The theories of Wim Hof on the benefits of cold water therapy are rising in popularity when it comes to how they can help our mental health… but do they work on the faint-hearted? We chat to Laura Warren, New Zealand’s first certified Wim Hof instructor.
In 2007 a Dutch athlete came to the world’s attention when he set off to scale Mount Everest… wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and shoes. And when he was forced to turn back at a still impressive 7,200m, it wasn’t due to any signs of hypothermia, but instead a recurring ankle injury.
It wasn’t the first show of Wim Hof’s super-human capabilities in the face of extreme temperatures – he set a Guinness World Record for the longest swim under ice (a staggering 57.5m), a world record for fastest half marathon run barefoot on ice and snow and in 2016 he led a team to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in record time, again, just wearing shorts.
So, what’s his secret? Nerves of steel? A genetic mutation? A radioactive spider bite?
The 62-year-old says his abilities are far from anything special and that his feats could be achieved by anyone who follows three key principles he lives by – controlling the breath, cold therapy and a dedicated mindset and commitment to the two.
His techniques – now known worldwide as The Wim Hof Method (WHM) – combine structured breathing patterns with bathing in ice water and have been rubbished and ridiculed by some medical professionals and scientists, while others have begun studying his methods to evaluate if they can offer universal benefits to people.
“Live your body, stimulate your body,” preaches Wim Hof. “Arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, depression – all of those diseases are a result of our neglected biochemistry. We need to be stimulated to help fight disease. Cold is a great stimulator.”
He touts his methods as being able to boost metabolism, improve immunity, enhance sleep and reduce stress levels and he now has loyal followers across the globe including right here in NZ.
But, is there really anything to be gained from pushing your body to its limits in arctic waters?
Laura Warren is a registered clinical nutritionist who became New Zealand’s first certified Wim Hof instructor, after she trained under the Ice Man himself. She now swears by the WHM and has seen many positive outcomes in her clients.
The WHM first came to her attention while she was working at the Suicide Prevention Centre in Taranaki where she was contracted to speak to patients about nutrition. “But I could see that if someone had got to the point where they were contemplating suicide and were in an extremely depressed state, the last thing they wanted to hear about is how much Vitamin C they should take and what they should buy at the local farmer’s market!” she says. “I needed a tool that I could use to, well, I suppose have a new perspective on things.”
Which is when she came across a documentary on Wim Hof and began practicing his breathing techniques at home herself. She was so impressed with the results – including seeing her headaches completely disappear – she booked in to do the advanced training course in Los Angeles, under Wim Hof, to be able to bring the tools back to NZ.
She now holds regular courses and workshops, as well as one-on-one training, across the country and has found the WHM to be effective in treating chronic stress, among other ailments.
“You pick up a magazine these days and see all the cover stories about stress – everybody seems to be suffering from chronic stress,” she says. “But we also have this huge ability to change our body’s response to stress, from how we perceive it, so teaching people to look at things from a different view.”
Laura says both breathwork and ice bathing can help retrain the body in how it views and processes stress.
“Breathwork is very powerful way to influence your autonomic nervous system. So, you trigger a stress response in the body, but then on the other side of it you are training the parasympathetic nervous system – which is the same as what happens in an ice bath.”
Laura explains that by putting your body (and mind) into an uncomfortable position for a short amount of time, you learn to deal with the discomfort and stress, making you stronger mentally and physically. She says she watches her clients get into the ice bath and immediately have a stress response as they feel overwhelmed by the icy water, but then as she helps them to calm their breathing, after about 30 to 60 seconds she sees them cross over to the full parasympathetic nervous system – and can even start smiling and enjoying it,
“They’re things that typically wouldn’t be good for you long term, but if you do it for a short period of time, with the intention to go in there for two minutes, it only triggers positive adaptations to occur,” she says.
Additionally, Laura says that, done correctly, short exposure to such cold temperatures triggers an increase in white blood cells (and thereby improving your immune response), whilst reducing inflammation and supporting the cardiovascular system.
Laura says the key is to slowly build up your exposure. “You wouldn’t go to the gym and lift a 20kg weight with your bicep on your first day – you might tear your muscle,” says Laura. “It’s the same theory here.”
Laura encourages those who wish to get started, to begin with 30 days of cold showers. On your first few days at the end of your shower, switch the water to cold for the last 15 seconds, slowly building to a full two minutes by the end of the month. There, you should have an understanding of the basic physiological responses and whether it’s something you’d like to follow.
While the WHM is touted as a game changer by many, it’s not without its risks. Wim Hof now advises against using his method while driving or diving due to the risk of blackouts, after WHM practitioners died in 2015 and 2016 with relatives suspecting that the breathing exercises were to blame.
Many of his practices can be tried – give it a Google – but, for safety’s sake look up a WHM practitioner in your local area. Besides, when you’re jumping into six degree water, you’ll want some moral support for at least the first few goes