Cold comfort

The Wim Hof Method has the support of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. But don't hold that against it.

The sidewalk is filled with ski bros, firefighters, Goop enthusiasts, and people who told me they were there to relieve their chronic pain. The air's a brisk 36 degrees, and there's a light drizzle, yet we’re stripped down to swimsuits, chatting nervously. We're waiting for our turn in the tub. It's the last place I thought I’d be on Super Bowl Sunday.

This is the world of Wim Hof, a trendy movement that prompts people around the world to take an ice bath or cold plunge in the dead of winter. Its creator is a Dutch 60-year-old extreme athlete known as the "Iceman." His method is a combination of breathing, meditation, and cold exposure, and it will make you "happy, strong, and healthy." Or at least, that's the promise.

“The cold sounds very severe and very merciless, but it is very righteous as well," Hof tells me. "It takes away the shit within and leaves who you are and what you are within your control."

Everyone is able to plunge into the cold, Hof says — men, women, children. His oldest participant is 98 years old. She seems to love it.

The Wim Hof Method aims to relieve people’s 21st-century woes, treat their trauma, and help combat disease. Many Hof enthusiasts practice the method with religious devotion.

But the science supporting the miraculous claims is scant, and the method doesn't come without risks.

I set out to explore whether the practice — which asks participants to throw out conventions of comfort and face their fears — is overhyped or restorative. I became a temporary "Hoffer."

Participants fight to control their breathing in the ice bath at the Wim Hof Method workshop.

Danny Paez, Inverse

Let it go

Four hours before the sidewalk ice bath, I walked into a dimly lit CrossFit gym along with 30 other participants and checked into the Wim Hof workshop. This course cost $120, but they range between $89 and $150 (I attended as press, so I went for free). After checking in and signing liability forms, I found a spot on the floor. To prep for the course, I was advised to check out a free app with guided tutorials and background information, as well as mini workshops on YouTube.

“Thank you for all being here with us — and thanks, Gwyneth,” Michael Christoforo, the workshop’s leader and Wim Hof instructor, said to the group, laughing.

See photos: A trip to planet Wim Hof

Paltrow's influence on the decision to attend a Wim Hof workshop is real. About one-third of this workshop's participants learned about the method on an episode of her new show, The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow, which debuted in late January on Netflix. In Episode 2, "Cold Comfort," Goop staffers swim the freezing waters of Lake Tahoe, guided by Hof. (Goop did not respond to multiple inquiries via email.)

Other participants said they came because they had seen a 2015 Vice documentary on the method. And some still were impressed by Hof’s 26 Guinness World Records. But some members of the group brought pressing health issues into the room. One participant was dealing with severe endometriosis and multiple surgeries. Another felt debilitating fatigue from an autoimmune disorder. Many were recovering from injuries or surgery, looking to relieve inflammation and pain.

Everyone, it seemed, hoped to absorb a bit of Hof’s magnetic energy and healthful vitality — even if, physically, he wasn't going to join us there. "Good luck with that," Christoforo says.The man's spectacular ability to withstand extreme cold is the result of decades of physical and mental conditioning. The "average joe" isn't likely to become an "Iceman" after a weekend workshop.

Michael Christoforo, a Wim Hof Method instructor, has been practicing the method for about five years. Since then, he reports rarely feeling ill, a more compassionate disposition, and better sleep.

Danny Paez, Inverse

Before the cold

Before he was the “Iceman,” the subject of TV segments and celebrities, Hof was a teenager on a "soul search," exploring various esoteric and spiritual disciplines, he tells me. At 17, he jumped into an Amsterdam canal, a decision that developed into swimming in frigid lakes and rivers around Holland.

“I stumbled upon the cold, and the cold was deeply effective directly," Hof explains. "It brought me into a deep connection with myself, and I began to use it every day, every winter. I was training for, like, 25 years until the television found me.”

Wim Hof, now 60, says at first people thought he was a "crazy guy or a circus artist." Now, a growing number of people and scientists are curious about the power of breath combined with the cold.

Enahm Hof

Hof has also faced rattling losses. In 1995, his wife committed suicide. Suddenly, he was a single father raising four children. Wim continued to venture into the cold, regardless of the weather or season.

Enahm Hof, Wim’s son and manager, says the cold, along with meditation and specialized breathing techniques, helped his father pull through his grief.

