What if we could use simple techniques like exposure to cold and breathing to consciously control our immune system?
Przesieka, Poland. December 2
So here I am, in an old forest in the middle of the night. The air is negative... well, double digit-something. I'm finding myself surrounded by strange people from all over the world. We walk in a slow constant pace, head down. None's talking, just breathing heavily in, and out. At times there's screams of primal dispair.
I'm walking in shorts only, can't feel my feet numb from the snow, knowing, that it's about to get a whole lot worse. Our mission for tonight is to find a creek to take a seven minute dip. I have no towel and we are about ten minutes from the cabin when it hits me; -What the fuck am I doing here?
So it all started a few months ago. Late in the evening I was aimlessly clicking around on Youtube when I came across an intriguing video labeled, ”World's 10 humans with real superpowers”. The one that really caught my interest was an individual called The Iceman. So apparently this man climbed mount Everest alone in only shorts, ran a marathon for over five hours at -20 degrees Celsius and stayed in ice for almost two hours, among over 20 other world records, all of them including cold exposure.
I was amazed and wanted to learn more about this man and his story.
Now the Iceman, named Wim Hof, had some incredible feats under his belt. But what got me the most interested was his claims to control his immune system and the autonomic nervous system. (Which per definition should not be controllable)
Given his “impossible” records, his claims were put to the test by Peter Pickkers, a professor at the Radboud University, who at the time conducted several studies on the immune system.
He was injected an endotoxin which would in anybody else lead to shivering, fever and nausea. But Wim did not seem to be affected. He was told he was the exception that proves the rule, and since he had done “his thing” for the last 30 years he was unique.
But Wim was fully confident that this was for every man to learn and achieve. He went on to train eighteen volunteers for four days in cold exposure, breathing and focus. Twelve were then picked at random to do the same test as Wim had done, along with a control group of twelve individuals that had not been trained.
The results were surprising for Peter and his colleagues. The study showed that using the breathing technique led the trained group to produce more epinephrine hormones which suppresses the immune response. In addition, the trainees had fewer flu-like symptoms and lower fevers, and their cytokines (the signaling proteins of the immune system and markers of inflammation) were at less than half the levels of the control group.
"How could we make sense of this finding?” - Matthijs Kox and Peter Pickkers after examening Wim Hof
At this point I was super excited and booked a trip to Poland to experience this in person, and learn more from the man himself. Once in Poland, we were put in groups and each with an instructor. Ours told us the first day that “if you want facts: ask me, if you want to be inspired: talk to Wim. That's just the kind of person he is; he doesn't concern himself with facts, he just do. “Feeling is believing” was a common phrase in Poland.
The first decent
Anyway, there I was in the dark and the cold, preparing to get even colder. It's fascinating how the primal part of our brain can take over if you let it. Often times we might not even think there is an option to our actions, but the human race is blessed with a prefrontal cortex that always gives us an option of action regardless of what the stimuli might be.
The water was, due to constantly moving, sub zero degrees. It was like needles on my skin. My feet, already numb from the snow, were fine entering the water. The real issue was getting the core and head under the water.
-Keep breathing deeply! Focus on the inside! Was shouted from our instructor. To be honest the body will start breathing fiercely by itself, our job was to calm it and stay focused.
There are no thoughts, there is just Now in its purest form. “The cold is merciless but righteous”, Wim often reminded us. How right he was.
In ice water there is nowhere to hide, your true colors are exposed like staring into a mirror, witnessing your pathetic and insignificant being. But then... Keeping focus, breathing. Your body knows what to do and the panic is gone, it´s ok. The nervous system has accepted your call. It's all silent. It's all still.
On the last day, after a week of breathing, meditating, cold dipping and the occasional bare chested night walks, it was time for the last challenge, ascending Mount Sněžka.
The mountain is 1603m above sea level and thus covered in snow and ice.
The first reaction, getting off the bus into the beautiful winter landscape was not to take the clothes off, which of course was mandatory, but after the initial sense of chilling and cold, we went into the focus needed to do this, from now on, until we reached the top it was all about focus inwards.
It was a walk of deep breathing and constantly checking in with the body, not allowing the cold to enter your core. The hands and feet were already lost since the body knows better than to transport valuable heat to parts not essential for survival.
Thrust your body – it knows what to do, it's been doing this for thousands of years.
One step at the time in a silent march we reached the top after three hours, we had been warned not to celebrate too much after reaching the top, but the selfie-part had begun which led to loss of focus and the shivering was a fact.
What does this mean?
Back in the day we didnt have painkillers, antiinflammitory pills, penecillin or antidepressives. So what did we do? We used our body and our mind.
Today we are cocooned in comfort and our inner abilities are slumbering in standby mode. We put our trust in the pills which is an easier way of dealing with immediate problems. However, the thing about medication is that it needs to imitate what we already are able to produce.
“We have the ability to produce all the substances that we try to imitate with medicine, and the reason medication works is that there is an endogenous equivalent”.
- Karin Jensen, psychologist and Doctor of Medicine, researching Placebo at Karolinska institute Stockholm and Harvard medical school.
Have we already reached the peak of human potential or have we merely begun scratching the surface?
The surface doesn't scratch itself. It takes a great deal of determination to go beyond what is comfortable, and dedication to do it again.
Wim is not superhuman, he is a very persistant induvidual with a rock solid believe in the human potential. He is a man in the front line, pushing the limits for what is possible and crushing mental barriers with every broken record, much like the Bannister effekt which is pushing science to move forward and even re-evaluate already proven facts.
What if we really can use simple techniques like exposure to cold and breathing to consciously control our immune system?
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Motivated enough to take a cold bath?
No? Here's some more benefits from cold exposure.
Activation of brown fat
Cold exposure activates and increases our brown fat. Brown fat is a type of fat that the body uses to generate heat. Brown fat boosts our metabolism and burns calories.
It stimulates your body to generate more muscle mitochondria, the energy powerhouses inside your cells.
This makes cold exposure a force to be recon with in the fight against obesity and diabetes.
Studies have shown when overweight diabetic men were put into a cold room their insulin resistance improved.
Newborn babies have a high amount of brown fat but it decreases over time given our life style of air condition, cars and gore tex clothes. Adults have almost no brown fat left but continious cold exposure can reactivate it. (van Marken-Lichtenbelt et al., 2009).
Exposure to the cold can be used to strengthen the cardiovascular system so that the heart needs to pump less frequently. Through exposure to cold you train the little muscles within the blood vessels and blood will flow more fluently through your vessels.
Exposure to cold temperatures raises adiponectin, a protein that helps prevent inflammation, Circ J. 2009, which in turn can result in a reduced risk in developing inflammation in the joints and tendons. People who suffer from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatism, can as such profit from cold exposure. It is also used as post workout for faster recovery.
"We have this underlying biology that’s very adaptable and survival-oriented, but these days we are cocooned in comfort and we don’t activate it. So we’ve broken our fundamental biological links to the world around us. Indoor plumbing, heating systems, grocery stores, cars, and electric lighting now let us control our environment so thoroughly that we can live in perpetual homeostasis. But we evolved differently. We evolved to survive variations in our environment. Think of our ancestors who mounted expeditions across frozen mountains and parched deserts with only a whisper of technology to aid them. Simply reintroducing some common environmental stressors can bring back some of our lost evolutionary vigor. There’s a hidden biology we can tap into. We need environmental and physical variations that invigorate our nervous systems. We are living today with an evolutionary mismatch. We’re overlit, overfed and overstimulated"
-Ray Cronise, NASA scientist.