Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
This study was conducted to test the influence of the Wim Hof Method on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune system.
Table of contents
- Case Study Summarized
- About the Participant
- Modulation of the ANS and the Innate Immune Response
- What is a Controlled Response?
- The sequence of Experiments Performed
- Experimentation Discourse
- What were the Drawbacks?
Wim Hof asserts that he has gained control over his autonomic nervous system and innate responses.
Provided below is a summary of the experiment, and later in the article, we will learn about the study in detail. Before that, let’s understand some terms related to the case:
- Ex-vivo refers to any experimentation performed in an external environment. Similarly, in-vivo refers to measurements taken in an internal environment.
Here, the in-vivo and ex-vivo cytokine responses refer to how the innate immune system responded to the stress and influenced the body internally and externally. To put it simply, changes that occurred internally, within the body, and the symptoms that showed up externally.
- The phrase cytokine response is another name for the innate immune response. Cytokines are cell-signaling chemicals that promote cell-to-cell communication and encourage cell migration towards inflammatory areas during immune reactions.
- Endotoxemia, caused by the intraperitoneal administration of lipopolysaccharide, causes the body to initiate an inflammatory reaction. LPS administration is another name for it.
- Immunomodulatory cytokines that promote inflammation are referred to as pro-inflammatory cytokines. The mix of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines determines the overall outcome of an immune response.
Case Study Summarized
This case involved three experimentation stages. His ex-vivo cytokine response was measured during the first and second studies before and after an eighty-minute ice immersion. Wim Hof practised his method during this period.
The third study comprised of investigations on the in-vivo innate immune response. However, this time Wim was practicing the method amid human endotoxemia. The results of this experiment were compared to a historical cohort of a hundred and twelve people who had previously engaged in LPS administration at the same institution.
It was discovered that there was a significant reduction in the ex-vivo pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine response due to meditation in ice-water immersion accompanied by high cortisol levels. Whereas during the endotoxemia experiment, meditation resulted in increased plasma and cortisol concentrations.
This concentration was higher than all previous participants of the experiment. Wim’s in-vivo cytokine response and clinical symptoms following LPS treatment were impressively low as well when compared to the previous participants.
Keeping in view the above series of experiments, it was therefore concluded that the Wim Hof Method seemed to evoke a controlled response. Following a cortisol release, sympathetic nervous system activity characterized this response, suppressing the innate immune response.
About the Participant
A 51-year-old Dutchman holds multiple world records for cold tolerance. Among them is the fastest half marathon barefooted on ice and the longest time fully immersed in ice for an hour and fifty minutes.
This guy claims to be able to accomplish these amazing feats by using a particular meditation approach. He claims to be able to control both his autonomic nervous system and immunological response.
This is why a series of three investigations on this person was conducted. The experiments focused on the effects of his concentration approach on the autonomic nervous system and the innate immune response in both ex-vivo and in-vivo settings.
Modulation of the ANS and the Innate Immune Response
Even though the innate immune system is essential for human survival, an overactive immune response can cause harm to tissues and organs. As a result, reducing the innate immune response may help to lessen disease severity and improve outcomes.
Cortisol activation of A2-adrenoreceptors by the sympathetic nervous system has traditionally been regarded as reducing systemic inflammation. Furthermore, higher catecholamine levels are frequently accompanied by an increase in cortisol levels.
A2-adrenoreceptors are a type of G-protein. G-proteins are a protein family serving as molecular switches within cells. They send signals from a wide range of external stimuli to the cell’s interior.
Cortisol is a well-known immuno-depressant released in response to stress. It is a steroid produced by the adrenal glands. Its receptors can be found in almost all body cells.
Recent studies have also shown that the parasympathetic nervous system can also modulate the innate immune response. This accounts for the fact that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve significantly reduces the inflammatory responses in animals.
Macrophages are phagocytic cells that are either stationary inside a tissue or present as mobile white blood cell in the body. In macrophages, vagus nerve signaling has two effects.
The cholinergic nervous system is a component of the central nervous system. The cholinergic signals that the immune cells generate trigger the onset and termination of cytokine production.