"For him, it was a way to feel again," Enahm explained over the phone. "When you're lost, you become numb, and for him to feel alive again, he did these challenges. When he came back from his cold dips, shivering, it was like a refresh."

Hof senior went on to achieve remarkable physical feats. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts without taking the typical time to acclimatize, ran a half marathon above the Arctic Circle — with bare feet — and sat submerged in ice for a record 113 minutes.

"For him, it was a way to feel again."

Until a decade ago, Wim was just the "Iceman," a circus act who put on tricks that garnered the world's attention, Enahm says. Around that time, Wim was 35,000 Euros in debt and fresh off the end of his second marriage.

Enahm saw an opportunity. He helped Wim put his training regimen on paper to show regular people that they too could conquer the fear and pain of the cold with intention and commitment. Now, Innerfire, the organization that Enahm manages, broadcasts Wim's unconventional method on full blast.

Hof finds that if he breathes deeply in the water or at the top of a mountain, he can endure the elements and become more resilient to the pressures of life. Nature naturally alleviates stress, Hof tells me, a statement backed up by robust scientific research.

But people no longer live in nature, Hof explains. Thus, the stress of life — from deadlines, divorces, traffic, money, children, the mortgage — builds up over time.

Hof believes his method can combat the "biological stress" that accumulates in cells. Indeed, research shows stress does screw with genetic expression, cellular function, and mitochondrial function. But, for now, science can't back up Hof's method, that it keeps stress from "messing with DNA." Regardless, he claims that with his help, "you can learn how to reset your cell's biology in a natural way."

His method hinges on the idea that you can train your body to cope with stress more effectively. As people are exposed to environmental stress and learn to manipulate their responses, the next time they encounter threats, they will have a more manageable reaction, Hof explains. It’s about giving people a sense of control.

“Fear is a real optimizing tool when used properly.”

The Wim Hof Method’s approach mimics the tested strategy of exposure therapy, a psychological treatment designed to help people confront their fears. But unlike exposure therapy, "Hoffers" can try the method whenever they please, without supervision, on the free app.

Wim Hof, now 60, says everyone has the power to become "superhuman" by harnessing their breath and facing fear.

Enahm Hof

When I spoke to Hof by phone, he was in the mountains of Poland teaching 100 people his method. He claims that, during training, you see people's traumas, inhibitions, and fears come to the surface.

“They begin to understand that we have a deeper potential," Hof says.

Like many internationally known "gurus," Hof employs powerful language to describe the way his method changes lives. But Enahm is careful to note that the Wim Hof Method is not a magical solution.

"That does not exist," Enahm says. "It’s not some secret holy miracle cure."

Enahm isn’t a die-hard “Hoffer.” He takes cold swims and showers and practices intentional breathing but doesn’t follow the tenets of the method explicitly.

"I grew up with it. My dad was a lunatic. I was ashamed of it, and then I helped build this out," Enahm tells me. "But it's my dad, and if I also start to practice what he's preaching, I'm putting feathers in his ass. I need to get him down with both feet on the ground."

How does the Wim Hof Method work?

The Wim Hof Method is straightforward, but it’s not easy. To become a “Hoffer,” you conduct a cycle of deep breaths (about 30 to 40) interspersed with exhales where you "let it go" (i.e., you release breath without forcing it).

After the last exhale, you inhale a final time — as deep as you can — and let it out. You stop breathing until you feel the strong sensation that it's time to begin breathing again. Then you breathe in, hold the inhale for about 15 seconds, and then start breathing regularly again. That's one round. Instructors advise people to practice three to four rounds each day, ideally before breakfast and away from the cold. The whole process requires intense concentration, which some consider a form of meditation.

Researchers studying the method describe the breathwork as cyclic hyperventilation, followed by breath-holding. The process can stir up odd sensations throughout the body including light-headedness and unexpected emotional responses, according to "Hoffers."

People cry, they shake; they lose feeling in their hands. They can also experience a sense of euphoria and peace on the other side of these side effects, possibly due to the release of serotonin and dopamine after the somewhat stressful breathing techniques.

Hyperventilation, even when "controlled," can also induce respiratory alkalosis, a process that raises the blood's pH and reduces CO2 levels. This process can make people dizzy, confused, or feel chest discomfort. In rare cases, people can faint or have seizures.

