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  • AutorenbildMichael Mutter

"Get high on your own supply" - but safely!

Readers wanted to know whether the Wim Hof method and holotropic breathwork are beneficial for freedivers. After discussing ice bathing in the last blog, I would like to talk about the subject of breathing.


How to freedive in ice water. Kaluna Freediving.


Both techniques claim transformative effects on the human mind and body and have found their own supporters. However, they differ in their techniques, goals and approaches.


The Wim Hof Method, developed by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, focuses on breathing techniques, cold exposure and meditation to promote physical and mental health. The method includes specific breathing exercises aimed at increasing oxygen levels in the body, strengthening the immune system and reducing stress. It focuses on improving self-control and well-being and tends to have a sporting and health orientation.


Holotropic Breathwork, developed by Christina and Stanislav Grof, on the other hand, is aimed at profound spiritual experiences and emotional healing. It involves intensive breathing techniques in a supportive environment accompanied by music to create altered states of consciousness. Holotropic breathing is often associated with the working through of traumatic experiences and the search for spiritual enlightenment.


Hyperventilation as a means to an end

From a physiological point of view, the breathing techniques used in both methods represent intentional hyperventilation. By definition, this leads to a drop in CO2 in the blood, which causes alkalosis (shift of the blood pH into the alkaline range). The Wim Hof method, which is based on Tibetan Tummo breathing, results in hypoxemia (lack of oxygen in the blood) as well, as after 30 to 40 deep and rapid breaths, instructions are given to hold the breath for a few seconds. In contrast to slow, deep breathing, which is common in meditation, yoga and various relaxation techniques, Wim Hof breathing aims to induce a state of arousal. The combination of alkalosis and hypoxemia has been shown to influence the sympathetic nervous system and modulate inflammatory reactions, which leads to the release of catecholamines (stress hormones) and explains the euphoric effect of this method, which is also used in other pertinent settings to induce pleasure.


Inconsistent results and knowledge gaps

Studies have produced mixed results regarding the Wim Hof method. An older study indicated a regulating effect on the innate immune system, while a well-worth reading Swiss study published in 2023, which provides an excellent summary of the scientific findings regarding the Wim Hof Method, was unable to demonstrate any significant effects on physiological or psychological parameters after a 15-day intervention. Possible reasons for this are that the study groups were too small or the observation period too short. The desired benefits on the vegetative system and the immune system cannot be consistently reproduced scientifically. However, because there are no long-term studies on this, there is a knowledge gap here.


The erroneous assumption that hyperventilation leads to an improvement in vitality due to a higher oxygen supply must certainly be dispelled. Evolution has optimized breathing in such a way that the tissues are not better supplied with oxygen under normal conditions by increasing alveolar ventilation. A strengthening effect on the respiratory muscles with the aim of increasing performance is also not to be expected, as the respiratory reserves of the organism are so large that they play (almost) no role in performance limitation, even in healthy, highly trained athletes.


"Get high on your own supply" - but safely!

The beneficial effect on mood is marketed under the slogan "get high on your own supply". Of course, there is nothing wrong with followers of Wim Hof hyperventilating at home to euphorize themselves. It becomes tragic when potentially fatal misunderstandings arise with regard to the settings. For example, several deaths are reported to have occurred in recent years because hyperventilation was practiced in water by followers of the Wim Hof method. Although Wim Hof's company recommends never hyperventilating in or near water, it is not far-fetched that this is exactly what Wim Hof followers do to increase the effect of the method. In fact, a video shows a group practicing the breathing technique in the water before submerging. Whether it was recorded during a training session under the personal guidance of Wim Hof, as claimed in the subtitle, cannot be confirmed.


Never hyperventilate before freediving!

In any case, this practice is shocking from a medical point of view. The reason lies in breathing regulation and is known as "shallow water blackout": If you hold your breath, the level of CO2 in your blood rises because it is no longer being exhaled, while the oxygen content falls. The CO2 concentration eventually reaches a level that triggers the respiratory stimulus and induces a breath. CO2 stimulates the respiratory center much more than oxygen deficiency. Hyperventilation leads to a drop in the CO2 content in the blood and thus to a delay in reaching the respiratory stimulus threshold. After hyperventilation, the breath can therefore be held for longer. The problem is that the oxygen content can drop so low during breath holding that a blackout occurs before the respiratory stimulus from the CO2 sets in. This effect is called "shallow water blackout" because it typically occurs when diving in shallow water, for example when snorkeling or competing for the longest breath-hold in swimming pools. Unconsciousness under water with danger of drowning is the result. This is the reason why an apnoea diving ban ("No Breath Holding!") is spreading in swimming pools in the USA, which is increasingly becoming a problem for the freediving scene. Media reports indicate that deaths after using the Wim Hof method in the water have been forensically attributed to shallow water blackouts.



shallow water blackout. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1d/Shallow_water_blackout_diagram_2_revised.svg


Regardless of the method used, never hyperventilate before a freedive. Trained freedivers do not hyperventilate, but practice a different technique, and in freediving courses hyperventilation is expressly discouraged. It is important to emphasize that taking 2 to 3 deep breaths before diving does not represent hyperventilation.


Conclusion

Overall, the Wim Hof Method may have positive effects on the autonomic nervous system, the immune system and the state of mind through the combination of meditation, ice bathing and hyperventilation, even if these can only be scientifically determined to a limited extent. The question of sustainable, beneficial effects remains open from a scientific perspective. For safe practice, the possible risks of ice bathing, especially for people with heart disease, and the absolute interdiction of hyperventilation before diving must be taken into account.

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