How Breathing + Cold Exposure Can Improve Your Life

The Wim Hof method activates the mighty endocannabinoid system, the body’s wellness regulator.

Meg HartleyNov 10 · 4 min read

Photo via Instagram

This article was orignally published on ILLUMINATION, I very much appreciate claps (you can do 50!) and follows over @ Medium! 

There are lots of bizarre-sounding health fads out there, and many of them aren’t as effective as they are attention-catching, but I can say from personal experience that the Wim Hof Method (WHM) is one that actually works.

It’s just breathing exercises plus cold exposure, but it’s been hailed for improving, or even curing, all kinds of health conditions, as well as improving general health and well-being — and there’s a science to back it up.

Here’s a list of benes: More energy, boost the immune system, anti-inflammatory, better sleep, increase sports performance, workout recovery, autoimmune disease relief, arthritis relief, post-treatment Lyme relief, COPD management, migraine relief, MS management, asthma management, lower blood pressure, improve metabolism, and relief from fibromyalgia symptoms.

I’m in it mostly for that last one: helping ease the hellacious pain that is fibromyalgia.

I can’t report that I’m totally healed, but after 3–4 months of doing their daily breathing + cold shower technique, my pain decreased immensely. I’m unable to do the cold shower portion in the winter due to bone pain, but just the breathing alone still keeps fibro pain below a 3, when it was 8’s and up prior winters. And in the warmer months when I can do the cold shower portion, I don’t even think about fibromyalgia! It’s been a godsend.

Though this exercise is great for anyone with a body, I especially recommend that my fellow fibro-fighters and spoonies of all kinds — including mental health warriors and the neurodiverse — keep reading, even if your condition wasn’t listed this could help.

The breathing exercise also just feels great, delivering pleasant tingling sensations throughout your body; it’s both invigorating and relaxing, plus my back and neck usually pop with ease afterward.

The Science

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

The reason the WHM is so effective is that it activates the endocannabinoid system (ECS) which is best known for being the bodily system that works with cannabis, but it’s so much more.

The ECS is in charge of regulating virtually all of the other systems in our body, so it’s big deal, and it’s criminal that doctors don’t study it in school. Science has shown that atypical endocannabinoid levels are associated with many chronic illnesses, several of which are listed above, as well as forms of neurodiversity — like AutismADHDTourette’s, and others.

In 2018 researchers studied the WHM on Wim Hof himself, finding increased activity in the areas of the brain that are “associated with brain mechanisms for the control of sensory pain and is thought to implement this control through the release of opioids and [endo]cannabinoids.”

In other words, the breathing exercises and the cold exposure cause an increase in ECS activity, allowing it to better regulate the body’s functions and get unbalanced aspects in check.

Again from the study, “The practice of the Wim Hof Method may lead to tonic changes in autonomous brain mechanisms, a speculation that has implications for managing medical conditions ranging from diseases of the immune system to more intriguingly psychiatric conditions such as mood and anxiety disorders.”

How to do the Wim Hof Method

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

Completing the WHM should take 15–20 minutes, all you need is this free video and a functional shower (or another form of cold exposure). The video will guide you through a 3-part breathing exercise, which will be repeated 3 times.

Here’s how it goes:

  • The first element involves circular breathing, which is simply breathing into your belly, letting it extend, then pulling that breath into your chest, then releasing. The video will take you through 30 reps, showing you an orange bubble that inflates and deflates with you to help keep time.
  • In the second bit, Hof will tell you to let all of your breath out and to refrain from breathing in for as long as you can. It’ll give you 60 seconds, then 1:25 as goals — but don’t feel pressured, just fast-forward the video when you need to breathe in, or pause if you can hold out longer.
  • The third portion will have you do the opposite, breathing in as much as you can, then holding the air in for 15 seconds before releasing — if you haven’t felt the great bodily feelings yet, they’ll come for that part.

Then it’s time to hop in a freezing cold shower! It’s hard at first, but they became refreshing for me after a few weeks — you’ll adjust to the cold temperatures too, you really will. (Which expands options for outdoor swimming fun…)

In the meantime, if the cold water is just too cold, try starting it at normal temps and then moving to cold. Start out with whatever your body can handle, and work up to 2–3 minutes.

Happy Hoff’ing!

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