The Iceman – Wim Hof – A Detailed Introduction

Iceman Wim Hof

Introductions; Wim Hof aka “The Iceman” holds 20 world records including[1]:

  • Total emersion to his neck in ice for 1 hour and 52 minutes.
  • Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2 days in only shorts.
  • Climbing Mount Everest beyond the “Death Zone” altitude (21,982 ft) in only shorts.
  • Completing a full marathon (42.195 kilometers (26.219 mi)), above the arctic circle in Finland, in temperatures close to −20 °C (−4 °F) again in only shorts.
  • Completed a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water proving he can deal with heat as well as cold.

Now that that is out of the way, lets get to the interesting stuff!  Even with that amazing bucket list above, I assure you, we are just getting started.

Setting the Stage for Something Bigger

Wim Hof for years has been accomplishing amazing feats of human endurance through his a ability to control systems within his body. Near the end of the dutch dare devil phase of Wim’s life, he shared that his success came from his ability of being able to control his autonomic nervous system. A system within the body that science has definitively documented as something we can not consciously influence.

In the past Wim was mocked and ridiculed for his claims. After enough world records however, people started asking Wim more specifically how he was training to accomplish these records. Wim explained that he used cold exposure and breathing techniques to train the hypothalamus for temperature regulation, but at the same time gaining deeper connection into his physiology.

Super human outlier or something else? Through all Wim’s world records and amazing accomplishments he was able to capture the attention of the world. Once he had their attention, scientists began to gain interest and wanted the opportunity to study him. They wanted to know how he was able to do what others could not. Wim was eager to participate in proving his life’s work through science. This is what set him apart from those claiming similar abilities in the past. Wim was excited to reveal the truth, whatever it might be.


“This one guy has figured some shit out.” – Joe Rogan


In a controlled study monitoring core body temperature, he showed that he was actually regulating his temperature when buried for 80 minutes to his neck in ice.[3] Next he made the big leap and signed up for a study to prove his control over the immune response. This had not been displayed in world record performances so far. Wim claimed to be able to influence his endocrine system and brain stem to fight off infection and disease. Wim did not hesitate when asked to put this to the test.

Iceman Wim Hof in ice

Guinness World Record New York 2011

It Can’t be Done

In a controlled study at Radboud University, Wim was to be injected with a bacterial endotoxin derived from E-coli. The symptoms of which were previously 100% effective in producing strong reactions including fever, nausea, headache, shivering, vomiting, muscle, and back pain. Wim was confident he could fight off the reaction using his breathing techniques.

Wim was injected with the endotoxin and for 15 minutes he practiced his breathing technique. To the amazement of the scientists, Wim suppressed all the symptoms except a mild headache.[4]

Wim’s breathing technique he explains, activates his autonomic nervous system which suppresses his immune response to the endotoxin. The scientists at this point were not convinced of this. What they did find out from this study was they he did not respond to the toxin as others have. The hypothesis was that maybe he was just a tough guy from all his training.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

Wim thought he had finally proven his life long dream, that someone can control deeper systems into their physiology. To activate systems that science believed to be off limits from conscious influence. However, this was not the case when scientists broke the news to Wim. They let him know that he was the exception that proved the rule. That he was able, but this did not prove that others could do the same. That unless others could do this, or the results could be reproduce in others, he is just an exceptional human being who has trained this ability his entire life.

Outlier

This was the scientific and world view of Wim Hof the Iceman.

Wim, to the scientists surprise, responded by saying, “No! Anyone can do this.”  And the stage was set for the next experiment.

