Running a full marathon above the Arctic Circle is a feat even trained athletes would have difficulties to achieve due to the extremely hostile environment. One guy however has managed to run the 26 miles and to make matters even more challenging wore nothing but shorts and sandals during the run. He even claims everyone is able to achieve just that! But how?
Wim Hof (58 years old) from the Netherlands named himself “The Iceman”, a name he truly deserves. He holds several world records involving cold temperatures such as remaining in an ice bath for 1 h 52 min, diving under a layer of ice for 66 meters in one breath, climbing the highest mountains in the world in only a pair of shorts and many more. In total he has set 26 Guinness World Records. Scientists that studied “The Iceman” were baffled when they saw his core temperature maintaining a constant 37°C while taking the ice bath for such a long time. If a normal person was exposed to such temperatures, hypothermia and death would be the consequence after only a few minutes.
Wim has always been intrigued by the cold. Since he was a teenager he has been running barefooted on the snow without his feet suffering from frostbite whatsoever. Today he is doing stunts scientists consider even more extraordinary. The scientific community however is only beginning to understand what is going on inside of “The Iceman”. Wim Hof however, gives an explanation for his extraordinary feats, mainly the ability to control his own autonomic nervous system (or ANS) using nothing but his brain.
The ANS is responsible for regulating certain body processes, such as keeping the blood pressure optimal, controlling the breathing rate and ensures optimal functioning of our internal organs. These processes happen on an automatic and unconscious level meaning we do not have to think about it. “The Iceman” however says he can use his mind to consciously regulate the processes the ANS is carrying out.
A crucial brain area involved in the regulation of the ANS is the hypothalamus. This is an area responsible for the release of hormones which in turn regulate many body responses caused by the external environment. One function is the regulation of the body temperature. This is where Wim Hof claims to interfere using the power of his mind. He is now the one in charge controlling the hormonal release by the hypothalamus. The question however remains: How?
Basically according to Wim, all we need to do is to control the release of these hormones by actively engaging the hypothalamus. “The Iceman” achieves this by meditation, a breathing technique he has created termed the Wim Hof Method. This technique he says helps him endure the extreme temperatures.
The ANS and the immune system are closely connected. Wim says when he is able to control the ANS he can also control his immune system.
Several experiments have been conducted with Wim Hof being the guinea pig. In one of them, a endotoxin was administered to healthy individuals and “The Iceman”. The immune system deals with this endotoxin as if a live bacteria had entered the body creating a immune response. The person suffers flu-like symptoms like fever, chills and headache but does not have to worry about side effects or long lasting consequences.
The scientist found after administering the endotoxin to both groups, Wim Hof’s immune system to be significantly less responsive compared to the immune system of the healthy individuals. Most strikingly, he did not experience the flu-like symptoms that the control group had to deal with.
In a follow-up, one group received training by Wim and the other one did not. To the experimenters’ surprise, the group that applied his method did not show the flu-like symptoms anymore. Basically, this shows that the immune system can be consciously controlled when applying this technique. By anyone!
The abilities of “The Iceman” are in a way very fascinating. Before coming across his story, I have read about monks being able to resist extreme impacts and also temperatures, however in no cases has this scientifically been proven. Wim’s case is therefore the first scientific proof showing the enormous potential of the mind-body connection.
What I found very intriguing is the ease with which we can achieve this conscious activation. In the experiments however, only the short-term effects were investigated and long-term studies remain to be conducted. This could give rise to novel treatment options concerning immune diseases. It could even revolutionise the way we treat patients in this field.
Let me know your opinions in the comments.
Next time I will show you an individual with outstanding abilities at the piano.
Until then, have a nice weekend!
The Breathing Technique explained: