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The benefits of cold-water immersion and why you should try it

Wim Hof, a 63-year-old Dutchman, has done what no one else has. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he claimed 26 World Records, including the fastest half-marathon barefoot on ice and the furthest swim under the ice. He’s been the subject of countless documentaries, podcasts, news articles and books, and counts Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow among his fans taking the plunge.

He attributes his achievements to a method he’s developed that combines breathing, gradual cold exposure and mind-set, easy-to-learn techniques he says anyone can use to control their immune, hormonal and energy systems. That’s profound because it involves changing the body’s neurochemistry, voluntarily influencing systems usually considered autonomous. It implies we’ve always had the potential to heal anxiety, trauma, depression and diseases – without preventative medicine. Anecdotally, followers of Wim’s method have reported stress reduction, faster recovery from exercise, enhanced creativity, more focus and mental clarity and reduced symptoms of mental illness and diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

How it works

Under the instruction of Jolanie Grobbelaar, an officially certified Wim Hof Method instructor from the Klein Karoo, I’ve been taking cold showers for two weeks, building up from 30 seconds to a full minute. At first, I felt the pain and tended to spasm my shoulders, but with time, I’ve come to anticipate, even embrace discomfort. The next step is to wade into a tidal pool.

Cold water’s sting induces the body’s fight-or-flight response. This also causes it to release adrenaline, helping the body react more quickly, making the heart beat faster, increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles, and stimulating the body to make sugar for fuel. So, regular exposure means you prime the body for any stressful situation – consider it a fullbody cardio workout. It’s well-documented that the cold helps fight inflammation, and promotes the activation of brown fat, which has loads of mitochondria that use energy and speed up metabolism.

I’m lying comfortably, about to try Wim’s breathing technique for the first time. It involves three to four rounds of 30 deep inhalations and gentler exhalations to take in more air than you let out. This lowers the level of carbon dioxide, which means you can hold your breath for longer at the end of each round. During these few minutes of hyperventilation, Dr Matthjis Kox, an assistant professor in the Department of Intensive Care Medicine at the Radboud University Medical Centre, and his colleagues noticed the blood becomes more alkaline but quickly restores to normal levels during the breath-retention phase.

“This short duration of blood alkalinity might be sufficient to induce a controlled stress response that tells the body to release adrenaline, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and suppresses the immune system. We think this method could benefit patients with autoimmune diseases because they suffer from an overactive immune system that harms their body,” reported Dr Kox.

Jolanie advises never to do this in any situation where it might be dangerous to lose consciousness, such as while driving or in the bath, as “you might experience lightheadedness, a tingling sensation in the fingers and/or muscle spasms, but that’s completely normal and will fade after the breathing exercise.”

She guides me through the first round of Wim Hof Breathing. “Deep breath in through the nose, belly, chest, fully in. And let it go. Exhale.” With each sharp intake of breath, I feel a cold sensation in my nostrils with an almost soapy quality.

I experience lightheadedness as the arteries and veins to the brain and body close slightly in reaction to my alkalising blood. My hands tingle due to lower available calcium ions in the blood.

Training of mind-set and concentration is the third component of Wim’s method to stay calm and focused during stressful situations, such as cold exposure and the breath-retention phase of his breathing technique.

On the last of the first round of 30 breaths, I exhale fully and hold my breath. “Just let it be, completely natural, never forced, feeling the moment of complete peace coming over you,” she says. The idea is to keep my focus, relax and be in the present moment during the breath-retention phase, without which I’ll suffer in the cold.

When I feel the urge, she instructs me to “take a full breath in, through the spine into the head”, hold it for 15 seconds and then exhale. By the end of the third round, everything is still. As my attention rests on the space between my eyes, clarity arrives. The more present and aware of our connection with our environment we are, the better we’ll become at controlling our reactions. Perhaps this is our new normal, a way to cope with life’s challenges without being the challenge ourselves.

This article was originally published in Glamour May/June 2023 issue. Grab your digital copy here.

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