Wim Hof, also known as the “Iceman”, become well-known for his ability to withstand prolonged exposure to extreme cold. His technique, called the Wim Hof Method, involves a combination of forced breathing, cold exposure, and meditation. This 2018 case study investigates the mechanisms that allow practitioners of the Wim Hof Method to tolerate cold exposure.
One key finding of the study is the possible role of the endocannabinoid system in mediating the effects of the Wim Hof Method, which plays a crucial role in regulating pain, stress, and mood. The activation of brain areas associated with stress-induced analgesia and self-reflection, as well as the release of endocannabinoids, may contribute to the Wim Hof Method's ability to decrease sensitivity to cold exposure and promote a feeling of euphoria and well-being. This finding suggests that the Wim Hof Method might allow practitioners to assert greater control over key components of the autonomous system by modulating the endocannabinoid system, which is the master regulatory system of the human body.
To investigate the mechanisms behind Wim Hof's abilities, researchers conducted multi-modal imaging assessments of both his brain and his body using fMRI and PET/CT imaging. Their findings suggest that the Wim Hof Method activates the periaqueductal gray (PAG), which is a primary control center for modulating pain and cold stimuli. This activation may initiate a stress-induced analgesic response mediated by the release of endogenous opioids and cannabinoids.
Moreover, the study showed that endocannabinoids, such as anandamide, are released from the PAG during Wim Hof Method practice, which promotes a feeling of euphoria and well-being. The observed activation of the PAG might suggest the release of endogenous opiates/cannabinoids that mediate decreased sensitivity to cold exposure. The activation of the endocannabinoid system also inhibits edema and inflammation, which explains the decreased immune response associated with Wim Hof Method practice.
Additionally, the study found that the Wim Hof Method resulted in increased sympathetic innervation and glucose consumption in the intercostal muscles, generating heat that dissipates to lung tissue and warms circulating blood in the pulmonary capillaries. This suggests that the method may also affect the regulation of body temperature through the endocannabinoid system. The activation of the PAG region of the brain during the practice of the Wim Hof Method may lead to increased release of endocannabinoids, which in turn may modulate the body's response to cold exposure and contribute to the observed effects on the autonomic nervous system. Additionally, the study found that the WHM engages higher-order cortical areas that are uniquely associated with self-reflection and sustained attention in the presence of averse external stimuli, such as cold exposure.
The study sheds light on the underlying mechanisms that allow Wim Hof to withstand prolonged exposure to extreme cold. The Wim Hof Method appears to activate the endocannabinoid system, which may mediate decreased sensitivity to cold exposure and promote a feeling of euphoria and well-being. The study's findings provide evidence for the importance of the brain in mediating the effects of the Wim Hof Method on cold exposure and suggest that the Wim Hof Method may offer a unique approach to developing control over the autonomous nervous system and the endocannabinoid system with potential therapeutic applications.
Study Title: "Brain over body"-A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure
Study Link: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29438845