Ice baths, Immunity And Inner Peace: GQ Road-Tests The Wim Hof Method
When I come to my senses, I realise, to my slight disappointment, that I am not in fact at the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. I’m in Manly. And I’m lying on my back, having just completed a series of rigorous breathing exercises guided by a man named Johannes Egberts, Sydney’s very own Wim Hof expert. I’ll explain.
I’m here to understand what’s behind this controversial but exciting lifestyle that Egberts says could even be termed an “alternative medicine”.
Created by the charismatic Dutchman Wim Hof and his twin brother Marcel, the Wim Hof Method has been the focus of documentaries by everyone from Vice to Gwyneth Paltrow and promises benefits that include stress reduction, better sleep, faster recovery, as well as increased creativity and mental alertness. That is all the usual buzzwords associated with wellness practices these days. Except, it also promises something else.
The WHM suggests that by practising its three main pillars of breathing exercises, meditation, and cold therapy, you can temporarily suppress your autonomic immune system and influence how your body fights diseases.
We’ll get to that, but first, Egberts wants me to breathe. Big breaths in, short breaths out, 30 times in total. Settling in, I start to feel tingly light-headedness as if I’m slowly separating from my body. Apparently, this is normal Egberts assures me, reading the slight panic in my eyes. On the final exhalation, I’m told to take a big breath before exhaling deeply and, with my lungs empty, hold my breath.
This is when I go to Mount Everest. Or, as Egberts explains to me afterward, my cells do. He means I’ve put my body through the sort of internal workout that occurs when climbing at a very high altitude.
Before the breathing, my blood oxygen level is at around 96 per cent, which Egberts assures me is “perfectly normal” but afterwards, it drops to the low 40s – which is what you might expect if you were atop a mountain where the air contains less oxygen.
So, why is this a good thing? “Your body has something called homeostasis,” Egberts explains, which means your internal functions maintain a state of equilibrium. In short, if it’s out of whack, so are you. It’s a balance of what he calls the “five basic elements of life: oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, glucose
“Anytime you stretch these elements,” Egberts continues, “you’re taking the body to natural extremes and it has to work to bring itself back. This is where the magic happens.
“In the breathing exercise, you take yourself through the extremes of both – you get into really high levels of oxygen, you get into really low levels of oxygen, you get into really high levels of carbon dioxide, you get into really low levels of carbon dioxide.”
Egberts offers the analogy of intermittent fasting to describe the effects this can have.
“It’s pretty common knowledge, that abstaining from food for a little while is a good thing. The body cleans up its act... It works the same way with oxygen.” He goes on to explain the finer details. When you go into low levels
of oxygen, your body creates a natural chemical called EPO – or what Egbert calls “the chemical that people shoot up their bum when they want to perform better”. With more EPO in your system, your body does some recycling.
“The little cells,” says Egberts, “which are either cancerous or erroneous, don’t withstand the stressors so are recycled first. The healthy ones do their jobs, the nasty ones get processed.”
While all this sounds wonderful, in truth, I’ve barely heard a word Egberts is saying. Instead, my eyes are wandering nervously toward the ice bath lurking in the corner of the room.
In a few minutes, I’ll be inside that thing, I remind myself. This isn’t some fancy contraption you see NFL players submerging themselves within post-game. It resembles the kind of industrial-sized freezer you’d find in the back of a supermarket, except, instead of frozen pies it’ll be me inside.
Having finished describing the effects of the breathing exercises, Egberts motions towards the ice bath. It’s time. I’ll be inside for two minutes, he says, and should aim to breathe slowly and steadily, achieving an “inner calm”.
My first panic comes before I’ve even stepped in. I’ve forgotten swim shorts. Does one ice bath commando? I ask myself. Don’t be ridiculous, you barely know the man. I play it safe and opt for boxer shorts. Here goes. I hop in quickly – none of that slowly-dip a-toe-in-type-thing – and get comfortable. Or at least try to. My first thought is how piercingly cold my feet are. The rest of the body feels strangely OK. My feet, meanwhile, feel like they’re being stabbed with icicles.
I start to feel a vague sense of panic. My breathing becomes fast and slightly frantic and all I can think about is whether or not I will last the full two minutes. Can you get frostbite that quickly? Ignoring my growing sense of fear for a brief moment, my eyes scan the room to find Egberts, sitting calmly with his back against the wall. A quiet smile across his face, he gestures for me to calm down. I try.
