Wim Hof is becoming increasingly popular. Beyond the “hip factor” it simply seems to work. Let’s look at this a bit more closely.
The Wim Hof Breathing Technique consists of four rounds of:
- 30 power breaths = large, deep mouth breaths
- one breath retention on the exhale
- one breath retention on the inhale
This should be followed by silent, seated meditation for at least 5 minutes.
What happens in your body when you perform the Wim Hof Breathing Technique?
- As you inhale and exhale more air than normal the composition of air in your lungs changes. The amount of CO2 in your lungs reduces and the amount of oxygen in your lungs increases.
- In your blood stream, things look slightly differently. Here, the amount of CO2 dissolved in plasma will reduce while the amount of oxygen carried by haemoglobin will not increase much. Even under normal circumstances, haemoglobin is nearly fully saturated with oxygen (95-98% is perfectly adequate to provide for the body’s oxygen needs). There is no advantage of an increase to 99 or 100% oxygen saturation.
The reduction in dissolved CO2 will increase pH level an make the blood slightly more alkaline. The healthy blood pH range is 7.35-7.45 – quite a narrow band. One Wim Hof breather had blood pH tested at 7.75! This pH fluctuation will cause chemical stress on the body and associated adrenaline release. The nervous system is also affected with increased potential for electric conductivity (hyperexcitability often associated with fear and trauma). The abnormal pH will cause the kidneys to start releasing minerals to rebalance pH. As an ongoing practice this can lead to ongoing mineral depletion.
- At a cellular level, the reduction in CO2 will reduce uptake of oxygen due to the pH-oxygen-dissociation relationship also known as the Verigo Bohr Effect. This is circumvented by the breath retention at the end of the deep breathing which will increase CO2 levels and thereby restore oxygen dissociation to provide starved cells with oxygen.
In a nutshell, the technique will cause strong fluctuation in your blood pH, adrenaline release and changes to your nervous system/mental state.
Would I recommend this technique?
Disease and low energy are, among others, a function of the reduced resilience of the body to cope with a larger range of physiological states. For example, children regularly experience large varieties in blood pH (think long periods of screaming and crying). In adults these ranges that the body is accustomed to and can handle reduce more and more. With the reduction in the variety of exposure, our flexibility reduces and with it our resilience.
For example, in an interesting experiment, Wim Hof breathers were inoculated with dead E-coli bacteria. While the control group had an immune reaction as expected the Wim Hof breather did not show any or only little reaction. This is believed to be due to the shifts in blood pH and blood gas levels the participants experienced during their breathing practice.
So any technique that increases flexibility and resilience is beneficial. However, one also needs to consider other effects on the body. Do we need increased nervous system excitability? Do we need to access trauma states? I have considerable experience with overbreathing techniques to access altered mental and emotional states. It can be a very useful process and teach respect for the power and wisdom of the body. However, I have moved away from these techniques to much gentler, less stressful yet equally powerful processes for a reason. I believe there are safer ways to work with any trauma issues and there are safer ways to increase physiological flexibility and resilience.
Then there is the issue of further damage to already compromised bodies. For example, asthmatics can easily develop an asthma attack while doing Wim Hof breathing. Contraindications also exist for people with blood pressure issues and any form of heart disease or kidney disease. This means I could only recommend this technique if I knew that the breathing abilities and physiological state of a person could cope and would not be negatively affected. If you book in for an in-depth assessment I can confirm this for you.
It was interesting for me to hear that Wim Hof’s ETCO2 is at 35mmHg as tested by a colleague of mine who had met him. It is a rather low CO2 state and at the border for what is considered a healthy range. A text book ETCO2 is 40mmHg. So does this mean that Wim Hof is unhealthy? No. But it might mean that his physiological processes are not as efficient as they could be.
The Wim Hof breathing technique is attractive because:
- it is extreme and out of the ordinary
- adrenaline rushes feel good
- it makes people feel “alive”, “alert” and “healthy”
- it reconnects us to our bodies
- it makes you believe you are doing something great for your body – the most powerful placebo!
The Wim Hof breathing technique is problematic because:
- it causes additional stress on already stressed bodies
- it can create unintended serious complications like worsening asthma states or cardiovascular problems
- it may mask a slow deterioration of physiological state with a good feeling
- Wim Hof affiliates may lack the necessary knowledge of physiological processes and make unsubstantiated or even false claims about what is or is not beneficial.
As always you are ultimately responsible for your body! Enjoy the process 🙂