Episode 02: Cold Comfort
Breathwork, and the
Wim Hof Method
On our six-part Netflix series, The goop Lab, we explored six wellness topics. If you’re here, you’ve found one of them: We’ve gathered our best podcasts, Q&A’s, and articles as a resource for the deeply curious. The series is designed to entertain and inform—not provide medical advice. You should always consult your doctor when it comes to personal health and before you start treatment.
When we first heard about Wim Hof, we were, in a word, impressed: He’s accomplished some extraordinary things. But what was to say that his experiences in healing and athleticism could translate to the rest of us mere mortals?
Teaching his method, he’s amassed a following and even converted potential debunkers to true-blue believers. Anecdotally, people have used the Wim Hof Method to optimize athletic performance, improve immunity, mitigate symptoms of chronic disease, and buffer themselves against mental health triggers. The more we learned, the more questions we had. So: We asked him. And we tried his method for ourselves.
The Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof is known as the Iceman. He’s done some wild things. He can hold himself in ice water for nearly two hours with an elevated body temperature. He climbed to an insane height on Mount Everest, in shorts and no shirt. He ran a half-marathon, barefoot, above the Arctic Circle. He also ran a full marathon, in the desert, without drinking any water. He let a group of scientists shoot him full of endotoxins—and didn’t have an immune response. Why? Hof believes that our bodies are capable of doing extraordinary things. And he’s (really) curious about just how much control we have over our instincts, our thoughts, our health, and our happiness. He talks to Elise Loehnen about his breathing method and how nearly anyone can apply it to their life, even if they are not running a marathon in a desert.
What is the Wim Hof Method?
For decades, Hof has been practicing self-developed techniques he calls the Wim Hof Method, which he says can make the human body more resilient in the face of physical and psychological stress.
The Wim Hof Method consists of three basic parts. (A note: These should not be performed without the okay from your doctor and proper training. If you’re interested in learning, refer to the Wim Hof Method website or the Wim Hof Method app.)
1. Third eye meditation, which is an unguided visualization exercise aimed at total relaxation.
2. Cold exposure by a variety of techniques, from chilly showers to ice baths to long hikes in the snow.
3. Specialized breathing techniques. There are two types: The first alternates between short periods of hyperventilating followed by periods of breath retention, in which you hold your breath as long as you can following an exhale. The second consists of a cycle of one deep inhalation, one full exhalation, and ten seconds of breath retention in which you squeeze all your muscles.
What does the Wim Hof Method have to do with alkalinity and the immune system?
Matthijs Kox, PhD, is leading a team of researchers in the Netherlands that’s trying to better understand why and how Wim Hof’s method may work—he walks us through what they’ve published so far and his theories about the role blood alkalinity may play in all of it.
What is cold exposure, and what do we know about it so far?
Cold exposure—exposing your body to a cold environment for a controlled period of time—is one of the pillars of Wim Hof’s method and part of the focus of the research study investigating why and how it might work. What the researchers found was that volunteers who had trained in Wim Hof’s interventions, including cold exposure, could voluntarily activate their sympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system) to suppress their immune response.
There is also some early research that explores the theory that cold therapies can potentially contribute to longevity. “Specifically, the sirtuin-3 gene gets activated by cold, which promotes the browning of fat, which we believe is good for us,” biologist David Sinclair explained to us in a Q&A about slowing down the aging process. “Brown fat is full of mitochondria that use energy and speed up the metabolism.”
What are different forms of cold therapy?
The good news, as Sinclair points out: There are many ways to be cold, including—depending on where you live—going outside. You can sleep in cooler conditions, jump in an ice bath, or take a cold shower.
What is breathwork, and how can it help us?
“‘Breathwork’ is a general term for a range of methods that—when practiced with awareness—have a host of potential emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual benefits,” says Ashley Neese, one of our favorite breathwork practitioners. “In essence, it’s breathing practiced with mindfulness.”
