Can We Consciously Control Our Immune Systems? The Wim Hof Method Week 4

A few days ago, I woke up with the sniffles and a sore throat – a sure sign of impending illness, or worse, a sinus infection. This annoyed me because one of the biggest benefits of the Wim Hof method is supposed to be a strengthened immune system, and here I was feeling like muck.

This week I’m revisiting the subject of immunity, specifically Wim Hof’s claim that we all have the capacity to consciously control our immune systems, and ultimately fight disease. I wanted to understand how that could be, and it turns out, there is science to back it up.

The Study

In 2013, Wim Hof took 12 healthy male volunteers to Iceland and trained them in his techniques over a period of 10 days. They practiced meditation and breathing. They trekked through the snow and ice in shorts running shoes.

Afterwards, scientists injected the 12 trained subjects alongside 12 healthy, non-trained volunteers with Escherichia coli, a type of bacteria that elicits inflammatory responses from the immune system like fever and headaches. Incredibly enough, while the non-trained subjects felt achy and feverish, Hof and his merry band of icemen exhibited far fewer flu-like symptoms (a more detailed look into the study and results can be found here).

Here’s why – when the trained men practiced their deep breathing techniques, according to researcher, Dr. Kox, they produced more of a hormone called epinephrine, which is a fancy word for adrenaline. This hormone is typically released during acute stress; it’s what gets our bodies ready for “fight or flight” mode, a state where oxygen and blood starts flowing into the muscles, our heart rates increase, our attention sharpens, and we feel a surge of energy.

This kind of short-term stress (not to be confused with chronic stress that has detrimental effects on the immune system) from the vigorous breathing or the cold exposure is what stimulates immune activity and decreases inflammation. In other words, a little stress is a good thing.

What does this mean for me?

I came down with a sore throat and a runny nose this week, but instead of it escalating into a full fledged illness, my symptoms were mild and 48 hours later, gone altogether.

It makes me wonder if these techniques are, in fact, making me stronger. I feel tougher knowing that I can step into a cold shower *almost* without hesitation. I don’t howl or gasp anymore, and my body doesn’t break out into goosebumps. I even took a 10-minute-long-all-cold shower (this week’s protocol), and it wasn’t terrible.

But does it mean that my immune system is toughening up too? Only time will tell.


Week 4 protocol:

  • 3 rounds deep breathing + breath retention
  • 1 round breathing + pushups
  • Forward bend, back bend, spinal twists, shoulder bridge, side planks
  • 1 minute cold shower –> hot (as long as I want) –> 1 minute cold
  • At least one 10 minute cold shower

Week 4 results

Breath retention times:

Check out the other posts from this series.