Cold is a great teacher – extreme athlete Wim Hof (1/2)
He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, ran a half-marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, swam below the surface of a frozen lake, and he’s just cool. We talked to extreme athlete Wim Hof, aka the Iceman.
The text of the interview is edited for clarity.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Wim Hof, extreme athlete, aka The Iceman. I'm so happy that you're with us today. Hi.
Wim Hof: Thank you for having me, Sophie.
SS: All right, so let's go straight to this. You say the reason for our sicknesses, maladies is that we've surrounded ourselves with too much comfort, having deprived our bodies of natural stimulations and atrophying the ancient inner mechanisms, so to speak, that helped our ancestors to survive, right? But don't you think that it was exactly the pursuit of comfort that actually help our species to evolve and survive?
WH: Yes, and it does, the neurology of our brain is so much more than, say, 500 years ago. But right now we have gone a little bit too much with the development of our brain function and the technology we all got now is weakening our physiology, this needs to be balanced. And this balance can be brought back by going into cold water and going into breathing exercises that makes us able to connect with deeper physiology of ours, to regulate our mood, and to regulate inflammation because inflammation with all the technology we have in this modern world did not stop.
SS: Okay, so we need to stress our body every now and then to make it more resistant. That's what you're saying.
SS: And then I hear all the time and all around that stress kills. Where does this line go between the bad stress and the good stress for the body because it's really important to know that?
WH: Exactly. Because we exert our bodies to work so much and we live in comfort, we forget that stress that is coming in is not being dealt with physiologically in our bodies the way it should. It results into chemical, stressful residue. And that is deregulating our physiology in the immune system, in our endocrine system. And that results in not feeling well, that results in burnout, into chronic diseases. Now this stress is constantly present in our bodies through the presence of cortisol, and it is constant. And when it is constant, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which is action. But there is no parasympathetic nervous system activity anymore, which is responsible for regeneration, repair, rehabilitation and healing. It is no longer there because we stress our bodies constantly: ‘I have to do this, I have to do that, then I have to do this and that.’ And that results in cortisol being constantly present and that is able to drain our bodies because we don't go into repair. We don't go into regenerating new energy. So what I do with going into the cold and going into the breathing is spiking the adrenal axis so much, but it is only spiking. And then the body is taking care of all the chemical residue inside the body. It resets the body so much and so good and so effectively that inflammation goes down, chemical residue goes down, body feels clean, you regenerate energy, you make the flow in the body much better. And that serves us in our hectic modern life.
SS: Alright. So on a neurobiological level – I assume that like all extreme conditions cold sort of forces your brain to mobilise and activates the survival mode. Do you know how these things work on a neurobiological level?
WH: Yes, exactly. The studies I have done are very much pioneering, I should actually do work with the Moscow University, they should invite me because what I found, that is that breathing together with cold are able to activate the adrenal axis, which is the deep hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, plus the adrenal glands, it's called the adrenal axis. We are able to activate the depth of the brain now, willfully, which is dealing with the stress of the icy water and of no breathing in specific breathing exercises, that is the survival mechanism. And that survival mechanism then gets under our control. And where is this survival mechanism is good for if we control it, we are able to deal then with stress much better and that has shown itself in the universities. I was able just by using my thought (this was in brain scans in Detroit university), I showed to be able to control and willfully go into the survival mechanisms of my brain, and then make the stress from cold water coming upon my skin, that my skin temperature doesn't go down. That means I am able to regulate the stress mechanisms inside that deal with body temperature, that deal with whatever stress is coming to my body, pain and all that, I'm able just by the power of my thought to deal with that. And we lost that. We don't know about this because we never exercise our bodies willfully in a short-term inflicted stress upon the body. And this is where the cold water comes in. It is a great teacher to do so.
SS: So ice water swimming puts extreme stress on your cardiovascular system, your blood vessels contract rapidly and you run the risk of a heart damage. How do you deal with this fact of life when you take the ice bath? Not everyone can take an ice bath, I suppose?
