Breathing, the immune system and cold water immersion therapy


We are used to being bombarded with supplements geared towards making us stronger, healthier versions of ourselves. We are used to seeing mindfulness and wellbeing apps that offer greater willpower and less stress. We are used to seeing gym programmes and revelatory diets that promise to turn our health and fitness around.

Many of these work, of course. But there may be a simpler recourse if you’re looking for any of the above.

There are a great many benefits to be gained from combining breathing exercises, meditation and cold water immersion therapy- a practice in which participants immerse themselves in water cooled to significantly below body temperature.

One of the main benefits is in the boost it gives to immune function.

A strong immune system is essential. Everything you do in life becomes more achievable with the back-up of healthy immune function: your susceptibility to illness and fatigue is decreased, meaning that you can get out and live the life you want to without so much fear of getting sick.

Cold water immersion therapy: the benefits

According to cold immersion enthusiasts, the tools we need to beat stress, improve sleep and recovery, and to strengthen our immune systems, amongst other benefits, are innately available. They have been with us this whole time, whilst we have been scouring the planet for the next great superfood to give us them.

We have a set of superpowers that we can unlock by practising a combination of cold water immersion therapy and Conscious breathing.

Making use of cold water immersion therapy can:

  • Decrease recovery time after training, allowing the athlete to increase training volume as needed
  • Decrease recovery time from soft tissue injury or stress
  • Reduce fatigue and associated symptoms
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce muscle and joint soreness
  • Promote neural and cardiovascular system health
  • Improve immune system efficiency
  • Decrease symptoms of anxiety and/or depression
  • Basically, it can do everything and anything needed to make us feel like stronger, more robust, healthier versions of ourselves, simply from taking a bath at around 12-14 degrees every day.

Wim Hof, the infamous Dutch extreme athlete and early proponent of cold therapy, serves as a good example of the benefits to be gained. He is well-known, especially in health and fitness circles, for daredevil acts like running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot and climbing Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes. He holds the Guinness World Record for the longest time submerged in an ice bath (one hour, 52 minutes, 42 seconds).

He also doesn’t get sick very often.

His practice is accessible to everyone- you don’t need to go with the Wim Hof certified method to improve your health and immune function, or to make the most of any of the above benefits. His practice rests on three pillars: meditation, breathing exercises, and exposure to cold as a means of controlling the body’s autonomous response systems.

1. Meditation and breath exercise

There are many pathways to breath control practice, from pranayama onwards. Many are intimately bound up with meditation. Wim Hof uses Tummo, which is essentially a very active, controlled, conscious form of hyperventilation.

However, whether you follow or practice Tummo, or kung fu, or tai chi, or chi gong, or Buddhist meditation, or Taoist meditation, or pranayama… it all amounts to the same thing with regards to your immune system. Breath control involves actively controlling when, how and in what rhythms and patterns you breathe.

In many cases, it actively mimics the breath patterns commonly associated with stress and anxiety. Though this may sound contradictory when looking to improve health and mindfulness, there is a certain deal of logic to it.

Firstly, Conscious breathing can be a fantastic coping mechanism for stress (even more so when paired with cold water immersion therapy).

Conscious breathing practice and cold water immersion therapy can both help to train the fight or flight response as the body’s stress mechanisms are triggered by both the sudden, anxious breathing patterns and the exposure to cold.

This mechanism is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us to cope with potential threats. It often comes into play in dangerous, high stress or uncomfortable situations, and is a completely natural and logical response. By stimulating it using either Conscious breathing or cold water immersion therapy (or both, of course), we release cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone) and increase our heart rates and blood pressure. Over time, we build up an immunity to stress as our bodies grow used to both the breathing patterns and cold water inherent to this kind of practice. We can potentially mitigate this high-stress response to external stimuli. By triggering the body’s fight or flight mechanisms in a controlled environment, our bodies can better learn how to deal with it in our day to day lives.

Stress and anxiety are two of the greatest threats we can face with regards to immune function. Diminishing their control over our lives will be key in improving our immune health and overall wellbeing.

Secondly, Conscious breathing in this context will flood our cells with highly oxygenated blood. This is responsible for the high that many meditation and pranayama practitioners report following their practice.

As Wim Hof himself says:

You become charged. Carbon dioxide goes out. Oxygen comes in. The body becomes oxygenated. PH levels go up. At a certain point you’re so fully charged, you change the chemistry in your body.

Researchers at Radboud University Medical Centre call this change in chemistry ‘intermittent respiratory alkalosis’. They claim that the ramifications of regularly eliciting this response could have important implications for the treatment of diseases as our bodies become more adept at fighting infection.

Fight or flight responses trigger immune response, which in turn will trigger lymphocyte production. Lymphocytes are cells within the body that fight infection- increasing production as a physiological adaptation will make it easier to ward off infection.

Those who go through the kinds of protocols Wim Hof propounds generally have slightly higher levels of lymphocytes than average, or than they would have without practice. Immune function is improved.

2 Cold water immersion therapy

The regular subjection of your body to bouts of cold temperatures that is the hallmark of cold water immersion therapy stimulates your immune and cardio respiratory systems. Recent research, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, tested the improvement in our immune systems using cold water immersion. They plunged participants into 14 degree C water for six-minute bouts, three times per week, over a period of six weeks.

Again, the fight or flight reflex came into play. The cold signalled for the participants’ bodies to do so; in return, this triggered an immune response. At the end of the six-week testing period, the researchers noted a small yet significant increase in lymphocyte production across participants. Immune function was therefore improved.


Therefore, we can see that a combination of cold water immersion and meditation and Conscious breathing training can indeed lead to scientifically measurable improvements in immune function. Whilst either one, in isolation, will improve your immune system’s health, combining them, as practitioners like Wim Hof suggest, will represent a much greater investment of time and energy.

Foto door Meghan Holmes, Unsplash

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