The strength of the Breath: Stimulating Immunity with Breathing, Meditation, & Cold Hydrotherapy

“Nature is our teacher,” said well by Wim Hof during his 2010 TED talk in Amsterdam. Also referred to as the “Iceman,” Hof is definitely an adventurer and world record-holder in the Netherlands, especially noted for running a marathon above the polar circle wearing only shorts. His other incredible endeavors include breath-holding for six minutes while submerged in cold water within sheet of ice, and holding the planet record for that longest ice bath. Hof isn't an outlier or a superhuman but what about a water-cure teacher of the Twenty-first century.

With a compulsion to leap into freezing cold water, Hof chose to take back the power of your brain and the entire body. He intuitively knew that he could mentally override the shock response of his body to cold water exposure. He later created a breathing technique, studied for the first time in 2012, that allows for additional efficient gas exchange in the lungs. He combines this technique with Tummo – an energetic form of meditation designed to withstand nature's cold elements – and it has been teaching these techniques to anybody who really wants to learn.

After accomplishing these incredible feats, which many thought to be impossible, Hof sought out a few experts to study him. He felt it important to scientifically show the effect that that way had on his metabolism and his defense mechanisms. He partnered with Professor Mattjus Kox, PhD, and later with Prof Peter Pickkers, PhD, at the Radboud University Clinic in the Netherlands, who monitored the parameters that Hof could influence using his breathing and meditation method. Ultimately, through measurements of epinephrine, norepinephrine, as well as a profile of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines, they found Hof could indeed control his autonomic central nervous system and influence the innate defense mechanisms. Hof's physiological responses to various stimuli were then studied against healthy male subjects which were trained in the Wim Hof Method, in addition to a group of healthy males which were not.

Hydrotherapy can be quite influential in healthcare, but we are now beginning to comprehend the physiology of the controlled, non-shivering thermoregulation. Too, we are taking a look at its ability, in conjunction with other stimuli, to initiate an immune response. Though Hof's method has been shown to increase physical stamina, the implications in other areas of healthcare, for example autoimmune diseases, are promising.

Training with the Breath: Relaxed vs Active

Many people in the Western world associate meditation with a relaxation activity; however, there are several forms of Buddhist meditation that elicit different responses, not only calming from the nervous system . The Buddhists' Theraveda practice of Shamatha , that can bring the individual into a very relaxed state, is quite common in North America and is accustomed to help ease anxiety, calm the CNS, and help in stress reduction.1 It follows a mindfulness-based practice, reducing and focusing on the breath or on a visualization. However, other kinds of meditation, for example Vajrayana, are meant to do quite the opposite, which Hof uses to his advantage. Central to Tibetan Buddhism, Tummo, a kind of Vajrayana meditation, is used to train “self-existing wakefulness.”1

Vajrayana can be used to induce arousal, awaken the mind, and permit a heightened ability to react to stimuli.1 Studies on this arousal-inducing type of meditation have shown it to stimulate the sympathetic central nervous system , increase amounts of norepinephrine, and increase core body temperature.1,2 This can be 1 explanation for how Hof could conserve a core body temperature of 37°C while relaxing in cold water for One hour and 52 minutes.3 He claimed, “It's all within the breath.”

Shallow breathing is typical within our Western society. Our respiratory rate and breathing is generally controlled by the ANS, and perhaps we do not provide enough attention because we know our bodies will invariably keep breathing for all of us. However, many forget that we have full control over our breath. The neuronal networks of the medulla control the rhythm of our breathing, like an auto-pilot, but we also have voluntary control once we need it. Although we can pilot our very own breathing, our CNS still has chemoreceptors which are situated near commercial establishments to detect changes in blood pH and oxygen saturation. For instance, try slow, breathing while running. Based on your level of skill, it can be maintained for a short period, however the body knows when it's not receiving enough oxygen and can try to push you out of trouble from the pilot's seat to increase your respiration rate.

Hof remarked that the key to withstanding challenging environments in order to increase physical performance lay in the ability to alter his physiology via epinephrine and oxygen levels. In a single clinical experiment, he could increase his blood pH level through breathing.4 His technique involves consuming more air than you're releasing. It is a form of controlled hyperventilation accompanied by a recovery breath, and holding in the exhale. Blood O2 is increased, CO2 is decreased, and even though this often induces light-headedness along with a tingling sensation in the body, Hof has revealed that it may increase physical performance by providing more oxygen for ATP production.4

The theory involves while using largest alveolar area in the lungs as possible. Allow for the most amount of gas exchange to help the number of O2 and CO2. Physical stamina is increased by prolonging aerobic respiration processes and delaying the requirement for anaerobic respiration.

Effects on Cortisol & Immune function

Acute stress activates endocrine pathways that really help within our capability to adapt to environmental stimuli.5 The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis will induce cortisol release in the adrenal glands in the presence of a stressor, which assists many functions in cardiovascular, metabolic, and immunologic control.5 During an acute stress response, increased cortisol induces the “fight-or-flight” response and increases energy production for vital organ systems.