WH: No, of course not. It's like if a muscle is not exercised, it becomes weak. It doesn't mean that the muscle is not there, it is there, but it needs little weights and then more and more and more and more. And with that, I tell you, within 10 days motivated people are able to go into icy water. I can make 80-year-old people who have never been in icy water in just one afternoon, I can make them able to go for a couple of minutes into icy water, no problem. Why? Because I bring them to their natural condition. If you look to cardiovascular-related problems in the world, it is killer number one. Why is it? Because we are too much in comfort. The skin is the biggest organ of ours, it’s never exposed to temperature changes while all the temperature receptors, pain receptors and electrical receptors are in our skin. The skin is our biggest organ. And we got it always dressed, covered up, no stimulation. Logically, it is directly connected to the vascular system, which is 100,000 kilometres in everybody of us and it contains millions of little muscles. If you expose it to the cold, then the little muscles, millions, they are going to work. What happens? Heart rate is going to go down because the blood flow is being helped and then when the blood flow goes better through the system, it reaches the cells much better, which gives you much more energy. So energy goes up and heart rate goes down. That means the real cortisol, stress presence goes down. Because what happens when you have an accelerated heart rate of 20 to 30 times more per minute, 24 hours a day? This is for people who live only in their comfort zone, they have an accelerated heart rate, which is a signal to the liver to produce cortisol, adrenaline and glucose. And that makes the body keep on going and we live in constant danger of too much heart rate going on. And the little muscles, the millions inside, are disstimulated because of being dressed all the time, all the time in the warmth, they are not in the right condition. So they don't help the blood flow go through, and the heart needs to pump more because the lack of the condition of the millions of little muscles, so there is the danger. And when you go into the cold in within 10 days, from 15 seconds in a cold shower, day one, and 30 seconds on day two, to 45 just gradually going up, then you'll find yourself within, say, 10 days in your natural condition, then the millions of little muscles are back in business, bringing the blood flow to the cells and the heart rate then goes to its natural amount of beats. And then there is no stress. What is our natural condition? No stress, high energy.
SS: Wim, you said, the cold stimulates better connection between your body and the brain. Are you saying that, for instance, if I jump into freezing water and tell myself that I'm not cold I'll just stop shivering?
WH: Yes, in the end, that will work that way. But first, because the condition is not yet there, within 10 days, you can have much more willful control just by thought because you learn to connect with the stress mechanisms inside the brain, they will be exercised. Through the body, you exercise your mind, your brain because it's all connected. And then because you do it, you get connection with that you get neural pathways done and they become stronger, these neural pathways. And then very soon, you are able to use these neural pathways, exercise to deal with stress in any other way in your daily life. So the cold is a teacher, the cold is able to bring neurological pathways to the stress mechanisms inside the brain and bring it within your willful control, yes.
SS: I have to admit, you know, I know one ice skater and she's about 45. And just because she spent such a big amount of time on the ice rink and it's really cold around her most of her life, her skin and the way she looks she's like maybe at most 30. So I do understand how cold can also have an impact on the physical appearance. But as far as endurance, if the key to endurance and health is submitting your body to stress so that adrenalin cleanses out all the bad stuff, cause that’s what we're saying, then do I really have to do ice baths per se? Why can't I just do bungee jumping because it seems like a much more pleasant way to pump adrenaline to my veins?
WH: Exactly. So they compared blood samples they took of people doing the breathing techniques, their level of adrenaline, to people doing their first bungee jump in fear. They really selected the people who have a fear for heights, and they took them voluntarily in a group of people, they took their blood before going into their first bungee jump. Then they compared those blood samples with the people doing these breathing techniques. And then they saw that the people lying on the sofa doing these breathing techniques, they have a much higher level of adrenaline than the people go in into their first bungee jump. So you don't need to go directly into the cold, if you don't like it etc., try the breathing techniques. We know where the breathing techniques come from. They come from going into the cold because the first thing you do when you go into the cold is... [inhales deeply].
