My friend Manny, or Muffintop Manny, as he’s sometimes affectionately known, should be extremely happy. He’s got a great life. He lives in a fabulous house with his lovely wife and kids. He loves his job and he’s paid extremely well.
So what’s eating Manny? Well, that muffintop for starters. It’s not that he’s vain exactly… he’s bothered by what the muffintop represents. It reminds him that he’s on the wrong side of forty. That he’s a little fond of fine living and has a weakness for those chocolate bars in the vending machine outside his office that call to him when he has a coffee break. He used to be superfit and played college football to a high standard, but now he can’t remember the last time he went for a run or visited the gym. Manny likes a drink or two in the evening. The empty bottles seem to pile up all by themselves. He has weird aches and pains which he can’t explain, always feels stiff when he gets out of bed and he can’t get into his (top-of-the-range) Merc without audibly groaning. Worryingly, the muffintop is signalling the probable state of his internal organs and arteries.
When he confided these concerns to me, I advised him to start freezing his butt off. I told him about tummo, a Tibetan word meaning ‘inner fire’ referring to the ancient practice of exposing the body to the cold. Some Tibetan monks can generate such intense inner fire that they dry wet sheets using their body heat alone. ‘Why would anyone bother doing that when they could just buy a tumble dryer?’ asked Manny.
A modern practitioner of Tummo is Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, aka The Iceman, who climbs mountains and runs marathons in freezing conditions. He swims in such extreme cold that once his eyeballs froze. He started cold exposure at a young age. If you’re one of nine children, you have to do something to get a bit of attention.
If the Iceman was purely concerned with breaking records, then his story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Instead, he claims to be able to control his body’s autonomic functions, such as heart rate, blood alkalinity and hormone levels: adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin, and is convinced he can train others to do the same. He has ‘lent’ his body to science and has used the Wim Hof Method to teach others to exercise similar control over their bodies. There are a number of universities working closely with the Iceman to gauge whether his claims are correct. If he’s right, this could have a transformative effect on a host of physical and mental illnesses.
The human body is designed to protect the vital organs, such as the heart, the liver, and the kidneys, and when exposed to cold, skin pores close and the blood vessels narrow and contract away from the surface, resulting in an increase in blood pressure. This is why the skin becomes so pale in the cold and why the hands, feet, nose and ears are so vulnerable to frostbite in extreme weather; the blood is diverted from the surface and is focused on the core. The body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, and induces shivering to create warmth.
A drop in body temperature can result in hypothermia, a state characterised by lowered cognitive function and poor decision-making. In a harsh environment, for example while mountaineering or exploring, good judgement can be crucial to survival, but the body is subject to a double whammy, where the need to keep moving forces blood back to the extremities, depriving the organs of nutrients and fluid. Further, the limbs become sluggish and the body’s metabolism slows down.
Age, state of health and conditioning, food and fluid supply, not to mention environmental factors, such as temperature, altitude, and wind speed will all affect an individual’s reaction to extreme cold, but generally, most people’s autonomic response will be broadly similar.
To test Hof’s claims, Wayne State School of Medicine designed a special suit which can be infused with temperature-controlled water. Over a 25 minute period, the experimenters ran water alternately from neutral (34C/93F) to cold (15C/59F) in five minute blocks, and measured skin temperature accordingly. Surface skin temperature predictably varied from 34C to 31C. After a solid control was established, they asked Wim to try the suit without performing any kind of special preparation or breathing technique.
His response was in line with the control group; his skin temperature varied depending on the temperature of the water running through the suit, with high peaks and deep troughs. They then asked him to undergo the same experiment after priming his body with his own breathing and meditation technique beforehand. The result was a sustained skin temperature of 34C over the full 25 minutes, completely anomalous to the control group. An on-the-spot PET scan showed that the intercostal muscles (those between the ribs) were processing glucose at an extremely high rate and were flooding the resulting heat into his body, thus stabilising his internal body temperature. His brain and body seemed to show a wilful subversion to the normal response to cold. Instead of preserving heat and regressing, his skin temperature jumped to 34C and his body started expending more energy.
fMRI scans show the areas in the brain which are active at any one time. When exposed to cold, the control group showed lower activity in the insula, (the region associated with self-awareness and emotion) a normal reaction signalling the onset of hypothermia. By priming his body by breathing and meditation, Hof pre-engaged his sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, flooding his body with adrenaline before the cold exposure. Further, the fMRI showed greatly heightened activity in the Periaqueductal Grey area, which controls the perception of pain and pain killing. Activity in this area exploded, stimulating the release of indigenous opioids and endocannabinoids, which contribute to a deep sense of well-being, a natural high. The control group showed no sign of activation in this area.
It’s hard not to conclude that the Iceman has indeed learnt to control his autonomic functions.
So what’s all this got to do with Muffintop Manny? Just this: I persuaded him to turn the water to cold before he gets out of his daily shower, and to stand under the icy water for thirty seconds or so, longer if he could stand it. He was extremely sceptical, but to my surprise he gave it a go.
Immediately, his cardiovascular system received a shock, and his blood pressure increased. ‘If I can stand it until my breath is under control, about half a minute, suddenly the water doesn’t feel so cold anymore.’
Manny found that his thirty second ice drench has multiple immediate benefits:
- Instant alertness: ‘Being bucketed by cold water jerks you awake like nothing else.’
- ‘It gets the engine going.’ Sudden exposure to the cold forces blood to the organs. The cold calms the immune system, and suppresses it. This sounds negative, but an overactive immune system is the cause of many auto-immune disorders, where the body perceives benign entities as a threat. This triggers a constant state of stress (fight or flight mode) which can cause debilitating symptoms.
- ‘It makes my muscles zing.’ Top athletes take ice baths after training sessions to relieve muscular pain, but a quick cold shower after exercise can be just as effective.
- ‘It makes me feel good.’ Some people report feeling elated, even joyful after cold exposure. Cold therapy for depression has been shown to be extremely effective, and is non-addictive (‘No kidding’) without side effects.
- ‘I feel calmer, more able to cope with things.’
- ‘It helps me focus.’ Being in icy water is the ultimate form of meditation. It’s almost impossible to think of anything other than the cold and the breath. Automatically, you focus on breathing out, which is the activation switch of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ function.
Some benefits take a little longer to manifest themselves:
- Repeated cold exposure increases hardiness, and has an enormous impact on reducing stress. Acid levels in the body have been shown to drop, and the body manufactures more antioxidants.
- Over time, frequent exposure to the cold increases the body’s manufacture of brown fat vs white fat. White fat is composed of lipids, or fatty acids, and typically accumulates at the waist (the muffintop!), lower back, neck and upper legs, and is piled up over time as a result of surplus calorie intake. Brown fat gets its colour because it’s full of mitochondria, which are rich in iron. It stores more energy in less space, and is used by the body to generate heat. Hibernating animals have a high ratio of brown fat to white. The Iceman also has a high brown/white fat ratio, possibly because of his long habituation to the cold, probably aided by genetic factors too.
‘There’s something else I have to tell you,’ said Manny.
‘I started going to the gym again. And last weekend I went for a long hike with the kids.’
‘That’s great, Muffi- I mean Manny.’
‘Yeah. Strange thing, but I find that after I’ve frozen my butt off, even for just half a minute, it somehow makes everything else seem easy by comparison.’
Manny hasn’t yet been approached to model a swimwear collection, but he swears his muffintop is a little smaller, and he’s a lot happier and healthier. That’s a pretty good use of thirty seconds a day if you ask me.