If you’re unfamiliar with Wim Hof “The Iceman”, then do more reading. He climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro in shorts! He also holds 21 records for cold exposure. Start with his site wimhofmethod.com and consider his book, jointly published with Justin Rosales, “Becoming the Iceman”. Get the science from the 2014 study by Matthijs Kox. The high-level summary is that the sympathetic and immune systems can be voluntarily influenced. Before this study it was believed to be impossible. Wim has been successful in biohacking his body to provide anti-inflammatory responses using cold exposure therapy. Exposing yourself to the cold is outside of most people’s comfort zone. Even now you may be asking yourself “Why would I want to consider cold exposure therapy and what do I have to do to become the iceman?”. Know that your comfort zone cares not about your success, it only cares that you’re “safe” and comfy.
He has climbed Everest and Kilimanjaro in shorts!
The potential benefits of the study are rather interesting. Inducing your body to create an anti-inflammatory response could provide paths to deal with various conditions involving high or chronic inflammation. This applies to conditions such as asthma, arthritis, and other auto-immune conditions, of which I’ve personally dealt with. The Wim Hof Method to become the iceman consists of specific activities centered around three pillars. They describe the pillars as Cold Therapy, Breathing, and Commitment. Most of the action is around the first two with commitment being a need for any new practice. There are plenty of practices around commitment, creating habit, and increasing focus, but for this post I’ll focus more on the other two pillars.
Starting with the Breathing pillar, this consists of three breathing exercises referred to as 30 power breaths, the hold, and recovery. You can read full detail on Wim’s site, so I’ll continue to summarize here. The power breaths are supposed to be done as if you’re blowing up a balloon inhaling through the nose or mouth followed by a powerful exhale. After the last of the 30 you take in one deep full breath, exhale completely and now you’re in the hold. In the hold you want to relax and stay there until you begin to experience the gasp reflex. When you’re ready to inhale again you’re entering the recovery phase. You’ll take in a full expansive breath and hold it for 10 seconds and then exhale completely. From here you start over for two more rounds and then take your time recovering and observing the effects.
A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that meditation and a practice of mindfulness reduces inflammation by calming the immune response. This anti-inflammatory response is caused by a change over time in the brain’s functional connectivity. Even if you don’t go for the cold exposure therapy, it’s simple biohacking to alter your brain in a positive way using this practice. Most people do not practice breathing, so this may be out of your comfort zone. If it is, then you need to do this just to practice embracing discomfort.
Now comes the cold exposure therapy part and the true path to being an iceman! This is where most people will back away, so I’ll challenge you to stay openminded. There’s no doubt that cold exposure therapy will create discomfort, but resist the urge to say no and walk away. It’s in discomfort that we find true growth! Our comfort zone is currently in the way. This is a much longer conversation that goes outside of this post, but most everything from exercise at the gym, public speaking, and learning a language feel uncomfortable until we spend enough time there. You can read more on this in one of my series about increasing self-awareness. It’s worth mentioning that the breathing practices serve as great biohacking to assist with self-awareness related work.
It’s in discomfort that we find true growth!
We’ve known about the anti-inflammatory effects of cold exposure for quite a while now. Athletes have been using it for years to recover from injury and muscle soreness much faster. We’re talking about taking this concept further. For those that have no experience with deeper cold exposure therapy, Wim suggests starting with 15-30 seconds of cold water at the end of a warm shower. Ease into it starting with your legs, arms, and eventually your torso and head. Focus on your breathing and work to maintain a regular breathing pattern. Your comfort zone will be not be happy with this! Your body will respond appropriately, and try to keep you safe, by having you gasp and retreat. By focusing on your breath and staying in discomfort you will eventually communicate to your brain that all is well and you know what you’re doing. This is where true biohacking is achieved.
Your body will respond appropriately, and try to keep you safe, by having you gasp and retreat.
Anything involving a physiological change, such as building muscle through weight training, takes time and cold exposure therapy is no different. Do yourself a favor and start slow and be patient. I won’t go into detail about the other exercises covered in the book, but they involve exposing hands, feet, and later on your whole body to ice and/or ice cold water (i.e. 40 ˚F). Some practitioners may take their biohacking to higher levels and get involved in running barefoot in the snow wearing only shorts, meditating in the snow until it melts, swimming in frigid water, and more.
I personally skipped straight to the cold exposure. It had been on my list from previously hearing others like Tony Robbins, Tim Ferris, and people I knew or encountered that spoke about the benefits. I’m usually game to try anything and it’s certainly an exhilarating way to start your day! I’ve had plenty of experience with breathing from practicing both yoga and mindfulness, so those exercises were less of a priority for me since I was already getting anti-inflammatory benefits from them. That said, I do not pretend to think the breathing is not a critical part of this and will be starting with that very soon.
I began with straight cold showers at the beginning of June (so roughly 30 days ago), but shifted to doing it at the end of a warm shower. My reason for the change was to improve consistency. Strangely enough (he says in a sarcastic, but amusing tone), sometimes I did not want to shock my body with cold water, but I could always convince myself to do it after the warm shower. The gasp reflex was much stronger when I started, but now I barely feel my breath being affected. Before, I was able to focus on the breath and push past the response, but the reaction from the body was strong and lasted longer. My comfort zone has already changed and continues to do and I expect I’m already getting anti-inflammatory benefits from the little progress I’ve made. With more time and patience this will only get better.
I no longer mentally have to brace for impact and actually look forward to feeling the cold.
Towards the end of the month I actually started combining the cold shower with EFT (emotional freedom technique), or tapping, as a way to reprogram my body’s interpretation of the discomfort. EFT is also a bigger topic that I won’t go into detail about here, but the premise is we can affect the interpretation by tapping on meridians to excite the nervous system in a manner that removes the negative association with a certain feeling. For doubters of meridians and such stuff, you’ll want to read about the primo-vascular system. EFT is another great tool for folks interested in biohacking. There’s no harm in experimenting with it, but it does feel awkward at first.
After practicing EFT during the cold shower, I can say that the apprehension and negative feeling prior to switching the water from hot to cold is gone. I no longer mentally have to brace for impact and actually look forward to feeling the cold. This is good news, because the cold exposure therapy will only get more intense. The only way to make progress is to continually challenge my comfort zone. The benefit of the anti-inflammatory effects are greater than my desire to be comfortable, so I don’t expect this to be an issue.
I live in North Texas and it’s summer. There’s not a lot of natural ways to practice biohacking with cold exposure therapy. That said, it does get very cold in the winter with the temperature and wind chill combined. On a recurring basis we get snow as well, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to do iceman practice this winter. In July I’ll start the breathing practices and begin working back to straight cold showers. In August I plan to work with direct ice exposure and ice baths in preparation for winter.
By winter I’d like to be watching my oldest son play soccer in my shorts and a t-shirt! Usually I’m in ski clothes, so it will be a good test and put me way outside of my comfort zone. Based on my reading it seems possible, so why not go for it! The anti-inflammatory benefit is worth it. I don’t have a set plan for the number of posts in this series, but intend to share on my biohacking progress in decent increments, so stay tuned and subscribe if you’re curious to see how this goes!