The Wim Hof method of life improvement through hyperventilation, breath holding and cold exposure has gone mildly viral, but until I googled “Wim Hof and headaches,” I thought I would be the first to mention a headache connection.
Mr. Hof is no joke, by the way, though he comes across as happier and more enthusiastic than our jaundiced society allows. For this, some call him crazy.
But he’s not above reproach, either. Who is? He makes a few over-the-top claims. For instance, he’s made medical claims that jerk the black-and-white chains of professional skeptics whose logic casts out the baby with the ice water at the slightest provocation.
But many scientists, journal gatekeepers, and healthcare providers depend on the “incurable” adjective. And they’re human. Where would they all go if, for instance, type 2 diabetes disappeared along with a few of the most common cancer types? How can anyone expect them to be objective about feeding their children?
I’m afraid I’m not.
So let the skeptics howl while the rest of us avoid their binary thinking. We’d be nuts to write off Wim Hof for simply being as excitable and capable of exaggeration as most of the rest of us.
You probably know he’s earned many world records for things like sitting in ice water for roughly 2 hours and swimming a terrifically long distance under surface ice, once overshooting the exit hole and nearly drowning.
He recalls no fear of dying during the incident and now says he has no baseline fear of death. That’s fascinating and probably important. Who knows?
Under medical supervision, a few brave scientists injected him with toxic bacterial antigens, waited, then drew his blood for analysis. It showed a lack of the expected spike of inflammatory markers. He had no fever and felt no flu-like symptoms.
Wondering if Wim was unique in this ability to suppress inflammatory markers, they had him train a dozen new students for 2 weeks, then tested them.
The students’ bloodwork showed a low inflammatory response compared to controls, and they reported less intense flu-like symptoms.
And as if destiny wanted to remove all suspicion that Wim has “superhuman” talent, the man has an identical twin with no unusual cold tolerance.
Another group of scientists put Wim in an MRI scanner wearing a cold-immersion bodysuit. This was fascinating. They found peculiar activity in his insula and the periaqueductal gray areas of his brain. Also, he had increased glucose metabolism in his intercostal muscles.
I’d like to know if he was panting. I vaguely remember a video clip of him panting in a tub of ice, but I can’t find it now.
It’s safe to say that Wim Hof’s path to “health, strength, and happiness,” has a few credible underpinnings in physiology. And there’s also the “life-changing” effects asserted by his raving students.
Unfortunately, the body is too complex for our hyper-segregated sciences to explain the morphologic, physiologic, biochemical, epigenetic and genetic details of anything much beyond conditions like sickle-cell anemia, but an obvious feature of Wim’s achievements is human antifragility, a counterintuitive response that includes hormesis, the beneficial middle-dose of something toxic or even lethal at higher exposures.
Sulforaphane, for example, is a hormetic found in broccoli seeds and sprouts, produced ostensibly as an irritant to discourage predators from destroying the seeds. When we ingest broccoli sprouts (or seeds) with the right dose of sulforaphane, it activates dormant genes that strengthen us against certain stressors. For all the wholesome details, listen to the research scientist, Rhonda Patrick, PhD, cast a spell on the subject discussing studies that correlate sulforaphane ingestion with reduced incidences of breast and prostate cancer.
Oh dear, I hope the medical thought police don’t revile me for suggesting there’s hope of preventing such lucrative diseases through simple hormesis.
Anyway, in the Wim Hof method, the hormesis comes from hypoxia and cold exposure, either of which might kill you at too high an exposure.
What doesn’t kill us wakes us up, it seems.
Since my first breath-holding ocean dive (with no wetsuit) at Shell Beach, California, age 12, I’ve loved holding my breath — just for the relaxation and clarity of mind it brings. As we know, the mammalian diving response kicks in, shunting blood to the brain, lungs and heart.
What a fortunate setup for anyone living on a water planet, though! Who do I thank?
Later when I took SCUBA, I learned that by hyperventilating before breath-holding, I could stay down longer because huffing and puffing expels carbon dioxide and makes the blood less acidic. This shifts the oxygen dissociation curve to the left, allowing the red blood cells to deliver more of their oxygen to the tissues, giving us the feeling that hyperventilation supersaturates the blood with oxygen. It doesn’t as far as science can so-far determine.
