Chances are you’ve seen celebrities, athletes, and that one diehard wellness friend who will try just about any trend (it’s me, hi) documenting their ice bath experiences on TikTok or Instagram in the name of overall well-being (teeth chattering and all). From repairing sore muscles to boosting energy, cold water plunges seem to be what all the cool kids are doing. But submerging in cold water for its health-promoting properties is nothing new—it dates back centuries with Hippocrates recorded as an OG stan, documenting the use of cold water for medicinal purposes and pain relief in fourth century BC. (He went so far as stating that “the water can cure everything.”) Today’s biggest proponent of cold water immersion is arguably the cold-embracing Dutch, Wim Hof.
Aptly nicknamed “The Iceman,” Hof is an athlete with seemingly superhuman abilities and an intriguing leader in the world of health and wellness all in one. Case in point: He has set over 20 Guinness World Records, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and Everest wearing just shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot and in shorts (sense the theme?), and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes. Impressive feats aside, he’s perhaps best known as the creator of the Wim Hof Method and the guy who made the cold plunge a modern global phenomenon (you might recognize him from Netflix’s The Goop Lab or BBC’s Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof).
From the likes of Oprah, Lizzo, and Kendall Jenner to wellness-seeking enthusiasts all over the world, Hof has amassed millions of devotees who swear by his three-pronged method for its physical and mental health benefits. Read on for what the Wim Hof Method is, its advantages, why everyone’s getting their cold on, and whether it’s worth giving the practice a go, according to experts.
What is the Wim Hof Method?
After decades of self-exploration and scientific studies, Hof created the Wim Hof Method to stimulate the body to develop a higher level of control over the autonomic nervous system (AKA the system that controls the body’s “fight-or-flight” response and the “rest-and-digest” body processes), thereby controlling its pain and stress response, using a foundation of breathing, cold therapy, and a commitment to master your own body and mind. In other words, think of it as stress management for modern life. “The Wim Hof Method is a systematic approach to nervous system regulation and stress resilience,” summarized Dr. Kelly Kessler, a licensed physical therapist, wellness coach, and owner of Optimal You Health and Wellness, LLC.
According to the Wim Hof Method website, the first pillar of the method—breathing—is “the easiest and most instrumental part of the autonomic nervous system to control and navigate.” In fact, breathing has been scientifically proven to affect the heart, the brain, digestion, and the immune system. “Conscious breathing involves taking 30-40 deep breaths, an exhalation hold, and then a recovery breath,” Dr. Kessler explained. The second pillar—cold therapy—is just as it sounds: exposing your body to the cold, which can be done using various techniques—from ice baths to cold showers to cryotherapy. Lastly, the third pillar—commitment—comes down to increasing your willpower and self-control in order to fully master both conscious breathing and cold exposure. “Commitment involves training self-control, improving discipline, and overriding impulses, and initial emotional responses,” Dr. Kessler elaborated.
What are the benefits of the Wim Hof Method?
While breaking a sweat, taking a long soak, or getting a mani pedi may be stress management standbys, you’d be hard-pressed to find an activity that single-handedly touts as many health benefits as the Wim Hof Method: strengthened immune system, better sleep, increased energy, heightened metabolism, decreased inflammation, enhanced happiness, regulated stress levels, boosted mind-body connection, just to name a few.
“One of the more profound benefits to the Wim Hof Method is reducing stress and anxiety,” Dr. Kessler said. “Stress and anxiety are a result of the brain’s perception of a potential threat to the system. The Wim Hof Method trains a ‘top-down’ approach in which we can train our brains to not respond as impulsively, thus increasing our overall resilience to stress.” Dr. Carolina Estevez, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist at Infinite Recovery, agreed: “With regular practice, the Wim Hof Method can help strengthen the body’s response to stress and increase its ability to cope with challenging situations. This improved resilience helps practitioners stay calm and focused in difficult times, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving skills.”
Still think it’s all just woo-woo? In a 2014 study, subjects trained by Wim Hof practiced meditation, exposure to cold, and breathing techniques for over a week, and results showed that the sympathetic nervous system (read: stress response) and immune system can in fact be voluntarily influenced. The main takeaway? By utilizing the Wim Hof Method, you can help keep stress at bay and aid in improving the immune system.
