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Updated: Aug 4

The phenomenon of breathing holds considerable significance due to its unique dual nature—being both voluntary and involuntary. We have the ability to consciously control our breath, while our body continues the process unconsciously when we are not consciously engaged in it.

Our breathing patterns are intricately connected to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The "in" breath is linked to the sympathetic system, responsible for active functions like the fight-or-flight response during challenging situations. On the other hand, the "out" breath is tied to the parasympathetic system, governing passive functions like rest, digestion, and sleep. These systems operate inversely, with one actively engaged while the other remains subdued.

In contemporary society, our lifestyle and work demands often keep our nervous system in a predominantly sympathetic state. This imbalance can lead to chronic health issues. To address this, practices such as meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, and specific breathing exercises can help shift the nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic, promoting better overall balance and well-being.

A particularly noteworthy technique, pioneered by Wim Hof, induces an "acute controlled stress state," triggering positive adaptations in the parasympathetic tone of the nervous system. Just as exercise stress leads to stronger muscles and other benefits, this controlled breathing approach enhances the body's ability to handle chronic stress more effectively. Unlike harmful chronic stressors like emotional trauma or financial worries, acute stressors are necessary for optimal health.

Wim Hof's groundbreaking work in breathwork and his impressive achievements, including multiple Guinness World Records, have challenged conventional scientific understanding. His method has demonstrated the conscious influence on the autonomic nervous system, which was previously considered involuntary. This newfound knowledge poses intriguing implications for our health and well-being.

Wim Hof's breathing technique has benefited numerous individuals worldwide, presenting a compelling avenue for exploring the potential conscious influence on our autonomic functions. By embracing these insights, we can foster a deeper understanding of our bodies and potentially unlock new avenues for enhancing our overall health and resilience.

"Brain Over Body" - A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure The defence of body temperature against environmental thermal challenges is a core objective of homeostatic regulation governed by the autonomic nervous system. Autonomous mechanisms of thermoregulation are only weakly affected by top-down modulation, allowing only transient tolerance for extreme cold. There is however, anecdotal evidence of a unique set of individuals known for extreme cold tolerance. Here we present a case study of a 57-year old Dutch national, Wim Hof, the so-called “Iceman”, with the ability to withstand frequent prolonged periods of extreme cold exposure based on the practice of a self-developed technique involving a combination of forced breathing, cold exposure and meditation (collectively referred to as the Wim Hof Method, henceforth “WHM”). The relative contributions of the brain and the periphery that endow the Iceman with these capabilities is unknown. To investigate this, we conducted multi-modal imaging assessments of the brain and the periphery using a combination of fMRI and PET/CT imaging. Thermoregulatory defence was evoked by subjecting the Iceman (and a cohort of typical controls) to a fMRI paradigm designed to generate periods of mild hypothermia interspersed by periods of return to basal core body temperature. fMRI was acquired in two separate sessions: in a typical (passive) state and following the practice of WHM. In addition, the Iceman also underwent a whole body PET/CT imaging session using the tracers C11-hydroxyephedrine (HED) and 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) during both thermoneutral and prolonged mild cold conditions. This acquisition allowed us to determine changes in sympathetic innervation (HED) and glucose consumption (FDG) in muscle and fat tissues in the absence of the WHM. fMRI analyses indicated that the WHM activates primary control centers for descending pain/cold stimuli modulation in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), possibly initiating a stress-induced analgesic response. In addition, the WHM also engages higher-order cortical areas (left anterior and right middle insula) that are uniquely associated with self-reflection, and which facilitate both internal focus and sustained attention in the presence of averse (e.g. cold) external stimuli. However, the activation of brown adipose tissue (BAT) was unremarkable. Finally, forceful respiration results in increased sympathetic innervation and glucose consumption in intercostal muscle, generating heat that dissipates to lung tissue and warms circulating blood in the pulmonary capillaries. Our results provide compelling evidence for the primacy of the brain (CNS) rather than the body (peripheral mechanisms) in mediating the Iceman's responses to cold exposure. They also suggest the compelling possibility that the WHM might allow practitioners to develop higher level of control over key components of the autonomous system, with implications for lifestyle interventions that might ameliorate multiple clinical syndromes.

This breathing technique also influences how we adapt to inflammation and how our immune system functions.

The implications of this discovery, largely attributable to Wim Hof's contributions, are nothing short of revolutionary for our understanding of the human body and the future of medicine. In essence, it signifies that we possess the ability to actively influence our bodies and physiology, enabling us to better cope with various forms of stress—whether chronic, emotional, or physical. Moreover, it reveals that we can exercise significant control over our mood and overall health, surpassing previous notions of our capabilities.

This breakthrough presents a safe, cost-effective intervention that can be employed to manage diseases independently or in conjunction with existing medical treatments.

While the potential appears promising, you may still seek a deeper comprehension of how the Wim Hof Method operates. For a comprehensive explanation of the mechanism of action and its effects on our biology, a holistic Doctor offers insights in the accompanying video. This detailed exploration will shed light on the processes that occur within our bodies when practicing the Wim Hof Method, further elucidating its transformative potential.

As seen in this video, the breathing method has a profound impact on our biology and physiology and can be used as a tool to create more health and wellness.

How does one start with the method?

In this case, it is perhaps better to learn from the Iceman himself:

In summary, this approach presents a zero-cost intervention that is available to everyone, yielding profound effects on the body. Much like other "free health tools" such as fasting, cold exposure, and heat exposure, the only investment required is your time and effort, which translates to discipline. However, the tangible health benefits and improvements that can be achieved through this method make it a truly remarkable resource. In fact, if a pill or medication could deliver comparable results, it would undoubtedly be hailed as the ultimate wonder-drug. The accessibility, affordability, and potential transformative impact of this intervention set it apart as a valuable and promising avenue for optimizing health and well-being.

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