Several slow breaths later, I find something odd happens. By concentrating on the motion of my breath, in and out, in and out, the overwhelming sense of cold falls out of focus.
I can do this, I tell myself.
“Ten seconds left,” Ebgerts calls out.
I count down the remaining moments, feeling somewhat smug with myself. Emerging from the bath, it’s hard to describe but I feel... good? Euphoric, even. There’s not only the refreshing sensation you have from jumping into a pool of water, but more profoundly, there’s a discernible sense of empowerment and pride. I didn’t want to do that; I didn’t think I could – but I did.
After drying off, I follow Egberts out of the basement to talk Wim Hof over a coffee. Or, as it happens, a cup of organic hot chocolate made from raw cacao he imports from Guatemala.
What excites Egberts most about the WHM is the fact it’s supported “by science”. And by this, he means the medical community has started to ratify Hof’s claims that he can, through a combination of cold therapy, meditation and breathing, suppress his immune system.
In 2011, the University Medical Center St. Radboud in the Netherlands put the mercurial Dutchman through a series of tests, injecting him with an endotoxin – in other words, something that would normally make you sick. The other subjects reported flu-like symptoms with tests showing a marked increase in a protein called cytokine that helps battle infection. Hof, meanwhile, showed limited symptoms and little increase in cytokine. A fluke?
Soon after, Hof trained 12 volunteers for a period of 10 days, inducting them into the WHM before they underwent the same tests. All 12 of them showed similar results as Hof, leading the peer-reviewed journal, PNAS, to conclude: “the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced”.
This isn’t to say everyone is, or should be, rushing to dive into their nearest ice bath. Far from it. There have been multiple deaths linked to the practice, including one case in 2017 when a yoga instructor in California drowned having practised the breathing method next to a lake. (The official WHM website warns against doing the breathing exercise near bodies of water.)
Furthermore, some within the medical world remain unconvinced of its benefits. Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University, believes the jury is still out. In a 2017 paper Lichtenbelt points to the fact that the Radboud study did not look into “long-term training effects” of the WHM, “therefore it remains unknown whether regular cold exposure on its own positively affects our immune system”.
When I put it to Egberts that the method, for all its evident appeal, does come with its share of controversies, the 24-year-old plays coy.
“I don’t think I know many of them,” he tells me, apparently unaware of the deaths reportedly linked to the method, the naysayer academics, or even of the suggestions that Hof has an unusually high amount of ‘brown’ fat that, some say, makes him genetically predisposed to withstand cold more than the average person.
Then again, brown fat aside, Hof is clearly no average person – he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, for crying out loud. But, what about the rest of us? Do we all have to take it to such extremes to feel the benefits? For Egberts the answer is simple, “You take a cold shower,” he says. “Start with 15 seconds, then build up to a minute. This is just to start, to stimulate the body’s response to nature again.”
This is when the whole concept starts to make sense. The main barrier to practices like the WHM, regardless of how significant the benefits may be, is that they can seem unrealistic to incorporate into our already-busy lives. It’s seen as an all-or-nothing thing. Egberts, on the other hand, says it’s ultimately about balance. What Hof has achieved undoubtedly demonstrates the limits of human potential. But, crucially, he shows what is possible rather than, necessarily what is replicable.
“That’s not living a holistic life,” Egberts says of Hof’s various world record attempts that seem to constantly flirt with death. “You don’t go breaking 26 different Guinness World Records without having some demons on your shoulder.”
I pose that the real benefits of the WHM, for the majority of people at least, are more abstract and relate to small changes in your lifestyle and routine. The breathing exercises, the cold therapy, the meditation, they all encourage a degree of discipline that, regardless of the supposed benefits to your immune system, will be beneficial to your life.
“Maybe that’s all it is,” Egbert replies with a smile. “It does come down to a bit of commitment and a bit of focus. If you set the intention, ‘I’m going to do this everyday’, that will have a remarkable effect on your life. That discipline, that routine, just that, let alone all the benefits, the self control, the self regulation that comes from all of that, it’s huge.”
Either way, Egberts is all in.
“The train is going so I say to people, ‘Jump on or stay at the station, but once it’s going, you can’t stop it. Hold tight!’”
I don’t know if it’s the euphoria of the ice bath – or if Egberts slipped something in my hot chocolate – but I can’t help but think I’m already on board.