Daniel Timms is a mental calculation tutor, but his article on breathwork gets thousands of views every month.
Daniel, what’s the story there?
Breathwork – specifically the Wim Hof method – was recommended to me by lots of friends. They treated it as some kind of miracle cure: it was supposed to help with everything, from better results in sports to curing hangover. On one hand, I was very skeptical, but on the other: these were people whose judgement I trusted. So I decided to do some research for myself and find out what’s myth and what’s truth. I discovered that the method does accomplish lots of things, but that the ‘why’ behind it was often misunderstood. Sometimes, this even led to dangerous situations. I hope my article will improve people’s understanding.
Okay, let’s back-up here a bit. Breathwork, Wim Hof… What’s the difference with just breathing?
Breathwork is a way of consciously changing how you’re breathing to affect your body, your mind or both. The simplest and best-known breathwork technique is when you breathe in deeply and your body relaxes. You feel tension leave your body. But there are plenty more methods you can use to either relax or energize yourself, such as the 4-7-8 and as I mentioned Wim Hof breathing.
The Wim Hof method is introduced by a Dutchman, Wim Hof. In this method, you start by taking a series of quick breaths – usually around 30 breaths of 4 seconds per breath. You inhale through the mouth as deeply as you can, using your diaphragm, so expanding your belly. Then you rapidly exhale through the mouth, and instantly start with the next breath. Once you’re done with the 30 breaths, you take one last breath where you inhale as much as you can. Then you just exhale in a natural way, and then – having exhaled – you hold your breath for as long as you can.
What’s amazing about this method is that you’ll find you’re able to hold your breath for much longer than you’d expect, up to several minutes. I’ve been reaching 4 minutes occasionally. Then, at some point you feel your body craving air, so you take a big breath and hold it for 15 seconds or so. Then you exhale naturally, and that’s 1 round of Wim Hof breathing. Wim Hof recommends you do 3-4 consecutive rounds daily.
Holding your breath for 30-40 seconds is a neat trick, but where do all the health benefits come from?
Several things happen here, and it might not be what you’d expect. Let’s start with the simplest one: because of the conscious breathing technique through the diaphragm, you relax your body. So far, so good.
Then, lots of people think that the quick breaths cause your oxygen levels to rise, but that’s not where the difference comes from. In normal circumstances, oxygen levels in your blood are already at around 98%, so they can go up by a bit, but not that much. But what happens when we breathe, is that our body uses up our fuel – the oxygen – and produced carbon dioxide, and that’s where the magic happens.
You see, our respiratory system doesn’t actually have a way to check the oxygen levels in our blood. All oxygen could be gone, and you wouldn’t notice. What our bodies do notice, is the level of carbon dioxide. Because normally lots of oxygen means little carbon dioxide, and the other way around, when the carbon dioxide levels are high our body knows it’s time to take a new breath. But with the Wim Hof method your body keeps the oxygen high, while simultaneously getting the carbon dioxide levels much lower than usual. That’s also why you can hold your breath for so long with this technique: it takes a while for the carbon dioxide level to reach the threshold where your body needs to breathe again.
So, extra low carbon dioxide levels… then what?
Because it takes your carbon dioxide a longer time to rise, your oxygen levels can go to a much lower level. At that point, your body releases much more of the hormone erythropoietin, also known as EPO. This hormone is responsible for the production of red blood cells.
Another thing that happens during this exercise, is our body realizing it needs to breathe and releasing adrenaline. Adrenaline causes your body to produce more white blood cells. White blood cells help battle infection. Adrenaline is also anti-inflammatory. While inflammation is a natural response of our body to quickly protect an area that is damaged, too much inflammation is not good and leads to many different health conditions, even depression.
If inflammation is a natural and healthy response in our bodies, wouldn’t it be harmful to counter it?
There is actually a study on this, the famous endotoxin study. In this study, scientists used a part of a bacterium that makes you feel sick and gave it to a number of subjects who practice Wim Hof. Practicing this technique, the subjects were able to avoid most of the negative symptoms. The immune system is still doing its job, but the excess parts are reduced.
Another question – what about adrenaline? Don’t these spikes pose a danger of adrenaline exhaustion?
Well, dosage is important here. It wouldn’t be healthy to apply this method the entire day. If you deal with lots of stress, you’re close to a burnout or you’ve got problems with adrenal fatigue, it’s a good idea to be careful with this method. I’ve heard of mixed results in such situations. For most people, the dosage I described – 3 rounds daily – is fine. Compare it with going to the gym: if you do it too much, you’ll overburden your system.
So people who already have tons of adrenaline in their lives should be careful. Any other contraindications?
Yes, 2 actually. The first one is pregnant women. There is no research on how the Wim Hof method would impact the baby, but since your oxygen levels end up getting very low, it’s best not to experiment with this.
The other one is very important and has been leading to accidents: never do the Wim Hof method in an environment where you wouldn’t be comfortable passing out. Never when diving, never when driving. Don’t mistake what’s happening: your blood doesn’t get more oxygen, it ends up with much less oxygen. Just because the carbon dioxide levels aren’t high to indicate your need for oxygen, doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need it. If you push yourself too far, you might pass out. I’ve had this happen to me a couple of times over the last few years. This is not a problem in itself, but imagine passing out behind the wheel, or realizing you need to breathe urgently while you’re deep under water.
Even if you think you know your limits, please don’t experiment with your safety. Different conditions – and definitely things such as water pressure – can lead to different results.
Thank you, that’s an important warning. Before we close off, what about the other breathing technique you mentioned at the beginning?
4-7-8! Right, this method is actually the opposite of Wim Hof. That one is used to energize yourself, great to do first thing in the morning, while 4-7-8 is best done when you need to calm down, like before going to bed. It’s great if your body isn’t ready for sleep yet.
This technique is pretty straightforward: Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7, breathe out for 8. The trick here is to breathe out slowly, but doing it in a way where you don’t tense your muscles. Put your tongue against your upper teeth and just relax as you breathe out through your mouth. Your tongue will stop the air from rushing out. As you do this method, you’ll notice your entire body relaxing.
So start your day with Wim Hof and end it with 4-7-8, and you’ll see the amount of difference made by simply the way you breathe!