The workshop attendees and I practicing the Wim Hof Method breathing cycles.

Danny Paez

After practicing the breathing, "Hoffers" are encouraged to take a cold shower or cold plunge, turning the temperature down for 30 seconds or immersing themselves in a cold body of water. In the cold, you focus on controlling your breath (not in the same way as the breathing cycles, which can cause you to faint or pass out). You're supposed to focus on extending your exhales, managing your body’s fight-or-flight response, and breathing through the pain.

“The experience puts you in touch with how fear is a real optimizing tool when used properly,” Christoforo, my group’s instructor, tells me. Just by looking at an ice bath or frigid pond, people get cold and scared.

“It's a fearful thing. You're about to go through something that you cannot hide from, where the only way to get through it is to sit with it and breathe through it. It's like a metaphor. It does something to you. But what's on the other side of that is something remarkable.”

Plunging into ice water isn’t without its risks. Research indicates that the action triggers an acute stress response, often causing people to take a huge gasp. Out in nature, it's a response that can cause a person to drown.

“I've never felt so alive.”

The risks: Cold water immersion also induces vasoconstriction, which is when blood vessels narrow and the heart has to work harder to pump blood to vital organs. Some people can also go into immediate “cold shock,” experiencing heart arrhythmias, even in young and healthy individuals. There is also a risk of non-freezing cold injury causing lasting pain and cold sensitivity from just a short stint in the water. Staying in the water for longer than 30 minutes makes the risk of hypothermia, and even death, skyrocket.

But under careful guidance, in safe settings, and with concentrated breathing, people can control the initial stress response and learn to tolerate the painful conditions for a few minutes, as seen in the Sunday Wim Hof Method workshop.

In the workshop, when I tried the breath work — in turn filling my belly with air and then abruptly letting it out — I felt my fingers and toes start to tingle. I felt my right knee pulse with pain and my anxiety spike. After three initial rounds, and a long hold, I ultimately felt a wave of calm — just as promised.

Ice baths, commonly used by athletes to improve post-workout recovery, are a foreign experience for me.

Danny Paez

An hour later, Christoforo led me through the ice bath. Heart pounding, toes going numb, I let out one last exhale and lowered into the ice, feeling my muscles tighten and my body shiver. My breath sped up as I tried to quell the impulse to get the hell out of the water. After about 40 seconds, I managed to slow my breath and suddenly felt the pain subside. I almost felt warm. A minute later, I was done.

Another participant, a 56-year-old training for a triathlon, said the ice bath was “amazing,” despite the cold.

“About 30 seconds in, everything in my being was like, ‘Get out!’" he relayed. "But I was like, ‘Okay, just ignore that.’ I just kept breathing and I really went deep. I've never felt so alive.”

A human experiment

The benefits: The Wim Hof Method website lists a myriad of health benefits derived from the practice, mostly based on anecdotal reports from users. "Hoffers" tie the method to improving symptoms of everything from asthma to depression to fibromyalgia. But the research on these purported benefits is extremely weak.

“I go through science, but science is also as fast as a slow turtle,” Hof says.

What the limited evidence does suggest is that the breathing technique, meditation, and cold immersion enable people to voluntarily influence the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and immune system, previously thought out of reach of the conscious mind.

The ANS governs basic bodily functions like hunger, heart rate, and metabolism. The immune system attacks perceived invaders (like viruses and pathogens) in the body. Both operate without conscious thought.

What the research says: Case studies suggest Wim can voluntarily manipulate these systems, modulate his stress response, and even regulate his body temperature.

In a 2018 case study, published in the journal Neuroimage, scientists analyzed Wim's brain activity during conditions of mild hypothermia. They found that the Wim Hof Method breathing activated cortical regions in his brain associated with self-reflection and internal focus. During the breathwork, one area of the brain called the periaqueductal gray also showed boosted activity. This finding is especially interesting, as the periaqueductal gray is associated with the endocannabinoid system — the body's built-in "pain killer" system.

A lot of people try the Wim Hof Method to be like Wim. "Good luck with that," Christoforo, the instructor, says. Wim's feats are the result of decades of physical and mental conditioning.

Enahm Hof

In a 2012 case study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, scientists analyzed whether Hof could influence his ANS and immune system through his breathing and meditation technique.