In addition to suppressing cytokine release, the cholinergic nervous system promotes macrophage phagocytosis of microorganisms. This means that the microorganisms will be eliminated through the process of phagocytosis or cell eating.
The spleen has also been linked to the anti-inflammatory cholinergic system, albeit the underlying mechanism remains unknown. The celiac-superior mesenteric plexus ganglia and the splenic nerve transmit messages from the central nervous system to the immune system in the spleen through the vagus nerve. However, the requirement of nicotine acetylcholine receptor α7 is still unclear.
The celiac plexus is a selection of nerve fibers located just beneath the diaphragm’s aortic gap, and the celiac superior mesenteric plexus ganglia is a part of it. The splenic nerve serves as the functional inhibitor of vagus nerve stimulation.
The parasympathetic nervous system structure comprises negative feedback to the immune system and a pathogen detection mechanism. The negative feedback mechanism is activated after the pathogen has been eliminated from the system.
The autonomic nerve system (ANS) is widely thought to be a mechanism that cannot be changed voluntarily. Several recent studies, however, reveal that autonomic activity can be modulated using specific concentration strategies.
The autonomic nervous system has been found to decrease the inflammatory response throughout many experimental settings. Activating the autonomic nervous system in this way may help to alleviate inflammation-related disorders and prevent consequences.
What is a Controlled Response?
Numerous regulatory systems are triggered at all degrees to avoid an excessive inflammatory response. Several anti-inflammatory mediators, such as cytokines, neuromodulators, hormones, and stress chemicals, make up the so-called “anti-inflammatory response.”
The anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-10 and transforming growth factor- are the most well-known. The “compensatory anti-inflammatory response syndrome” refers to combining these counter-regulatory pathways in response to significant injury or disease (CARS).
CARS was once thought to be a universal immune system inactivation caused by systemic inflammatory response syndrome. However, new evidence suggests that a resetting of leucocytes leads to regulation to limit excessive inflammation in response to infection and damage.
The sequence of Experiments Performed
Concentration practices may impact inflammatory indicators because of the ANS’s impacts on the innate immune system. Ex-vivo evidence supports this concept; however, in-vivo evidence is still yet to be discovered.
Following were the experimental stages that Wim underwent:
Experiment #1: Concentration Techniques’ Practice with Ice Immersion
The impact of concentration techniques while ice immersion on plasma cortisol concentrations and cytokine production of ex-vivo activated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PMBCs) and macrophages were investigated in the first study. Cortisol levels were somewhat elevated thirty minutes at the beginning of meditation, before the cold exposure. They escalated to significantly higher levels following the ice bath phase, after which they declined.
Ex-vivo stimulated PBMCs collected after ice immersion produced much less pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines than PBMCs acquired previously. This impact was detected after excitation with LPS and other heat-killed microorganisms like Candida albicans and Staphylococcus aureus. A remarkably similar pattern was found in monocyte-derived macrophage cultures activated with LPS six days after the cold bath.
Experiment #2: Concentration Techniques’ Practice without Ice Immersion
The consequences of meditation without immersion on catecholamine levels, plasma cortisol, heart rate variability, electroencephalography, and ex-vivo stimulated PBMC and macrophage cytokine production were all investigated. Following results were derived:
- Meditation had no effects on cortisol or norepinephrine levels.
- Plasma epinephrine concentration increased.
- Total spectral power had increased, according to HRV research, but no effects on autonomic balance were found.
- Ex-vivo activation of PBMCs or macrophages demonstrated that meditation did not influence cytokine production.
Experiment #3: Concentration amidst Human Endotoxemia
The concentration practice impact on autonomic activity, electroencephalography, and the in-vivo innate immune response under experimental human endotoxemia was studied in the last trial.
The endotoxemia test in Wim’s cytokine, hemodynamic, temperature, and sickness score outcomes was contrasted to a past group of a hundred and twelve healthy male subjects.
These individuals volunteered in human endotoxemia studies in the same institute, and so followed the same regimen. Listed below are the results of the experiment:
- The LPS administration in Wim Hof resulted in him reporting a mild headache for ten minutes at T=1.5. This is the time point where the illness score usually peaks. This, therefore, yielded a symptom score of 1 as compared to a symptom score of 6.6.
