The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is a health and wellness practice developed by a Dutch extreme athlete named Wim Hof. According to the website, the method uses breathing, cold exposure, and commitment to help people feel more connected to their bodies, return to their “optimal natural state,” and improve their physical and mental health.
Some people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have tried the WHM alongside their prescribed RA treatments to manage their symptoms. Benefits such as reduced stress levels and improved mood have been reported by people who use the method, but it’s still not entirely clear whether the practice offers any clinical benefits.
Here, we will consider whether the WHM may offer benefits for managing symptoms of RA. As always, consult your rheumatologist or a health care professional before incorporating a new practice into your RA management regimen.
Hof earned the nickname “The Iceman” for engaging in daring activities during exposure to cold. For example, he climbed Kilimanjaro in freezing temperatures while wearing shorts and ran a half-marathon in ice and snow while barefoot. He developed the Wim Hof Method to teach other people how to practice mindful control over their bodies in the face of stressful environments. Hof believes that his training led him to improve his physical and mental strength, and he has set out to help other people learn the method and attain its potential benefits.
The method’s first pillar involves breathing. The technique combines deep breathing, breath holding, and recovery breathing. You can read more details or watch videos about how to do the breathing technique on the Wim Hof Method website. If you prefer an in-person experience, there are classes taught by certified instructors. The Wim Hof Method mobile app serves as a companion to practicing the method.
The breathing technique is based on deeply inhaling and exhaling, which simulates hyperventilation and causes the body to undergo an acute stress response. Hof says that this process causes the body to increase production of red blood cells, improve circulation and lung capacity, and boost metabolism.
According to Hof, practicing this type of breathing every day will make a person’s body more resilient in the face of everyday stress. He suggests performing the technique shortly after waking up in the morning and on an empty stomach.
The second pillar of the WHM is cold immersion therapy. Also called cold therapy or cold body therapy, this practice involves exposing your body to very cold temperatures. It can be done several ways, such as immersing yourself in an ice bath, but taking a cold shower is the easiest and most accessible option.
If you’re new to cold therapy, Hof suggests standing in cold water for around 30 seconds at the end of a regular shower. Over time, as you grow to tolerate the cold, try increasing the duration of cold exposure or lowering the water temperature gradually.
Cold therapy aims to speed up metabolism and reduce inflammation and swelling. It may offer other benefits such as improved sleep quality and focus.
The third WHM pillar, dedication, supports the other two pillars. Hof says that commitment, dedication, and patience are necessary when approaching the breathing and cold therapy techniques: With commitment to practicing the method, people can experience the claimed health benefits.
Hof maintains that practicing his method helps people connect to their bodies, learn self-control, and experience various mental and physical health benefits, including:
Most of these claimed health benefits are based on personal accounts of people practicing the WHM.
Some people may have experienced improved RA symptoms while practicing the method, but there is currently no evidence beyond testimonials to evaluate whether the practice had a true effect on arthritis-related symptoms.
One myRAteam member asked others about Hof’s method: “He uses breathing, exercise, and cold water immersion to (well, to do lots of things, but for the purpose of those of us with RA) influence the immune system … One thing I have noticed in Wim Hof’s videos/interviews is that he stresses how important this can be for those suffering from an autoimmune disease (like RA). I haven’t tried it myself yet, though I am very interested … Wondering if anyone else has tried the WHM?”
Another member responded, “I tried the Wim Hof Method and am very impressed. The method allows you to start slow, modify the activities to fit your reality, and progress if it works for you! I started with the breathing exercise; it feels really good. Started slow and built up. I added the cold immersion — just a cold shower, really, but very invigorating! It’s short, so I didn’t note any increase in joint pain. You can also start slow and build up.”
As one member noted, however, it is important to consult your rheumatologist before trying a new RA-management method: “I don’t know, man — I would check with my rheumatologist about the cold. After being in cold water, I would need a chauffeur and a wheelchair to get home. My doctor doesn’t even like me in the cooler swimming pool.”
There is not a ton of research to support the claimed benefits of the WHM. The earliest research study was published in 2012. It focused on Hof himself and found that when he practiced the method, he was able to voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system, which regulates automatic bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate. Scientists had generally believed that such influence over the autonomic nervous system was not possible.
Researchers conducting a case study on Wim Hof in 2018 performed imaging scans to see the activity in his brain and body while he was exposed to extremely cold temperatures. These findings confirmed earlier results showing that Hof could practice influence over his autonomic nervous system.
Although these findings are interesting, there isn’t confirmation that anyone who tries the method will realize the same results that Hof has achieved. Scientists need to evaluate how the method works in larger, more diverse groups of people to understand if its effects can extend to others.
RA is a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack otherwise healthy joints. RA’s characteristic inflammation causes its symptoms, including pain, swelling, stiffness, and joint damage. Applying ice can help soothe inflammation and pain from RA, and there is a question of whether cold immersion therapy could also offer relief.
In 2014, scientists conducted a research study that examined 24 healthy Dutch males. Twelve went through a 10-day training program including breathing techniques, meditation, and cold immersion therapy, and 12 others were assigned to a control group without the training (for comparison). After 10 days, all 24 participants were injected with a substance that creates an immune system response and produces flu-like symptoms.
In response to the injection, the trained participants produced more anti-inflammatory markers and had fewer flu-like symptoms than the people in the control group. These findings raise questions about how breathing, cold therapy, and meditation techniques could address pathways of inflammation and possibly help people with inflammatory conditions such as RA.
These questions inspired researchers to conduct a 2019 study to see if a program of breathing exercises, cold exposure, and meditation would have positive health effects on people with axial spondyloarthritis. The researchers had 13 people with axial spondyloarthritis, a form of arthritis that causes inflammation in the spine, follow the intervention program for eight weeks. After that period, those participants had declines in erythrocyte sedimentation rate (a marker of inflammation) and in disease activity, whereas 11 people who didn’t receive the intervention did not show those effects.
More scientific studies should be conducted to see if these benefits would be seen in larger groups of people and in those with other types of arthritis and inflammatory conditions.
If you have a chronic health condition like RA, you should consult a health care provider before trying the WHM. The method is not suitable for people with certain respiratory conditions such as asthma. In severe cases, the deep breathing technique might lead to a loss of consciousness. Because of this risk, Hof advises that people sit or lie down to perform the breathing technique and not do it while driving or if standing near a body of water.
Living with RA can be a challenge, but it’s not one you have to manage on your own. At myRAteam, you’ll find a dedicated community of like-minded people living with similar struggles and experiences as you, ready to help, inform, and educate on what living with rheumatoid arthritis is truly like. Here, you can share your story, ask and answer questions, and connect with others who understand life with RA.
Have you tried the Wim Hof Method for managing RA symptoms? Share your story in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.