It’s also true that CO2 buildup in the blood provides us with the urge to breathe. That’s why blowing it off in hyperventilation lets you stay down longer before air thirst forces you up for a breath.
This scenario is dangerous, though, because hyperventilation can make you pass out and drown — as can hypoxia.
I urge you not try hyperventilation in the water. Wim Hof says to do it lying down. (Far from a pool or bathtub, I’d add.)
And here’s another caveat: too much hypoxia causes brain damage, depression and dementia. We know this from studying sleep apnea, a common ailment that’s vastly underdiagnosed and contributes to a truckload of human misery. So “moderation in all things” is the faithful heuristic. And for the careful, swimming underwater in the cold (without hyperventilation) wakes up the mind and makes you feel sharp as a tack.
Since life on Earth was intelligently designed, our bodies keep us fully conscious and awake under water because the alternative tends to be fatal. Whoever wrote this planet’s genetic codes must have designed life around water and decided that we would hold our breath and spear cold-water fish during the ice ages. This would have the side effect of providing a diet rich in marine oils to supply DHA to our brains which are predominantly lipid and heavy with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid.
Periodic ice ages awaken humanity’s epigenetic adaptations to cold, it seems, switching on genes that become dormant during warmer eras. Activating our “cold-shock” genes to produce cold-shock proteins renders us not merely cold-resistant, but antifragile to cold. We don’t merely survive the ice ages, we thrive — mentally, physically, emotionally and probably spiritually.
We’ve all seen clear evidence of this in the ancient megalithic structures on most continents — evidence the mainstream detests because it falls outside their “gradualism” dogma of all history.
Nevertheless, since the Younger-Dryas event ended the last ice age about 11,600 years ago, our species has forgotten the value of God’s latent gift of cold-adaptive epigenetics. Fortunately, Wim Hof and a few scientists are rediscovering it, uncovering what may be a human capacity for broad volitional immune regulation and substantial mood management.
Some of this magic results from the “mammalian diving response.” It’s a well-studied physiologic mechanism that shunts blood to vital organs, as I mentioned. This includes the brain’s center of higher decision making, the prefrontal cortex, which is close to a quasi-pleasure center located just below the left prefrontal region.
It would seem that Earth’s DNA Code Writer has worked to keep us alive, healthy, happy and eating cold-water fish with our broccoli sprouts.
“The God Hypothesis is now a more respected hypothesis than at any time in the last 100 years.” — Frederic Bradford Burnham, PhD.
I haven’t taken the Wim Hof course, as yet, but I’ve watched enough relevant YouTube videos to know the basics, and I’ve been doing an easy version of cold exposure and hyperventilation-with-breath-holding for five months now, several times a week. In my view, Wim Hof is onto something big with the potential to help many of us, not just my fellow headache sufferers. But let’s be careful not to over-do the hypoxia aspect.
Although I’m not quite as predisposed to euphoria now as when I was younger, I do feel exhilarated after a cold shower, and mentally sharp with temporary mood elevation after the intermittent hyperventilation and hypoxia.
By the way, if you try cold showers, consider my method. I’m careful not to let my subconscious mind learn to hate the whole experience. To me, this principle of catering to the subconscious is a key to sustaining purpose with anything that requires discomfort and ongoing effort.
Here’s how I avoid hating cold shower…
First I step back out of a hot shower, turning the knob all the way cold. Then I put one part of myself into the shower at a time. I stay in the cold spray for seven breaths, step out and warm up for a few breaths then rotate another section of me into the cold.
In the past I’ve tried cold showers by sudden immersion and wound up avoiding the whole process after a few weeks, having never consciously decided to stop. It seems that when anything is judged by the subconscious self to be too uncomfortable, we avoid it reflexively without conscious deliberation. In this way, the subconscious mind makes many decisions about survival. We see this happening with hunger avoidance, cold avoidance, pain avoidance, and the avoidance of believing things that will bring us rejection by our peers and bosses.
There’s good scientific evidence now that cold showers should improve most people’s health and well-being, but the most unexpected thing for me was the headache remedy.
I’ve had headaches all my teen and adult life, originally caused by something in fresh fruit (probably fructose) or in my 30’s by caffeine withdrawal.