The symptom score can be used as an initial assessment tool because it has statistical significance in test outcomes. Only one among the hundred and twelve people in the reference category had the same low symptom score as the study participant.
- Plasma cortisol concentrations during LPS administration were comparable to those measured in the subset of the reference category. The research participant’s elevation in cortisol following LPS dose was substantially more pronounced than in the study population.
- Following meditation, plasma norepinephrine and epinephrine levels surged before gradually returning to normal.
- There was no significant impact of meditation on HRV indicators other than an initial rise in total spectral power and SD of all typical R-R intervals. SD is the time domain correlative of absolute spectral power. Moreover, the common decline in HRV indicators following LPS treatment was seen in the participant to a fair extent as in a participant of the reference category when HRV was measured.
- Amidst the meditation session, the subject moved around a lot, which caused the muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) electrodes to dislocate. As a result, only a credible baseline measurement was generated before the commencement of the meditation session, as follows:
- Total MSNA was 28.3 bursts per minute.
- Frequency-corrected MSNA was 47.5 bursts per 100 beats, which is equivalent to what has previously been observed in people at rest.
- The person’s plasma levels of inflammatory cytokines were extraordinarily low after exposure to LPS.
In conclusion, ice immersion meditation contributed to higher cortisol levels and inhibited cytokine production ex-vivo. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that meditation amid clinical endotoxemia resulted in significant levels of norepinephrine and cortisol, as well as a surprisingly modest innate immune response in vivo.
The minimal consequences of meditation techniques in the absence of external stimulation, as seen in Experiment #2, indicate that an external stimulus is required for optimal concentration.
This could be anything such as an ice bath or LPS administration. These findings imply that this specific concentration approach triggers a stress reaction between sympathetic nervous system activation and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation.
The HPA axis is central to different responses. Among those lies stress response as well.
As previously stated, catecholamines and cortisol are well-known immunosuppressants. Cortisol concentrations have been seen to elevate after LPS treatment in the past.
However, baseline cortisol concentrations in the endotoxemia study were equivalent to those in previously investigated healthy subjects. So the LPS-induced rise was more remarkable in the present subject than in any of the previously tested people.
The striking differences in ex-vivo cytokine reactions between leukocytes stimulated before and up to six days after ice exposure could be attributed to a particular fact. This was that the cells obtained after ice immersion had been exposed to high cortisol or catecholamine levels longer than the cells obtained earlier.
Meditation has been related to a decrease in stress and catecholamine levels. These differences in outcomes compared to this study could be highlighted because other investigations looked at the long-term consequences of meditation in contrast to this one.
Additionally, this Wim Hof’s concentration approach differs significantly from that used in further analyses. These observations could be comparable with research looking at the impact of acute stress on inflammatory reactions, depending on the person’s meditation approach. Individuals who were subjected to standardized laboratory stressors had higher cortisol and norepinephrine levels.
Finally, the Wim Hof Method appears to produce a consciously managed stress response. This response can be defined by sympathetic nervous system activation and associated cortisol secretion. The innate immune response appears to be suppressed as a result of this reaction.
After this study Wim claimed that he can teach others how to use this approach. As a result, more research is needed to see if the results gained can be replicated in bigger groups of people.
What were the Drawbacks?
The study in question has several flaws. To begin with, they detail a series of investigations on a single person, making it difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the ANS and the innate immune response.
Case studies with notable findings, on the other hand, might provide helpful information and help generate hypotheses for future research. The lack of an extra endotoxemia test in which the participant did not use his meditation technique also limits this study.
Lastly, the subject is far older than the 112 healthy subjects who served as a control group. Since an older age is correlated with a much more dramatic cytokine response throughout endotoxemia, age does not appear to be a factor in the person’s low cytokine levels.
- Kox M, Stoffels M, Smeekens SP, van Alfen N, Gomes M, Eijsvogels TM, Hopman MT, van der Hoeven JG, Netea MG, Pickkers P. The influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response: a case study. Psychosom Med. 2012 Jun;74(5):489-94. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182583c6d. PMID: 22685240.