The Dutchman Wim Hof has managed a lot of extreme situations with the help of the breath: marathon runs in the Sahara and in snow with bare feet, climbing the Kilimandscharo in shorts without shirt and record time, swimming in the polar sea, staying in ice water with 1 degree C for 80 minutes etc.+
At the Global-Inspiration-Conference 2015 in Teneriffe he has guided over 100 people into the ice water basin to demonstrate that this experience is possible for everyone, with appropriate preparation. And the preparation consists mainly in breathing intensely, making short pauses and continue to breathe intensely.
What happens, when we turn up our energy by breathing strongly and intensely? We do so in different meditations and exercises and feel charged up and activated. Rapid and deep breathing brings the nervous system into the sympathetic mode. Reserves are mobilized and sensitivities set aside. At the same time, the adrenalin production is driven up and the well-known stress hormone spreads throughout the whole body, clearly measurable after 30 minutes of breathing exercises. It brings us into an excited state, which can be pleasant or unpleasant depending on the situation. People with panic attacks know intense breathing as fearful experience, athletes as a downright ecstatic kick.
Adrenalin and the Immune System
Enforced production and release of adrenalin causes an increase in pain tolerance, and additionally the suppression of the immune defense. For in the fight-flight-mode simulated by intense breathing, all available energies are needed on the surface to be able to ward off the thread on the outside. Whatever is not immediately useful for this task is deactivated.
The story is even more complex when we look deeper into the nature of our immune system. Looking at the numerous autoimmune diseases, the reactions of this system seem to be paradox. Designed to protect the body from harmful influences from outside, it can also start to destroy parts of that body. Why is this so? The immune system is equipped with strong and aggressive “weapons” against deadly invaders. In performing its task, it sometime needs to destroy body tissue and other structures. When doing so, the brain gets informed by the lymphocytes and causes the hypothalamus to produce the corticotropin releasing factor (CRH). Subsequently cortisol is released to disrupt the immune reaction.
This is the normal procedure, but when the stress system is out of balance and becomes permanently and chronically over-reactive, two things can happen: The immune system is chronically weakened, which causes hypersensitivity to all kinds of contagious diseases, and the control of the immune system is chronically weakened, which causes auto-aggressive diseases and probably most of the other non-contagious diseases alike.
In an experiment under scientific supervision, a group of Wim-Hof-breathers after a ten days training got an injection of dead E. Coli-bacteria along with a control group. The control group reacted as expected with intense outbreaks of the immune system (fever, shivering etc.). The breathers did not display any or only light symptoms. The Dutch researchers who supervised the experiment stated that the acid-base balance of the blood and oxygen levels shifted from high to low repeatedly during the cycles of the breathing technique.
The acid-base balance [of the blood] and oxygen levels that shifted from high to low repeatedly during the cycles of the breathing technique might have induced a kind of chemical stress, which could lead to this effect. This brought them to the conclusion that we have the potential to handle autoimmune diseases by self-control and exercise. Autoimmune diseases emerge from chronic inflammations and develop into severe illnesses difficult to cure. With these dysfunctions, the human immune system reacts too strong, so that the body gets harmed by a surplus of healing and repairing attempts. These reactions become chronic, and the autoimmune disease is in place.
Yet when we succeed in suppressing the immune reaction by willingly entering an adrenalin state, such suffering can be reduced or healed. When these experiments can be validated by further research, we have a proof of how the nervous system can influence the immune system and we have a door to the ability of steering our immune system by ourselves, in a first-person-perspective with a favorable outlook on curing autoimmune reactions.
Adrenalin and Cortisol: Better than their Reputation
Now we take a closer look to the role of adrenalin (or: Epinephrine). The well-known stress hormone is produced in the adrenal medulla by order of the hypothalamus. About ten minutes after the adrenalin release, cortisol gets produced in the adrenal cortex to protect the body from an enduring high activation by adrenalin. It also cares for increased and longer lasting vigilance on a lower level as adrenalin. The energy reserves emptied by adrenalin get filled up by metabolizing fat, proteins and minerals. Additionally, cortisol increases the performance of the immune system by alerting the immune cells, mainly the leucocytes, and sending them to where they are needed. There is a feedback system, which reduces cortisol release at a certain level of cortisol. Thus the stress reaction is switched off.
Completing the stress reaction in time is the ideal case appropriate for a balanced way of living. It allows us going through challenging situations and integrating them. For this task we need cortisol. Shortage as well as surplus has psychological results (behavioral distortions, depression, sleep disorders). Strong alterations in the cortisol systems occur after traumatization (post-traumatic stress disorder).
The healthy and beneficial stress reaction, which is an emergency solution, can run up physical performance quickly and accurately and suppress it gradually in time. When the stress gets too strong, too intense and too long or when the appropriate time for regeneration is missing, the adrenalin-cortisol-system can get out of balance and produce detrimental consequences.