Why is cold water therapy all the rage?
Cold water therapy–namely cold water immersion–has been in the spotlight in its own right, and for good reason. Researchers in Finland who studied the effect of regular winter swimming (four times a week for four months) discovered a significant decrease in tension and fatigue and an improvement in mood and memory in the study’s participants. What’s more, those who suffered from rheumatism, asthma, and fibromyalgia expressed pain relief. Although further research is needed to prove that other factors of the study (i.e. exercising, socializing, being outdoors, placebo effect) didn’t play a role in the reported effects on mental health, there’s science to back up why cold water immersion, simply put, makes you feel great.
“Cold water therapy induces a number of changes and reactions in the human body that are beneficial across physical, cognitive, and mental health,” described Dr. Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “Exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases the brain release of norepinephrine—an adrenal hormone that helps people feel more ‘up’ naturally. During whole body cold exposure, the spontaneous release of opioids and cannabinoids in the brain are promoted, which has the potential to create a feeling of well-being, mood control, and reduced anxiety.”
Dr. Sony Sherpa, a holistic physician and writer at Nature’s Rise, affirmed that exposure to cold water can help alleviate stress and anxiety by soothing the vagus nerve. “The vagus nerve is a part of your parasympathetic nervous system, the system that’s responsible for relaxing your body after experiencing danger or stress,” Dr. Sherpa described. “When you expose yourself to cold temperatures, such as taking a cold shower or washing your face with cold water, you slow down your sympathetic nervous system that’s activated when you’re under stress or anxiety. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, your heart rate slows down, your breathing stabilizes, and your blood pressure decreases. In short, your body relaxes.”
Are there downsides to the Wim Hof Method?
There’s no denying the myriad of benefits the Wim Hof Method offers, but it does come with some potential risks. “The Wim Hof Method intentionally activates the sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze) response of the autonomic nervous system, which can lead to hyperventilation and potentially fainting,” Dr. Kessler pointed out. “It is important to consult with a medical professional prior to starting the Wim Hof Method, especially for anyone with a heart condition. This is a method where proper implementation and training are essential for safety.”
Then, there are the possible dangers that come specifically with cold water therapy. “Cold water immersion can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, which could be dangerous for people with certain health conditions,” Dr. Estevez illustrated. “Additionally, inexperienced practitioners [of the Wim Hof Method] may not be aware of the proper technique and could potentially cause harm by trying to push too hard or too fast.” Other probable negative side effects include frostbite, hypothermia, and heart arrhythmias. Bottom line: As with any health and wellness trend, speak with a healthcare professional before taking the plunge.
Should you try the Wim Hof Method?
It’s hard not to be intrigued by the purported natural high supporters of the method claim and what it evidently does for stress management, but is it right for you? “Wim Hof breathing is definitely worth trying if you are interested in building resilience in the face of stressors, and if you’re able to engage in it safely,” conveyed Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, Ph.D., a licensed and board-certified clinician and a neuropsychology researcher at the Yes Supply Institute. “Because some practitioners report that it can take a few months of consistent practice before they notice the maximum benefits, you may have a better experience if you go into it being open-minded about focusing less on the outcome, and more on enjoying the process. If you can do that, after a few months, or perhaps sooner, you will likely feel more at peace each day.”
The best part of the Wim Hof Method other than the supposed benefits? It’s accessible and doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg (looking at you, $13K cold plunge). “The Wim Hof method has provided many people with an alternative way to take control of their health and promote overall well-being,” Dr. Kessler expressed. “The beauty of it is that it does not require fancy equipment and it can be done right at your own home. Changing the stress of the world is not in your control, however improving your ability to be more resilient to stress through the Wim Hof Method is a powerful way to be a healthier version of yourself.”
To get a taste of the Wim Hof Method, start with the breathing exercises laid out on the Wim Hof Method website while taking a cold shower: Adjust the temperature to the absolute coldest you can tolerate for a minimum of ten seconds and work your way up to one minute or end your shower with 10-60 seconds of cold water.
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may be experiencing mental health symptoms, please seek help from your doctor, a mental health professional, and/or a trusted friend or family member. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.