Hof's cortisol levels were studied because he practiced Tummo meditation in the presence of 2 different stressors: ice immersion and an injection of bacterial endotoxin . In the first experiment, Hof's reaction to ice immersion was measured because he used his approach to breathing. They found that his cortisol levels increased upon ice immersion, after which fell back to baseline after he was taken off the ice.6 In the second part of this case study, Hof employed his same method to boost the release of epinephrine before the endotoxin injection. He experienced only mild symptoms , which were compared against a historical cohort of 112 healthy males who underwent the same endotoxin protocol.6 All control subjects except 1 experienced headaches, shivering, fever, and increased levels of proinflammatory cytokines.3,6

As a follow-up for this experiment, Prof Kox and Prof Pickkers from Radboud had Hof train healthy male subjects in the method to undergo exactly the same experiment, and they investigated the effects around the innate defense mechanisms, as well as its capability to be reproduced. Training included 4 days of intensive instruction and practice under Hof's supervision, and 5 to 9 additional times of at-home practice in most 3: meditation, exposure to cold, and breathing techniques.

During the endotoxin challenge, all subjects had similar baseline cortisol levels, that have been discovered to be raised in both groups A couple of hours post-injection.7 After using their breathing techniques, however, trained subjects had significantly lower cortisol levels 3 to 8 hours post-injection, compared to controls.7

Immune function parameters were also studied, and leukocyte concentrations put together to become significantly higher in trained subjects, beginning 30 minutes after breathing exercises were initiated.7 Proinflammatory markers , as well as the anti-inflammatory cytokine, IL-10, were increased both in groups after endotoxin administration. What's interesting, though, would be that the proinflammatory cytokines were significantly attenuated in trained subjects.7 Test subjects while using Wim Hof Method also had IL-10 levels which were 194% greater than control subjects.7 Not only did test subjects have an early induction of IL-10 compared to controls, but they also experienced fewer flu-like symptoms.7

This kind of symptomatic control when subjected to an endotoxin is likely because of the immunoregulatory results of IL-10 and how it can inhibit TNF-a activation from LPS. Chances are the elevated epinephrine levels within the trained group, because of Hof's breathing technique – practiced before and through LPS administration – accounts for this response.

Knowing the principles and applications of hydrotherapy, it is no surprise, the effect that cold can have on immune function. We use ice and cold compression for swelling and inflammation on a regular basis. We realize that cold hydrotherapy might help improve immune function by increasing serum leukocyte levels.8,9 However when combined with breathing and active concentration techniques, we are now influencing additional circumstances that control immune function.

Cold Hydrotherapy on Thermogenesis & Immunity

This mind-body connection studied in the Netherlands was based on the combination of meditation, breathing, and cold exposure. Controlled activation from the ANS seems to greatly affect immune function during human endotoxemia, but cold exposure is key in controlling the same stress response that is accountable for immune system- and metabolic control.5,9

In contrast to previous studies, recent studies show that brown adipose tissue can be located not only in infants and children, but additionally in healthy adults.10,11 BAT plays a vital role in elevating body's temperature during fever, but also in homeostatic control during cold exposure.10,12 These studies in the Netherlands demonstrated that subjects trained to use this mind-body connection could have symptomatic treatments for their reaction to another stimulus, and also the same can probably be said for that reaction to cold exposure.

Normal exposure to cold for very long periods begins with your body shunting blood to vital organ systems. Skin becomes cold, and sensation sheds as the body tries to keep the core warm. Eventually, tissue becomes necrotic and hypothermia takes hold. However, if you're able to control the body's reaction to cold, you are able to withstand its elements and employ the advantages that is available. Altering the result of cold to induce non-shivering thermoregulation is paramount.

When we think of the role fever plays in an immune response, BAT thermogenesis is essential in facilitating this increase in core temperature, and therefore also plays a part in the reaction to endotoxin. Scientific study has discovered that inhibition of BAT thermogenesis leads to increased bacterial LPS in sepsis and endotoxic shock.10 In fact, both stimuli that were studied by Prof Kox and Prof Pickkers – endotoxin and cold exposure – have been shown to activate BAT to help increase core body's temperature.10,12 Interestingly, BAT thermogenesis requires a good supply of oxygen and glucose, as its cells are dense with mitochondria.9 This demonstrates the importance of breath work and oxygen saturation, though in the absence of hypoglycemia.

Applications to Healthcare & Autoimmune Disease

Although Hof's method can improve physical performance through more effective energy production and oxygen utilization,4 there are also impressive implications for its use within healthcare. Excessive and prolonged inflammation can ultimately cause injury. It's 1 reason why corticosteroids are prescribed for controlling inflammation, especially in autoimmune diseases – to suppress proinflammatory cytokine production.5 By training to control immune function, this process may be able to suppress an overactive immune system.


Further studies will be needed, however the implications are promising. For now, we'll continue to see the positive effects that active breathing and meditation can have on cellular energy. In combining these with cold hydrotherapy, even with something as simple as daily cold showers, not only will there be considered a pronounced immune response, but better recovery from cortisol secretion in response to stressors.

This could be the scientific backing to a 21st-century water-curist/nature-curist approach which has never been conducted in detail before. By training the breath, increasing oxygen, providing efficient ATP energy production, and using the strength of active concentration, we are able to ultimately train our bodies to better tolerate cold hydrotherapy treatments and retain their benefits. What bonds us with Wim Hof, however, is our mutual encouragement to understand from and make use of the power of nature and also to set forth a commitment towards the mind-body connection.