Not much. Always something. Mostly good.

Show Me the Science: Wim Hof Breathing

Wim Hof breathing in snow
Wim Hof breathing in snow

I’ve been practicing a breathing technique promoted by Dutchman Wim Hof (first name pronounced “vim”). Hof claims several benefits, including improved immune response and longer endurance, especially when paired with cold water/ice exposure.

Hof has been studied by doctors, who monitored him during his ice immersions. He also participated in a study on the effects of his techniques on the autoimmune system.

I remarked to my wife once that, while I enjoyed his upbeat style, I wasn’t sure he really understood the science that he’d been told. Anyone who knows me, knows that when faced with people who make unusual claims, I say, “Show me the science!”

I’m not debunking the Wim Hof Method. Merely clarifying what’s actually happening, which I think is important in any physical conditioning. I practice the method almost every day.

A Quick Review of the Breathing Technique

  1. Sit or lie down. This is for safety.
  2. Take 30 breaths, breathing in fully and smoothly, and exhaling partially and naturally. Wim Hof says, “Fully in…letting go.”
  3. After the final natural exhale, hold and start timing. [Note: I don’t close my throat, that’s personal preference]
  4. When the urge to inhale becomes strong, fully inhale and hold for about fifteen seconds.
  5. Exhale and breathe normally.

Blood Oxygen

There are recordings of Wim teaching the technique, and invariably he says that participants are increasing the oxygen in their blood, that this is what’s causing tingling and lightheadedness, and leads to being able to hold the exhale for so long.

The truth is pretty much the opposite.

Taking long, deep breaths (“fully in”), then exhaling partially (“not fully out, just letting go”), doesn’t substantially increase the oxygen in the blood. By substantially, I mean probably not even 1%. But, it does lower the carbon dioxide (CO2) quite a bit. Decreasing CO2 causes the blood cells to retain their oxygen, depriving it from the brain, muscles and tissues, and this is what causes the tingling and lightheadedness.

The inhalation reflex is triggered in the body by too much CO2. So, what’s happening in the technique is the person’s CO2 is depleted. During the exhalation hold, it takes longer to replenish the CO2, so the inhalation reflex is effectively suppressed. The CO2 increases, the blood cells start releasing oxygen quickly. On the full inhale, the body resets both levels. This results in a slight head rush.

What I’ve described is shown quite nicely in a segment of a video examining the technique, where the presenter attaches a pulse oximeter to himself to check his oxygen levels1 2.

Alkaline vs Acidic

Hof says that during the technique, the body becomes more alkaline. This is basically true. Lowering CO2 increases the blood’s pH level, which means the cells are more alkaline and less acidic. Is this good or bad? Depends. Too much too long is likely bad. “Alkalosis can lead to constriction of the brain’s blood vessels, and reduced calcium levels, leading to increased nerve and muscle excitability.3” However, the increase in pH is short, and the alkaline levels return to normal quickly, so there doesn’t seem to be any danger.

Endocrine System, Adrenaline, and Cortisol

On a web page describing two studies conducted on Hof, and also people trained by him, scientists learned that during the technique Hof is stimulating his endocrine system, increasing adrenaline and noradrenaline, and decreasing cortisol. “This “adrenaline rush” resulted in the release of inhibitory cytokines that would “calm down” the immune system and not making it over-react4.”

In the study, Hof and volunteers were injected with a component of E. coli to simulate an infection. Those practicing the breathing technique had little or no reaction. In short, the technique influenced the autonomic nervous system (which, by definition, shouldn’t be possible). The study says this could have “important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated wtih excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases.5

Personal Benefits

I first learned about the Wim Hof Method when researching how to reduce my racing thoughts. While I don’t think the method has improved that (anti-depressants have helped a lot!), I’m convinced that I’m experiencing other benefits. A simple one is regular meditiation, which has scientific support for good mental health. Another is facing the challenge of 90 seconds of cold shower each day (after about three minutes of warm shower).

Is there a psychological benefit to subjecting myself to a controlled adrenal response each day? Maybe so. Instead of increasing my overall stress, I may be decreasing it because I’m learning that I can cope with a stressful situation–in this case, suffocation.

Unlike many such methods, Wim Hof Breathing has solid science behind it, even if Hof himself doesn’t present that science accurately.