The team put Wim through 80 minutes of full-body ice immersion and injected him with the endotoxin E. coli. When most people are put under these kinds of physiological stressors, their inflammatory response goes into overdrive and they experience debilitating symptoms — but not Hof. He showed increased levels of catecholamines (neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and epinephrine) in his blood, spiked cortisol, and he didn’t experience the typical symptoms associated with fighting E. coli.

The study suggests he had a suppressed immune response and controlled stress response, and more efficiently combatted the endotoxin.

Next, scientists sought to determine if Wim was a “freak of nature” or if the method made a difference in people without years of cold exposure or breathwork training. In 2014, a research team split a group of 24 healthy volunteers, assigning half to learn the Wim Hof Method for 10 days or do nothing. Then, they injected both groups with the same endotoxin — a strand of E. coli — and analyzed their physiological response.

The Wim Hof group produced more epinephrine and anti-inflammatory cytokines in response to the injection, a sign that their immune system was being voluntarily influenced. The group also experienced reduced flu-like symptoms compared to the control group. They published their study in the journal PNAS.

A 2019 study, published in the journal Plos One, suggests the Wim Hof Method was effective as add-on therapy to standard treatment for axial spondyloarthritis, which causes chronic rheumatic inflammation of the spine. In the study, the method, used over the course of eight weeks, helped reduce inflammation and improve the quality of life of 13 patients with the painful disease. Meanwhile, the 11 study subjects who did not practice the method didn't experience the same results.

Taken together, this body of research (however limited) signals that the mind has more control than previously thought. But more randomized controlled trials are needed to back up some of the so-called “miracle claims” that are often tied to the Wim Hof Method. All the studies so far have included relatively small populations, so any general conclusions are limited.

“Science is sometimes a little bit behind, but we have to understand how the body works before we can safely give advice," Cas Fuchs, a cold water immersion researcher from Maastricht University, tells Inverse. "If we just find something that works for one person and tell everybody to do it, that's too dangerous."

Different people can react completely differently, Fuchs points out. Before researchers can feel confident putting out safe general guidelines to people, there has to be more research that evaluates how the body responds to the cold.

And even if some benefit is proven, it doesn’t mean the Wim Hof Method is appropriate for everyone. Even Christoforo notes that it isn't safe for pregnant women, people with heart conditions, Raynaud's syndrome, or epilepsy.

“I would definitely say if you have any condition, whether it's a heart condition or something else, I would really be very careful with those kinds of things,” Fuchs advises. He recommends that before anyone tries these techniques, they talk to their general physician about whether or not it is right for them.

Creating the future

For Hof, the thousands of Wim Hof Method enthusiasts are proof enough of the mental and physical benefits.

Hof champions the alleged mental health benefits and travels around the world to teach, and speak to, people who suffer from severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. He claims he can help people in one day because the method can give them "an absolute sense of self-control."

But right now, Hof's claim is an anecdotal theory, not rigorously tested scientific evidence. In one 2018 case study, a woman relieved her symptoms of depression through consistent open, cold water swimming. But she did not incorporate the other aspects of the Wim Hof Method, excluding the breathing and meditation techniques.

Wim Hof travels the world teaching his method. He hopes the scientific evidence will continue to support the method's benefits, and, eventually, it will become "common sense."

Enahm Hof

Hof is a "believer" — and as Enahm puts it, science is lagging behind. He says there are eight studies currently in progress aiming to determine how the method impacts the mind and body. At this stage, there's no scientific evidence supporting claims that the method treats cancer, neurodegenerative disease, or other serious medical issues.

Before you go out and try his father's method, Enahm offers this advice: Investigate what's right for you before you try it instead of "following something because your neighbor or your friend is doing it."

In a world saturated in pseudoscience, the Wim Hof Method seems to straddle the line between promising medical treatment and evangelical snake oil. Personally, I've found that the mental health benefits of the method are clearer than the physical ones. Learning to overcome a basic fear — that of the very cold — left me and other workshop-goers feeling empowered. But ultimately, in the realm of health, there are no magic bullets, Christoforo says.

"There's no panacea," Christoforo says. "The Wim Hof Method is such a powerful tool, but you know, no one single thing is ever 'it.' It’s a combo platter.”

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