The Wim Hof Method

In the next study, Wim took 2 groups of 9 people under his wing to teach them his methods. He trained them with his breathing techniques, cold exposure, and mindfulness meditation practices for 10 days.  After which 6 people were randomly selected from these 2 groups for a total of 12 individuals to make up the intervention group. Incredibly, these 12 individuals were able to (after this short training period with Wim) suppress the immune response the same way Wim had done in the first experiment.[5]

I was excited to find that this particular study is published in full for free online.[5] Even a video of the breathing method in action during the experiment is included. They show the vitals for PH and Oxygen in the blood realtime. In the document you can search for “Movie S2” to see the participants blood PH reach an astonishing 7.75 and an equally astonishing blood O2 low of 46%. The pain signal itself drops off at PH levels this high as it can not perform it’s signalling process in such an alkaline environment.[6]

After receiving the astounding results from the first study, Wim was overwhelmed with joy to the point of tears.[4] Wim was mocked for much of his life for what other’s viewed as “Wild claims.” In the second study he proved the method to be one of human potential and not just something the super human Iceman can do. He now dedicates his time teaching others his methods while continuing to participate in studies.

By now you are probably wondering what is involved in Wim’s methods, and I will get into that, but first I want to take a trip back into Wim’s past and what shaped the man and his mission.

Personal Tragedy

Wim tells the story of his wife in the Vice documentary, Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman.[7] Wim was met with the tragic death of his wife from suicide at a young age, leaving Wim with 4 children to raise himself. In a time of such tragedy, life had lost it’s meaning.

Wim started to conduct a soul search. One early morning, Wim said he felt an attraction to go into a freezing cold stream in the Netherlands where he lived. It was there that he said was the start of being able to find peace again. He said the cold was “merciless but righteous.”[7]


“Feeling is Understanding” – Wim Hof


Wim actually attributes all his findings and methods to the cold. He says, “the cold is my teacher.” He says it taught him what he knows through feeling. Most well educated on what is supposed to happen when you sit in ice water would never have went in. Wim’s strength came from putting limitations of the literature aside and conducting personal experimentation. Through self experimentation he has been able to discover deeper connections of influence within his body’s autonomic systems.


“We were operating under a false assumption.” – Joe Rogan [2]


Wim emerged from the cold not knowing scientifically at first, but he said he felt something in the cold that kept drawing him back to it each day. He noticed it changed his breathing firstly.[6] He became confident in what it was doing for him through felt experience.

Tummo (Inner Fire)

Wim admits that his breathing method is a form of hyperventilation and he describes the hyperventilation as a limited indication for now, for what is going on inside the body. We don’t know the cause for now but we do know a method that produces results. Changing body chemistry through breathing patterns is a way to influence the autonomic systems.[6]


“And this is only the beginning of a new (or possibly a very old) approach to health.” – Wim Hof


Wim unashamedly also admits he is not the first person to achieve this level of control over his body.  Tummo, Tibetan word for Inner Fire, is a breathing technique found in Buddhist religious doctrine and practices. Wim has studied Sanskrit (The sacred language of Hinduism) and many of the Yogi based practices. It seems that Wim’s breathing method might be a modified version of the practice of Tummo, but I would only give some credit to Tibetan Vajrayana for Wim’s discoveries. One only has to go a few clicks deep into wikipedia on Tummo to find that the practice is buried deep “in the Six Yogas of Naropa, Lamdre, Kalachakra and Anuyoga teachings of Tibetan Vajrayana.”[7] There is an overwhelming amount of doctrine and dogma that surrounds these practices. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack when trying to discern what is useful and what is dogma leading to no results. Countless numbers have studied the doctrines trying to come up with non-dogmatic solutions or applications, but they almost always come back empty handed.


“It’s a non-dogmatic choice. We give the people no religion, we give the people results, no speculation. If you do this then this happens.”  – Wim Hof [2]


Only Science and Time Will Tell

“To measure is to know.” This is Wim’s motto on the matter. He says he does “not want to fool anyone.” He often shares that he wants to continue participating in studies to figure out exactly what his methods can and can not do. Wim believes that everyone can be “happy, strong, and healthy.” Wim is on a mission to bring the method for achieving these things to everyone. By teaming up with scientists Wim hopes to take the speculation out of the matter.

