What makes breathing so powerful?

It is one of the only actions that we engage in that can be either voluntary or involuntary. You can consciously take a breath, and when you don't think about it, your body is still breathing.

The "in" breath is tied to our sympathetic nervous system which regulates all our "active" body functions, like fight or flight. This is when the awareness of the body is focused outward and is allocating its resources to deal with challenges of that nature, for example you are getting chased by an animal, or something gave you a fright.

The "out" breath is tied to our parasympathetic nervous system which regulates all our "passive" body functions, like rest, digest, and sleep. This is when the awareness of the body is focused inward and is allocating its resources toward internal processes like healing and recovery. These two systems are inversely correlated, meaning they both cannot be active at the same time. When one is strongly activated, the other one must be strongly deactivated.

In our society and modern-day culture we tend to stay in a sympathetic tone of our nervous system, as we have to do activities like driving cars and working jobs. While some jobs are inherently more stressful than others, essentially all jobs makes the body's nervous system take a sympathetic tone.

This often results in an imbalance of the nervous system and may result in manifestation of chronic dis-ease. Activities such as meditation, mindfulness, gratitude and certain breathing exercises will help to shift the tone from sympathetic to parasympathetic. If we are to have optimal balance of our bodies, the more stressed (sympathetic tone) we are, the more time we need to spend unwinding (sympathetic) or risk having a "burnout".

We can shift to a more parasympathetic tone of the nervous system by spending more time on an exhale than we do on the inhale. This may look something like an inhalation of 3 seconds, followed by an exhalation of 6 seconds. If this is done for a few minutes, one might find the results to be pleasantly surprising.

In recent history, a breathing technique has been developed which puts the body in a "acute controlled stress state" which causes a positive adaptation for the parasympathetic tone of the nervous system. What does that mean? Much in the same way that exercise is acutely stressful on the body, but when done frequently, the adaptation that occurs is that you get stronger muscles (amongst many other benefits). Another example is if you expose yourself to the cold frequently, the adaptation that occurs is that your body gets more robust, metabolism improves and you handle the cold better. Acute stressors are necessary for optimal health. The dangerous stressors are chronic, such as emotional trauma, financial worries etc. Acute stressors, helps us handle chronic stress more effectively.

Wim Hof has revolutionized the way we think about breathing and breathwork. He holds 21 Guinness World Records, and is known for accomplishing extraordinary feats of human endurance. Including:

  • Running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle, barefoot only wearing shorts.

  • Swimming underneath ice for 66 meters.

  • Hanging on one finger at an altitude of 2000 meters

  • Climbing the highest mountains in the world while wearing only shorts.

  • Running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking.

  • Standing in a container while covered in ice cubes for extended periods of time

  • Shown scientifically, that the autonomous nervous system related to the innate immune response, can be willfully influenced, something that was previously unknown to science.

The general scientific consensus in our recent history has been that certain functions of our body are involuntary to us and are regulated by the autonomic (occurring involuntary, automatic). What if there is new science showing that we can affect our autonomic nervous system consciously? What implications would that have for our health and wellbeing?

Wim Hof developed a breathing method that he has helped thousands of people around the world with.

"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.

But what exactly does this mean?

This means that this discovery, thanks to the contributions of Wim Hof, is revolutionary for the understanding of the human body and how medicine will be practiced in the future.

In a nutshell, it means that we can influence our bodies and physiology to cope better with stress (chronic, emotional, physical) and we can have much more control over our mood and overall health than what we previously thought! It means that we have a safe, zero cost intervention to manage disease, or used conjunctly with current medical treatments available.

"Okay I get it, it looks very promising, but I still don't fully understand how it works"

In this video, a holistic Doctor explains the mechanism of action and what happens to our biology when we practice the Wim Hof Method.

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 summery, this is a zero cost intervention that is accessible to everyone which has profound effects on the body. As with all these "free health tools" such as fasting, cold exposure, heat exposure, etc., the only price you pay is your time and effort (discipline) to achieve tangible health benefits/improvements. If there was a pill/medication that could achieve these results, it would be sold as the ultimate wonder-drug.

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