WH: Yeah!! And that shows simply that the deep breathing makes you ready to face stress. That's what it does. Deep breathing changes the biochemistry in the body in the depth that the adrenaline comes in, the good hormones come in. That's what we do when we have stress – [inhales deeply] ‘oh! oh! oh, it’s coming! oh yeah!’ When we have sex, we do deep breathing. When we deliver a baby, we do deep breathing. When we are struck by awe in life – ‘oh, wow’, it's always deep breathing. And now I modified the deep breathing and I took it to the university and then I said, ‘Give me an injection of a bacteria and I will show you that I can control my immune system, that I can make my immune system work better than you have written in your books.’ And then I did that and they said, ‘Yeah, that's maybe, you are The Iceman, you are the only one who is able to do that. Nobody else. It’s your training.’ I said, ‘No, I think this is natural.’ We have lost the ability to breathe deeply because we live in a shallow being, we live in clothes and comfort. And then yeah, of course, you don't need to do much anymore. But when you are in the cold, you do [inhales deeply] much more. And then the biochemistry is going to change inside.
SS: Theoretically speaking because we're speaking right now about the benefits that resisting cold has brought to you and in general how beneficial it is –
WH: And the breathing technique.
SS: – and the breathing because you breathe in extreme conditions, because cold is extreme condition. Can, for example, the same thing be achieved by going to Sahara and practicing extreme heat resistance?
WH: Yes, I did that too. And I showed in the Sahara desert, without drinking, I run one marathon and I lost 5.2 liters of water while not drinking, but that my core body temperature, my functionality stayed the same. I learned to control my body in the cold but it also works in the heat.
SS: But what I'm saying is adjusting your body conditions to extreme heat – is it as beneficial for a human physique as it is to adjust your body to extreme cold?
WH: I think to the cold it is better. It is better because you body needs to work more in the cold. When we go into the sauna, we passively let the heat in. And it shows with the сoronavirus or virus in general, if you go into the sauna, at a certain point, it kills the germs, it kills the bacteria, it kills the virus, but it is passive. When you go into the cold, you have to work, your body needs to work, and it's much more exercise for the body and that will tackle the cardiovascular problems of this world. That is not necessarily done in the heat. But in the cold it does.
SS: Okay, well, you're saying that your marvelous resistance to cold is not supernatural, that everyone can do it, let's say I want to start practicing. When taking a cold shower you first squeal, then relax and then start to enjoy. But then you start sneezing before you know it. Where is this line where hypothermia actually begins?
WH: Yes, hypothermia begins when two degrees decreasing within the core body temperature that is – 37 degrees is necessary for the liver to function well, the lungs, the heart and the brain. That's the core body temperature, it is able to close around these organs. And that happens when it begins to open up because the contraction is not able anymore to hold within the cold, then the core body temperature will be affected and will go down and then very soon we get into hyperthermia, which can damage us. When it goes to 31.4 degrees, then we spirally go down if no external body heat will come, you will go down into coma and you will die. So we need 37 degrees to function well in the core. And by going into cold showers and all you'll learn to have the veins contract better and better, and that you are able to stay longer in the cold because you maintain the core body temperature. So in the beginning and what I say to the people, don't shock your body, going once into the cold, like in Russia as a tradition, I say why not take every day a cold shower, then in the wintertime, you will be able to go easily into icy water without losing the core body temperature that makes you feel so much more powerful inside in your cardiovascular system which is life, which is all 100,000 kilometers, then you test it in the cold and you feel powerful. You are the master of your physiology, if you know and especially in Russia, if you know how to beat the cold, you are powerful.
SS: Wim, you know what, it's so interesting to be speaking to you that I don't want to make these just one program. I want to go on and go on talking to you. So, you know what, guys, we're going to record two programs with Wim Hof aka The Iceman. So stay tuned for the next one to find out more stuff about what ice and cold does to you, your body and your brain.