Although Wim has proven that humans can influence the autonomic immune system, he is already looking ahead to proving influence on diseases related to depression and mental health. Wim has not proven anything yet on this frontier.  Wim however, is optimistic that he has a solution. He believes that our comfort living has cut us off from our innate ability to fight diseases and depression. Wim has seen great results anecdotally in his own experience with depression and with people he has taught his methods to. Joe describes this human condition well.[2]


“We need the harsh to appreciate the mellow. We need hard things to appreciate soft things. We need violence I think sometimes to appreciate peace. There is something fascinating about human beings that we almost are designed to overcome, and if we do not overcome we find ourselves lost.” – Joe Rogan


Humans may be happiest when they overcome, but we have an epidemic going on in North America when it comes to avoiding discomfort. I talk about this in greater detail in this post (Habit Hacking) in the “First World Problems” section.

Brain StemWim’s explanation compliments this view. Without stimulation of the deeper parts of the brain and nervous system, the stresses of every day life are making our endocrine systems malfunction. Too much time spent in our neocortex (logic, thinking, and reasoning) and not enough in the brain stem (instinctive flight or fight). The mental stressors are present in our very busy complex lives but the physical stressor counterparts are not. Here is another study suggesting the same. It shows that exercise is more effective than any depression medication.[9]

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“The Reptilian Mind is reactive” – Wim Hof [6]


We can repeatedly tap into the brain stem with intentional and controlled physiological stressors is Wim’s theory. Repeat exposure can create new pathways in the brain that go right into the brain stem and can allow us to gain some control over deeper autonomic functions. Functions that have domain over hormonal systems which regulate health and feelings of happiness. Wim’s method utilizes simple physiological stressors (cold exposure and breathing) to give people control over body functions previously reserved for yogis and super athletes. Although one might not be directly controlling them with the mind, there is now proof we can consciously indirectly control these deeper systems. Through consciously putting the right physiological stressors on reactive parts of the body, we can achieve a known and desired result. [5]

Personal Thoughts

I think it is absolutely fascinating that the first man to prove this type of influence over the autonomic nervous system has done so using one of the very few metabolic processes (breathing) that bridge both autonomic and somatic systems in the body. Breathing is something that is done on autopilot but also something we can consciously influence. It’s almost as if by taking over control of this process that spans these two systems, that we have a means of consciously influencing the other side. Our brain stem and endocrine systems only take action when sensing environmental changes both in and outside the body. If we can decipher the correct breathing code, we may be able to develop a way of communicating with the breath what we need our bodies to do.

Sometimes wild claims are just that, and sometimes they are the next big breakthrough. Wim is not against medicine but still wants to show people that they can do more than they believe with just their bodies. The scientific method has already proven that Wim is on to something with his methods and only time will tell how big of a breakthrough Wim has made. One thing is for sure though, Wim’s work is very promising, groundbreaking, and worth keeping tabs on in the near future.

Wim Hof Method Resources

If you are interested in diving into this method and making use of it now, their are a few resources. The cheapest option would be to review the method as explained in the study mentioned above and linked below. You could try this in combination with the free resource on Wim’s website. Direct Link here: http://www.icemanwimhof.com/wim-hof-exercises.

If you are looking for something that is more detailed and complete, Wim offers a video course for those interested in detailed one on one instructions. $200 is the cost for lifetime access to this 10 week course.


“When 99% of the people doubt your ideas you’re either gravely wrong, or about to make history!” -Scott Belski – American entrepreneur and author.


References and Videos:

1. Wim Hof Wiki page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wim_Hof

2. Joe Rogan Podcast – #712 Wim Hof.

3. TEDx Video – 80 Minutes in ice study explained.

4. Footage from influencing immune response study N=1. (Wim Hof only)

5. Group Study for Influencing the Automonic Immune Response – http://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7379.full

6. Dr Rhonda Patrick’s interview with Wim Hof.

7. Vice documentary – Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman

8. Tibetan Tummo Wiki page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tummo

9. Exercise Treatment for Major Depression Study – https://www.madinamerica.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Exercise%20treatment%20for%20major%20depression.pdf

10. The Tim Ferriss Show – Wim Hof Interview.

11. Wim Hof Method Official Video Course

12. PDF Summary of science behind the method from Wim’s website –   http://www.icemanwimhof.com/files/WimHofMethod-revealed-2015.pdf

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