day started right. If you’re cold plunging, you don’t need a cup of coffee to wake you up. I would hop in the tub everyday and try to stay in a little longer each dip until I could endure 3 minutes. I also added Epsom salt with eucalyptus and lavender to my tub water. The 2-3 minute mark is where my body seemed to get the optimal benefit of pump and circulation. Based on your body type, height and weight I would recommend experimenting with soaking time to find what works for you.
Hof says that his method can work for anyone and it’s composed of three pillars.
What are the benefits of super ventilation breathing? Hof’s method falls under this category… Super ventilation, like deep inhaling breath work is when you’re inhaling very fast for a deep, rapid breathing, almost like hyperventilating. It’s usually a pattern of 20, 25 or 30 deep inhale style breaths followed by a period of breath holding. I can usually hold my breath for 1:30 the first round; 2 minutes the second round and close to 3 minutes in the final rounds. Wim has a great guided mobile app that is easy for beginners or more advanced people to use and follow.
The deep breaths without pause in and out lets out a lot of carbon dioxide. This causes your blood vessels to constrict, and reduces blood flow to your brain. Even after just a few seconds of doing the Wim Hof method of breathing, it can reduce blood flow to your brain by a significant amount, an estimated 40%. Please use caution as these rounds of breathing can lead to feeling dizzy or fainting when you’re first starting out. Make sure you’re not sitting in a chair, driving a car or doing any kind of action where getting light headed or falling might be dangerous. I do my breathing in my bedroom on the floor surrounded by carpet, or in my backyard on the soft grass.
My typical super ventilation breathing is 4 rounds and the reduction of CO2 in the blood also causes a pH imbalance. According to a consensus among health experts “this sends a distress signal to your brain and releases adrenaline. Adrenaline increases your energy and also triggers an immune response. You’ll have a release of immune cells that help with healing, wounds and preventing infection.” In theory, this type of breathing increases your temperature, which causes an increase in your metabolism as well as the release of serotonin. Hof suggests that there’s no real danger if you do his method in a safe environment. “The body just temporarily triggers a response that decreases inflammation and causes you to be more focused, have more energy, and also improves your immune function” he says.
I find this type of breathing really relaxes me and gives me an instant energy boost. I find it really helpful if I’m in a anxious thought pattern, you are very connected to your breath. And it’s very hard to think other thoughts when you’re doing it. And after I just feel so calm yet energized.
“Gradual cold exposure, specific breathing techniques and mindset,” he says. “Those are the pillars.” Hof tells me that taking cold showers or cold plunging is a form of hormetic exercise, which is self-inflicted acute stressful exercise. “You get a little bit of stress short term, and then you are activating the protective shields within the inner physiology which [protects] you in case of stress during the day. Your body becomes more resistant. You get a lot more energy.”
Hof has critics, but they are more quiet now since his methods are verified with scientific data to support his practice. He knows that people think he’s an anomaly, and he’s broken enough Guinness World Records for people to think that… but when it comes to discussing his work, he’s very casual and humble about it. He truly believes that anyone can do what he’s done given the right circumstances and he feels passionately that it’s his mission to bring these techniques to the world to help people live healthier and more vibrant lives. He describes the knowledge that he’s acquired as a lifeline that he wants to bring to billions of people.
“Anybody can do what I do only I exposed my body so [many] times into the cold that I learned to deal with that consciously. So neurologically my will is connected with the stress mechanisms, because I know how to go into the stress and activate the strong hormones inside the body to defy the stress coming in. Before the stress comes in. I’m ready. I’ve created a shield. And that is what is missing with many people nowadays. They are too much into their comfort zone behavior and thus they never are prepared when the real stress is coming in to defy it, and then it deregulates the hormonal system and then the dopamine is gone, and the adrenaline is gone… what results into depression.”
In short, Hof suggests that we might be getting too soft if we can’t even turn our hot showers to cold for the last few minutes to improve our health. This is hardly a new problem for civilized people. Remember the words of stoic philosopher Seneca [4 BC – AD 65], who recommended we seek discomfort on a regular basis to build up our tolerances:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”
To Hof, mental fitness and physical fitness are of equal importance. Not only does he spend time in his garden which is more of an interactive outside gym where Hof spends his days lifting and throwing large rocks around his yard for exercise, but he spends time on meditation and intention and visualization. These tactics are what he credits for having been able to regulate his body temperature using just his mind.
“I’ve shown with Detroit Wayne State University how to top down regulate the body through the psychology over physiology. I’ve shown it for the first time in brain scans… how to defy physical stress just by using the power of our intention. No physical exercising, just by the mind. What they did is that 74 people were exposed to cold while being in a brain scan and then they looked at the brain and they saw the skin temperature going down and with that they saw stressful activity in the conscious brain. There was a lot of stress going on and that was the cold upon their body. In my case then, I showed just by my intention, just by thinking and using the power of my mind to [have] the skin temperature not going down while being exposed to icy water. Just by using the mind. In a brain scan you cannot use heavy breathing or contractions of muscles or anything. You have to be motionless. So that was the first time that it has been shown.”
Now that Hof has the scientific studies to back up his theories there’s nothing that he feels can stop him. He’s working with psychiatrists all over the world to try and bring these simple techniques to the masses. He may have been given the moniker of the Ice Man, but he doesn’t need the titles, or the Guinness records, he just wants to share what he’s learned and for the world to be a better place.
More with Wim Hof here: