How the Wim Hof's method affects the immune system.
“We demonstrate that voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in epinephrine release and subsequent suppression of the innate immune response in humans,” writes a team of Netherland researchers in a 2014 PNAS publication that researched on Wim Hof’s methods.
“These results could have important implications for the treatment of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, such as autoimmune diseases,” they continued. It seems that their study has applications in dampening an excessive immune reaction.
Yet wimhofmethod.com says that combining the ‘three pillars’ of cold therapy, breathing, and commitment (to practice) unravels a plethora of health benefits:
Heightened focus and determination
Improved sports performance
Reduced stress levels
Greater cold tolerance
Stronger immune system
So is it immune suppression or strengthening?
Part I: 2011 Case Study
Peter Pickkers, MD and professor of experimental intensive care medicine at Radboudumc, and his colleagues gave healthy volunteers an endotoxin cocktail made of dead bacterial (E. coli) cell walls. It’s dead so “these experiments are completely safe and have been performed on more than 240 subjects in our center,” Pickkers assured. As expected, their immune system flared up — deploying inflammatory chemicals resulting in flu-like symptoms such as fever and headache. “The immune system reacts as if real live bacteria have entered the body,” Pickkers explained.
They did the same to Wim Hof while he was engaged in his meditation and breathing techniques. That day, the previous understanding that we cannot consciously control our immune system was defied.
Upon endotoxin entry into Hof’s bloodstream, cortisol levels shot up to levels far beyond that of the healthy volunteers. “We know that this hormone is released in response to increased autonomic nervous system activity and that it suppresses the immune response,” Pickkers explained. Accordingly, the suppressed immune system comes with reduced inflammatory reactions by as much as 50%. “Hardly any flu-like symptoms were observed,” Pickkers observed with awe.
“We thought it would be a negative result,” says Matthijs Kox who was a graduate student at that time.
Who is Wim Hof? He’s a 20-time World Record holder known for his endurance of extreme cold and superpower of controlling the autonomic nervous system. He claims that anyone can achieve his feat following his ‘three pillars’ of cold therapy, breathing, and commitment (to practice).
Are Wim Hof’s methods effective or is he just a genetic outlier? Pickkers, therefore, led a team to put it to the test.
Part II: 2014 Clinical Trial
Kox, Pickkers, and team randomized 24 healthy volunteers into a non-training or training group led by Hof himself. 12 participants underwent 10 days of meditation, breathing, and cold exposure. On the 10th day, all participants were given the E. coli endotoxin.
Upon endotoxin injected, the trained group — while performing their learned techniques — showed a marked increase in the anti-inflammatory IL-10 and epinephrine levels in the blood compared to the untrained. Levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals and flu-like symptoms decreased by 56% in the trained group as well. As the authors summarized:
The present study demonstrates that…immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced. Healthy volunteers practicing the learned techniques exhibited profound increases in the release of epinephrine, which in turn led to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators and subsequent dampening of the proinflammatory cytokine response elicited by intravenous administration of bacterial endotoxin.
An inflammatory reaction, however, is a defense mechanism that quickly clears up a dangerous infection. Certainly, downregulating it wouldn’t be ideal as pathogens would remain in the body and cause more serious issues down the road.
But there’s a catch: Shortly after the endotoxin administration, the leukocyte (i.e., white blood cells responsible for killing pathogens) counts heightened up to 2–3-fold in the trained group. This is an intriguing phenomenon not seen in anyone in the control group. Everyone had similar baseline leukocyte counts.
This means that the trained group was able to mount their leukocytes more effectively — needing lesser assistance from inflammatory chemicals. This means that their immune system became so efficient that they can take care of a pathogen without experiencing any unpleasant symptoms. This means that the pathogen was powerless against these trained people that it could not induce any ill health. And all of these are possible with just 10 days of training. Imagine years of training Wim Hof did.
Wim Hof is a well-conditioned man after all, not a genetic freak.
* Background vector created by starline - www.freepik.com
Part III: 2019 Proof-of-Concept Trial
To reiterate what the 2014 PNAS authors wrote: “These results could have important implications for the treatment of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, such as autoimmune diseases.”A 2019 randomized clinical trial recruited 24 patients with axial spondyloarthritis — a type of autoimmune condition that affects the joints — to receive either no-training or 8-weeks of breathing, cold exposure, and meditation training.
The 2014 authors nailed it. Those trained patients displayed reduced levels of various inflammatory biomarkers compared to the untrained. And there were no side effects.
As chronic and excessive inflammation is a root cause of most, if not all, diseases, Wim Hof’s methods show great potential in dampening inflammation without compromising the ability of the immune system to eradicate pathogens.
So Wim Hof’s methods suppress or strengthen the immune system? Both actually — suppressing the inflammatory reactions while strengthening the leukocytes. The keyword is ‘regulation’ — Wim Hof’s methods enhance how the immune system regulates itself.
* Hand vector created by brgfx - www.freepik.com. Leukocytes are part of the white blood cells.
This article was originally published here with modifications.