Have you heard about Wim Hof, the Ice Man? The one who ran up Mount Kilimanjaro in only a pair of shorts and who once swam underneath sheet ice for a distance of 66 metres?
I hadn’t, until I read a recent interview with him in the Sunday Times. I’ll be honest, I was only skim-reading the piece (I have a deep distrust of people who claim to like being cold, and of cold water swimmers in general – sorry, lido-goers) and I was about to turn the page until I saw a paragraph where he explained how he’d once managed to talk his sceptical daughter through a breathing sequence that alleviated a hangover so bad, she’d initially thought she would need a day off work to recuperate.
After listening to his advice and implementing it she was apparently pain-free and able to go to the office and work without any further issues.
Well. That got my attention. I haven’t had many hangovers in the past 10 years (I decided when I was thirty that no amount of revelry was worth writing off a full day of my life and I’ve tried to maintain that philosophy) but I’ve still had a few, and even without a traditional physical hangover I definitely get post-booze-blues. Just imagine, I thought, being able to shift those pesky glooms with a bit of sighing and panting.
Then, on the recommendation of a friend I listened to a podcast in which Wim was interviewed at length by a medical doctor. Both men excitedly laid out the details of an experiment in which Wim had managed to coach, within only ten days, a group of volunteers to the point that they were able to use nothing more than their trained immune and nervous systems to deflect a genuine injection of E. coli. They saw off a real actual disease with only their minds. And there’s sound scientific evidence of that.
So, anyway, based on that one magazine article and that one podcast (half a podcast, if I’m honest — won’t lie, the doctor wasn’t the most charismatic presenter and I’d heard enough to convince me within the introductory waffle) I decided that a bit of the Wim Hof Method is exactly what I need in my life.
Health aside, I am intrigued by his additional concept “We can control our own happiness!” — because I think we could all do with a bit more happiness in these strange times. I know I could, because I am by nature a pessimist and the dark and gloomy winter days don’t help. Also, mental health issues in the time of Covid are rife, and if there are ways to help that don’t depend on traditional medicine I think it’s good that these are being explored.
Hof’s basic belief and philosophy are that by learning to control our body’s response to stressors (through exposure to cold water and thus learning to resist the body’s natural impulses, and through controlled breathing exercises for the same purpose) we can prevent it from creating the hormones that increase inflammation and thus cause illness. He’s been practicing what he preaches for years, but only recently have his methods been tested scientifically. And now, the experts agree he might be on to something.
Although by nature a sceptic, I’m no stranger to the idea that the mind can be trained to focus away from pain and lessen its impact. When I gave birth to my youngest daughter I spent weeks beforehand being trained in hypnobirthing and although I did lose some focus in the most painful parts of labour, I managed to give birth with no pain relief other than the hypnosis track playing on repeat on my iPod. This was a huge change from my previous experiences of labour.
So yes, I’ve got some confidence in my ability to learn Hof’s methods and some faith that they’ll work. The only problem is the actual learning part. I’m all right with the breathing; it’s based on circular in-and-outs, with intermittent breath-holding. That’s fine, there’s a handy app to guide me through the process and I can follow the instructions so I know I’m doing it right. All good.
What I’m less keen on are the mandatory daily cold showers.
I’m only on fifteen seconds of icy water a day so far and frankly, even that feels like far too long. I stand in the shower and the spray at first is like icy needles. My breath, try as I might to control it, goes short and sparse and squeaky as the ice needles turn mysteriously fiery-feeling. All this, within only fifteen seconds. How will I cope with 30 seconds next week?
I’ve got to say, though, that I’ve begun to find that when I turn the spray off and actually climb out of the shower I feel amazing. (I’m also scarlet, as all the blood rushes to the surface of the skin). Hof claims that this cold water therapy helps not only with controlling inflammation but with our mood; he touts his method as a treatment that is perfect for depression. He says, basically, that regular immersion in ice water would make us all happier.
I really hope that’s true, because his app is currently telling me that by the end of four weeks on the programme I’ll be having an ice shower for a full minute every day. And that’s just the beginning of the beginners’ bit. I deserve some extra happiness as a payoff for that sort of endurance, surely?
(And the instant hangover cure. I will absolutely deserve that, too).
(If you’re thinking of joining me on the cold shower train to an apparently healthier and happier life, Wim Hof’s website is here. He also has an app).