For those that don’t know who Wim Hof is, he is a Dutch ‘extreme athlete’ that holds many world records for withstanding extreme cold temperatures, that he attributes to his combination of performing regularly his focused breathing techniques and exposure to the cold, he refers to this as The Wim Hof Method. These methods have been backed up by scientific studies that illustrate that this method can in fact have an influence on the Autonomic Nervous System which was always believed to be involuntary.
Having the ability to tap into the Autonomic Nervous System has the potential for individuals to see reductions in inflammation caused by chronic stress as well as boosting their immune system, making them less prone to illnesses.
Over the past 6 months, I have used the Wim Hof Method on and off but during the lockdown, I have implemented it into my daily routine as have a number of our members at ION and players at the Cardiff Blues with positive feedback all round.
The Wim Hof Method revolves around 2 key areas being performed consistently:
- Focused Breathing
- Cold Exposure
Like many others, I was sceptical of it at first and thought it to be ‘fluffy’ but now I can certainly say that I am a Wim Hof convert. During the lockdown, I have seen significant improvements in many of my recovery metrics such as a steady increase in my HRV going from the mid-70s to low 90s, resting heart rate has dropped from 44 bpm to 40 bpm and my overall readiness score has gone from low 70s to high 70s (metrics measured throughout the night via the Oura Ring). Granted these metrics will be impacted by a change in my normal routine but I am adamant that my body and mind feel a lot better from following Wim Hofs Method.
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System is a part of our Central Nervous System that regulates a lot of the internal activities within the body – such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, sweating etc and is done so through our endocrine system (hormone control) by changing the chemical balance to influence the needs of our body and behaviours.
It has two main divisions:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight or Flight)
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest and Digest)
Our Sympathetic Nervous System (Fight or Flight) is highly active through the day as we react to our environment on many different levels – you’re continually exposed to high external stress from family life, work responsibilities, high-intensity training or competitive sport on a regular basis that puts a massive strain on your body and has the potential to have a detrimental impact on health and resulting performance.
Your body is ideally designed that it can react acutely to external stress – such as coping with a severe injury or preparing to fight or run from a predator. This is when your Sympathetic Nervous System becomes highly active and works fast to activate the adrenal gland that produces adrenaline which speeds up many of our bodily functions needed to combat the external stress – muscles become highly active, heart rate increases.
The benefits can also be if our bodies are being attacked internally by invaders like bacteria, viruses etc. – the sympathetic nervous system produces pro-inflammatory cytokines and white blood cells to fight these.
This all has positive effects if it happens acutely but the reality is that in today’s society our Sympathetic Nervous System is chronically activated mainly due to the stressors we face in everyday life – whether through work life, family life or large amounts of high-intensity training. This causes continued levels of inflammation within our bodies that leads to several chronic health issues that are common today – anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, sleep disorders to name a few.
When your Sympathetic Nervous System is highly active it also reduces the signalling to your gut and that can have a detrimental effect on your digestive system – gut health is essential for health and wellness.
So, how do we reduce the strain put on the body by the Sympathetic Nervous System?
We rely on our Parasympathetic Nervous System (Rest and Digest) to counterbalance what is happening and help return our body to homeostasis (being in balance). Activation of our Parasympathetic Nervous System is key to recovery, reducing inflammation and general health and well-being.
Sleep is an ever-present topic these days when discussing health, wellness and performance and rightly so. This is because during sleep your Parasympathetic Nervous System is highly active and the body is able to slow down and repair.
When your Parasympathetic Nervous System is activated, you’ll see Heart Rate Variability increase, blood pressure drops, heart rate lowers and certain hormone production increases such as Human Growth Hormone helping your muscles to repairs and grow.
So, whether you are a professional athlete, solicitor, surgeon or a bricklayer – being conscious of your autonomic nervous system will certainly help improve your overall health, wellness and performance. Becoming aware of the physiological and psychological benefits you get if you are able to shift your focus and allow your body to recover and repair adequately day-to-day.
Wim Hof Method
The focused breathing is different from other breathing methods as it encourages you to enter a state of controlled hyperventilation. This sees oxygen levels in the body increase and carbon dioxide decrease which then increases the blood’s alkalinity along with the release of adrenaline into the blood when holding your breath.
The Cold Exposure (Showers) and the Wim Hof breathing method acutely activates the Sympathetic Nervous System for a short period and with the production of adrenaline, it helps to increase white blood cell production and a reduction in inflammation. Adrenaline produced for short amounts of time is very beneficial to the body but can have the opposite effect if the body forces it to be produced over and over again that leads to plenty of chronic health issues as discussed. Using the Wim Hof method helps our immune system and reduces inflammation by becoming more regulated and less reactive. When our bodies become invaded by pathogens its the big pro-inflammatory response that causes the symptoms we have when we are ill. If our immune systems are more regulated and able to defend these pathogens without over reacting we have less inflammation and become less ill.
With the Sympathetic Nervous System being activated for a short period the body counteracts by the Parasympathetic Nervous System kicking in that then brings about all the benefits of recovery and leaves you feeling in a state of relaxation.
I like to perform the Wim Hof Method in the morning as it leaves me feeling extremely energised but at the same time relaxed and alert for the rest of the day.
Here is how I have built into it over the past few weeks.
30 Deep Breaths without fully exhaling each time
Hold for roughly 2 minutes
Exhale and then Deep breath and hold for 10-15 seconds
Then move on to…
Week 1 – 30 sec
Week 2 – 60 sec
Week 3 – 90 sec
Week 4 – 120 sec
Week 5 – 120 sec+
As a Strength and Conditioning Coach, understanding ways to optimise Health, Wellness and Performance is my passion. ‘Recovery’ is an essential part of the puzzle.
I understand this might not be for everyone but along with my own personal experiences and the scientific research surrounding the Wim Hof Method, it certainly has had a positive effect on me. And I plan on having the continued discipline to implement it on a daily basis when life goes back to normal after lockdown and common stress triggers of everyday life return.