Breathing and Stress Reaction
There is an obvious connection between breathing and stress reaction:
Releasing adrenalin (e.g. triggered by a threatening stimulus) speeds up the breathing. Speeding up and deepening the breathing, as we do in certain breathing exercises, causes the release of adrenalin.
So when we do intense breathing exercises, the body activates the stress reaction without outer or inner reason. Researchers call this “chemical stress”: The unusual erratic changes in the pH-levels of the blood during intense breathing seem to trigger the alarm reaction on a hormonal level without a subjective feeling of stress or anxiety. Some participants of the Wim Hof group could lift their pH-levels to 7.75 (the tolerance range of the blood-pH is between 7.3 and 7.7) causing a dramatic fall of the CO2-level. We know from science as well as from practicing of breathwork that one of the symptoms of blood alkalosis (=high level of pH) is the “hyperexcitability” of the nervous system. Caused by the reduction of Ca2+ (calcium ions) in the blood, blood vessels contract and a potential for increased electric conductivity occurs. This phenomenon is usually seen as negative as it is frequently connected with anxious and hyper nervous feelings and panic attacks, connected with a loss of control. Yet the Wim-Hof-experiments have shown that it is possible to consciously influence the nervous system and that the electric conductivity of the nerves can be increased or decreased and deliberately moderated with breathing exercises.
This opens new opportunities for self-directing one’s own health. There is an obvious important difference: When we engage consciously in a stress experience e.g. by deepening and accelerating the breathing, the nervous system reacts differently as it realizes that there is no real danger, but a challenge the organism faces on a conscious and an unconscious level. We create an overwhelming situation, which might remind us of previous experiences, but within a situation of relieve granted by our conscious choice and by a stable and securing environment. So we are not overpowered and out of control as in the previous experience, which is triggered. This lays the ground for later integrating the trauma.
How the lungs take up oxygen
Due to their elasticity, the alveoli have a large surface for diffusion to manage the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. In normal breathing, we have the respectable amount of 70 m2 for our disposal and we can enlarge this surface to 100 m2 by breathing deeply. Thus the gas exchange is increased, more oxygen is taken in and more carbon dioxide is given away.
The breathing techniques of Wim Hof allegedly create an even larger surface of the alveoli. When deeply breathing in and exhaling loosely, thirty times, and stopping after the exhale for some time, after repeating this cycle, the breather will feel passively and vibrating. The oxygen level in the blood raises and the level of carbon dioxide sinks. The latter ought to be kept at a minimum while the mitochondria, the energy supplier of the cells, are loaded with oxygen. Setting this energy free, is also called “aerobic dissimilation” or “inner breathing”.
Science defines dissimilation as breakdown of organic molecules like fats, carbon hydrates and proteins with the aid of enzymes to generate energy. Basically, this process works without oxygen (=anaerobic dissimilation, which is highly inefficient) or with oxygen (=aerobic dissimilation or inner breathing). So the body cells need a sufficient amount of oxygen for their energy production. This process runs over several steps of a chain: glucose is transmuted into pyruvate by creating two ATP (adenosin-triphosphat)-molecules. When there is enough oxygen, the process moves further by creating up to 30 or 32 ATP-molecules out of one glucose molecule. ATP is essential for any physical movement, from moving muscles to metabolic processes and for the creation of electric signals in the nervous system. Without oxygen – and adequate nutrition – there is no ATP; and with more breathing, there is simply more ATP, while the production of lactic acids is reduced, which keeps the body in an alkaline state. At the same time, with deeper breathing more CO2 is exhaled, the blood pH level becomes more alkaline and thus more aerobic dissimilation can happen. So Wim Hof thinks that we can influence the chemical activity in our cells with his breathing exercises and that we can speed up our energy production when needed.
Besides breathing, mental concentration is used for directing the inner world. He says: “Concentration is energy. Concentration results in electrical impulses (neurons) and chemical messages (neurotransmitters). The pyruvate that provides energy to the mitochondria is boosted further by focused concentration, with this dissimilation resulting in energy, thus concentration and awareness are essential to this exercise. Increased awareness can be achieved by influencing the mitochondrial activity of the brain cells, thus releasing substances in the hypophysis, epiphysis, third eye and pineapple gland to increase awareness. More energy in the mitochondria of the brain cells thus results in the release of substances that have been hidden in the hypophysis and the pineapple gland.”
There is scientific evidence for Wim Hof‘s ability to deliberately suppress cytokinesis. With his method, he could reduce the cytokines in his body by 100%. Cytokines are regulators of the immune system – and a surplus production of cytokines is connected to many diseases. The pandemic Spanish flue in 1918 is said to have mainly killed people with a good immune system, as a cytokine storm was unleashed.
This is why Hof criticizes flat breathing and insufficient nutrition (“eating shit food“) as wide spread attack on the immune system and thus as cause for multiple diseases.