For more on Wim Hof’s specific method of breathwork, there’s the Wim Hof Method app, which has on-demand video lessons and a breathwork timer.
And try Neese’s ninety-second breathwork tool to reduce stress.
Is there breathwork for anxiety and trauma?
Psychiatrist James Gordon is a proponent of simple breathwork exercises as powerful somatic tools. He practices something called soft-belly breathing: You close your eyes and breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth with your belly soft and relaxed. You concentrate on the breath, saying the word “soft” as you breathe in and “belly” as you breathe out.
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What is generalized anxiety disorder?
Feeling anxious every now and then is a normal part of life; it’s your body’s way of responding to stressful situations or threats and protecting itself, which is known as the fight-or-flight response. Anxiety can be helpful when you’re preparing for a big presentation, or it may kick in as an instinctual protective mechanism in times of need, like after a car accident: Your sympathetic nervous system turns on, which increases your heart rate and alertness, preparing you for action. But if your body is constantly in this mode, geared up for action, anxious and worried about everyday events, this amount of anxiety can become incapacitating and may be indicative of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder in the United States. (If you’re looking for more resources and support, our science and research team compiled the most significant studies and information about generalized anxiety disorder.)
We asked psychotherapist Jennifer Freed and mindfulness teacher Deborah Eden Tull for their advice—and tips for comforting ourselves in the midst of anxiety. (Hint: Breathing is involved.)
What lifestyle changes can affect my anxiety?
Psychiatrist Ellen Vora, MD, sees symptoms—anxiety and depression, hormone and gut issues—as “our really beautiful, brilliant body’s way of communicating to us.” And to communicate back, Vora focuses on a whole-food diet, more sleep, reducing stress, and other lifestyle changes. Listen to her conversation on The goop Podcast about what our anxiety can tell us.
What’s the crux of the mind-body connection?
“At the core of the phenomenon is the belief that the brain is the central operating system of the body, and that the mind is very much intertwined with the brain,” says Martin Rossman, MD, who explains how to quit worrying for good. “It’s not too far off to say that the brain is the hardware, and the mind is the software that gathers and processes input from the body, sending out signals that direct its activities. Although the body can’t always do what the brain and mind ask it to, it always tries.”
What do we know about the placebo effect?
Inert pills, or placebos, are the gold standard for drug trials: The Food and Drug Administration requires that prospective new drugs outperform placebos in clinical studies to prove their effectiveness before they are approved for market. A placebo is designed to have no therapeutic properties; however, patients given a placebo may show improvements in their symptoms, possibly due to expectations that they will get better. This is called the placebo effect. And it’s getting stronger.
We rounded up the latest research on the placebo effect, and included a 2015 study published by researchers at McGill University in Canada that analyzed clinical trials of neuropathic pain medications (drugs that relieve nerve pain) to determine whether placebo response has changed over time. Across the eighty studies included, the magnitude of the placebo response was significantly stronger in more-recent trials than in the ones that took place longer ago. While we don’t quite understand the mechanisms yet, the strength of the placebo effect speaks to a powerful mind-body connection and our body’s innate ability to heal itself.
How can I use my body to quiet my mind?
The short answer: movement. And it needn’t be more complicated than that. In a conversation on The goop Podcast, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal reminds us that when we move our bodies in unison, it can help us reduce stress and anxiety, quiet the mind, and maintain health. When we let go of the idea of exercise as something to help us look better, we feel good. It is through moving our bodies, McGonigal has found, that we are able to connect to our spirit and reveal our true selves.
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MORE ABOUT THE GOOP LAB: EPISODE 02
How much control do we actually have over our immune system and reactions to stress? Eight-time world-record holder Wim Hof believes that we are far more powerful than we know—and that the key to unlocking our power lies in the cold and our breath. To try it, the goop team flies to snowy Lake Tahoe to go through a Wim Hof intensive, and they’re put to the test. Back at goop HQ, Gwyneth, Elise, and Kate sit down with Hof to learn how he found his unexpected source of strength, before he shows GP her own.
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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.