Nowadays, my headaches come mainly from eating a little naturally occurring sucrose in my low-carb, circadian diet. (Sucrose or “table sugar” is half fructose, so that may be the primary cause of my headaches now.) Incidentally, the low-carb, circadian diet brings me mental clarity like nothing else ever has.
I’ve had about 12 headaches (all associated with “natural” sucrose intake) since I’ve been doing my easy version of the Wim Hof method. Each headache has vanished after hyperventilation and breath holding, usually after 4 or 5 cycles. That’s 12 our of 12!
Cold exposure doesn’t seem to affect my headaches, though at least one observant writer describe evidence that “cryotherapy” of this sort might prevent migraine headaches by reversing the low norepinephrine levels found in migraine sufferers.
Also, it may be noteworthy that at least one anecdotal report has surfaced of a headache appearing after doing the Wim Hof technique.
One size rarely fits all in biology. Perhaps it’s tangentially relevant that when I’m trying to get rid of a headache, it sometimes feels worse during the hyperventilation phase, diminishes during the breath holding, and then vanishes after several cycles.
My last headache inspired me to write this article. It woke me at 5:30 AM pounding in my skull. It felt like one of the monster headaches that lasts all day and brings nausea.
I did the usual 4 cycles of Wim Hof hyperventilation and breath holding and although the pain diminished, it quickly came back. Not willing to give up and waste the entire day in pain, I kept at it, hyperventilating more and more vigorously and holding my breath longer and longer as my heart chugged in my chest. Finally, after about 12 intense cycles, the pain vanished completely and never came back, not even a dull ache.
Dude! Thank you, Wim Hof.
I speculate that the diving reflex, while shunting blood to my central nervous system as designed, also sent blood flowing swiftly through my scalp where the nerve endings for headache are thought to reside, diluting out vicious chemicals released by mast cells. These chemicals were causing vasoconstriction and pain while signaling for inflammatory cells to rush in.
And because I treated the headache early in its course, I postulate that the inflammatory cells that would have migrated in, set up shop and made the headache a full-day affair never had time to arrive in significant numbers.
Of course, not all headaches have the same pathophysiology. What stops mine might not touch yours, and might even make yours worse. But the Wim Hof Headache Fix is worth a try if you suffer headaches. Just promise me you won’t hyperventilate near water, pass out and drown, OK?
I wish I’d had the Wim Hof Headache Fix when I was a highschool boy lying in bed on Sunday afternoon in my dorm room in throbbing pain, praying to God for relief and assuring him that I understood if this wasn’t the time for a miracle.
And I wish scientists weren’t so quick to shout down everything that moves contrary to their “knowledge.”
Science has historically made quantum leaps by seeking the unexpected, the weird and impossible. It’s tragic that many scientists today express pride in their skepticism. It would serve us all if skepticism were a source of scientific shame.
And it doesn’t matter what’s new, weird, or improperly boxed, my generation of baby-boomer scientists will attack and viciously debunk it, often without studying the work they’re struggling to bury. For example…
The “fringe” evolutionist, Elaine Morgan’s theory that humans evolved from aquatic apes is rejected by mainstream evolutionists for purely emotional reasons, as best I can tell. The phrase, “aquatic apes,” doesn’t sound right to them regardless of the evidence.
The non-materialist research scientist, James Tour, makes an absolutely stunning case for intelligent design in origins theory, only to hear the materialist establishment reject his insight and expertise because they already “know” that life’s origins are mindless and meaningless.
When David Chalmers, a self-proclaimed “materialist at heart,” calls for open minds in the scientific community to consider the “crazy” possibility that consciousness (rather than matter and energy) is fundamental to the cosmos, the mainstream ridicules him because their own untestable assumptions seem patently obvious.
Scientists of the Thunderbolts Project provide evidence that electromagnetism is a more influential force than gravity in the universe, but the mainstream still struggles to ignore them.
Governmental officials team up with fighter pilots to show evidence that UFO’s are real, someone in our skies seems to have breakthrough technology, but academics remain invested in denial of anything beyond their insular, inbred boxes of narrow expertise.
I’m hoping that something will change with the next generation of scientists and thinkers.
Maybe the next team will value objectivity over skepticism.
Science could use their help right now.
Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD
Please share this post with friends who suffer from headaches or chronic dogma impairments.