References

Ice Man Breathing: What to Know when doing The Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof Breathing Techniq and Method: Are They Legit? A Scientific Critical Review
Control Your Breath, Control Your Body
TEDxAmsterdam - Wim Hof
Joe Rogan Breathing with Wim Hof

Footnotes


  1. (https://youtu.be/OpTG02x6w5o?t=3m11s)

  2. (https://youtu.be/EWHRumILOOk?t=3m21s)

  3. (https://youtu.be/EWHRumILOOk?t=2m3s)

  4. (http://www.thebroscientist.com/wim-hof-breathing-technique-method-legit-scientific-critical-review/)

  5. (https://youtu.be/EWHRumILOOk?t=5m55s)

When (not) to Drink Coffee

The Gist

Science shows drinking coffee first thing in the morning negatively affects one’s circadian rhythm by inhibiting the production of cortisol, which the body uses to naturally wake us up. Instead, we should drink coffee between 9:30 and 11:30, and maybe also between 1:30 and 5:00, when cortisol levels are falling.

So, where does this info come from? And what am I doing about it?

The Article Trail

I first read this 2014 article about why you shouldn’t drink coffee first thing in the morning, i.e. right after getting up.

Curious, I made some changes to my coffee drinking for a couple of weeks, then got even more curious and tried to find out more on the subject. I turns out there are several similar articles. Here are a few more.

Forbes 2014

Time 2015

I Love Coffee 2014ish (with infographics!)

The last entry seems to have begat many others. It’s my favorite. It makes me happy to read it.

In all cases, the stories originate from an article by Steven Miller, Ph.D., The Best Time for Your Coffee.

Now, Dr Miller is a scientist, and he cites his sources, and he’s clear about what he’s saying and not saying. Check out the comments on his article; he defends against a few hostile readers.

But where did he get his data? That’s from a study in 2009, the sciency-named Modified-Release Hydrocortisone to Provide Circadian Cortisol Profiles. This article, which has 80% words I don’t understand, includes this graphic showing natural cortisol levels.

There’s the information audit trail. Now, on to my conclusions.

What’s What?

Dr Miller doesn’t point to a specific study proving that people should drink coffee at a particular time. He states his opinion based on the research. I liked his interesting pharmacological approach (emphases are mine).

Drug tolerance is an important subject, especially in the case of caffeine since most of us overuse this drug. Therefore, if we are drinking caffeine at a time when your cortisol concentration in the blood is at its peak, you probably should not be drinking it. This is because cortisol production is strongly related to your level of alertness and it just so happens that cortisol peaks for your 24 hour rhythm between 8 and 9 AM on average (Debono et al., 2009). Therefore, you are drinking caffeine at a time when you are already approaching your maximal level of alertness naturally. One of the key principles of pharmacology is use a drug when it is needed (although I’m sure some scientists might argue that caffeine is always needed). Otherwise, we can develop tolerance to a drug administered at the same dose.

Are you wondering what cortisol is? I did, too.

Cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), is produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress. Cortisol’s far-reaching, systemic effects play many roles in the body’s effort to carry out its processes and maintain homeostasis.

Cortisol is part of the fight-or-flight response. We don’t want too much cortisol, but it’s normal to get a boost of it at specific times, such as waking up.

The problem with caffeine during peak natural cortisol production is that the body, in effect, says, “Hey, this coffee’s doing a great job! Turn off the cortisol!” Over time, we get less of a boost than we used to, so we drink more coffee. And our body says, “Wow, more coffee? Better turn down the cortisol again!” And so on.

Dude To-Do

I have some trouble with getting good, consistent sleep. I can’t blame it all on how I’ve been drinking coffee, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t change things up. So, the plan is

  • Stretch/exercise for about 20 minutes first thing in the morning. This wakes me up way better than coffee.
  • Coffee at about 9:30, and again at about 2pm.
  • Pay attention for the next, oh, let’s say three weeks.

I’ll report back. This may not be science, but I’ll play lab rat. Maybe I’ll get smart!

(Bad) Poem of the Day 2016-07-07

Clunky, but has potential. I’ll probably return to this idea another time.

Deconstruction

Just a branch or two tremor --or should that be tremble?— it’s hard to know the proper word, so many to defy conventions with.

“The rainbow crossarchangeled the retirement-home-wall sky”

looks promising, but will anyone get that:

  • “cross” started the whole thing, “crossed the sky”…
  • made me think of crossword, but crosswords are perpendicular, which a rainbow is not
  • so, “cross arc” solved that problem, a rainbow being an arc
  • It’s also an “arch,” and of course I think of “archangel,” because
  • arch and arch aren’t pronounced the same, which tickles me, and
  • I liked the idea of an angel holding up a rainbow, and
  • angel sounds like “angle,” referring back to crossword puzzle geometry.
  • Thus “crossarchangel,” which confers other possible meanings on the rainbow. It could be “cross,” i.e. angry. It could be a chief (or high) rainbow.
  • Never mind whether any reader will calculate that “retirement-home-wall” is a substitute for “gray.”

And this doesn’t account for wrong—intentionally—grammar.

A verb by any other word would speed as sweet(ly).

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