Leonardo Pelagotti, June 2017, Paris
What: This 15 minutes read article wants to give a summary of the book “What doesn't kill us” by Scott Carney, a book that ultimately tells us how everyone is capable of becoming more human.
Why: Because this book is full of great content and I advise everyone to read it. The article is intended as a teaser of the book for people who don’t have much spare time.
Who: I am neither a journalist neither a native English speaker. I have been practicing the WHM since 2016 and the new dawn that this method generated inside of me led me to the way of training for becoming a WHM Instructor.
The book by Scott Carney, “What doesn't kill us” puts into sense many words and concepts that I have been getting in contact with during my Wim Hof Method (WHM) adventure. Scott Carney analyses the WHM from biological, mental and cultural angles. He interviewed people around the world to seek what other evidence exists around the science behind this method. He got testimonies of people whose life was saved by it and presents its own 4 years journey to critically analyze what the WHM was bringing to his body and his life, always under an inquisitive and questioning lense.
As for me, my journey with the WHM starts in 2016 by chance, after a friend passed me a book entitled “Becoming the Iceman”. At first reticent, this book made me curious about a 10 weeks course that Dutchman Wim Hof offered online at a very low cost. This course happened to revolutionize my life and led me to a Workshop to meet Wim in person in Barcelona and to enroll for the Instructor Advanced module in the Netherlands, this summer 2017. One of the reason I started the course, was the promised short terms results in improving my immune system and getting me as healthy as never before. As someone that was often ill, I was intrigued and excited to know more. The method sounded relatively simple: breathing exercises, mindset commitment (coupled with some yoga) and regular cold exposure. Somehow all resonated to me from day one and Wim looked as truly genuine. I had nothing to lose to try the online course and here I am, not regretting a single penny and moment I invested into it.
The 13 Chapters
It seems that to rediscover our primordial powers we need to step out of comfort and experience some sort of physical or mental pain. But we are used to be comfortable in our technological world. The good news is that we can get rid of comfort and find new powers. Adaptation in humans is a fast process (both to comfort and discomfort).
The question the book answers is: “How dependence on technology made us weak? , What power did our ancestors have that we have lost? It is possible to get it back?”
An answer could be provided by the Wim Hof Method and the cold.
Scott Carney does not like to suffer, nor to be cold, wet, hungry, fatigued. Yet he has a burning desire to dig deeper into his own limits and discover what’s all about the WHM.
According to Freud’s Pleasure Principle, we seek comfort due to our animal nature to look for a reward for our ancestral battle against the world around us. It was pleasure the motivation to overcome challenges and pass on to the next generation our genes.
Our anatomic body is pretty much the same of the one of a caveman 200.000 years ago, hunting for antelopes with spears, running barefoot and fighting the extreme heat of the Savannah. Today we use it to spend all day sitting at a desk in a thermally regulated office.
Until very recently (evolutionary speaking), comfort did not come for granted. Then in the early 1900s, our technological progress became so powerful that it broke the fundamental biological link to the world around us (see Main message 1 at the bottom of the article).
The comfort Golden Age comes at a cost. It means no stress from the environment and we are overstuffed and under stimulated (see Main Message 5). Our challenges today are not finding food, rescue or fighting for life. They are finding a job or a good retirement plan, posting the right social media update. This can lead the body to the disease of excess: obesity, diabetes, chronic pain and hypertension. The auto-immune diseases like arthritis, allergy, eczema, Chron and Parkinson are recently exponentially rising. The body attacks itself. (see Main message 2 and 5).
In history, spartans were wearing only a cloak and no shoes year round, monks in China and Tibet had only their robes and meditation to protect them in the highest mountains, Siberians were pouring cold water on them everyday to fight illness and infection.
The most powerful environmental stress is the cold. It trains the cardiovascular system and the mind. A narrow temperature range for living instead weakens the circulatory muscles and ultimately also our mind.
We need to re-examine our relationship with the environment. Changing the environment around us can change us. Manipulating the external environment can trigger certain responses that are programmed in our biology. If this is intentionally done, we give the automation a certain consciousness. We take control of our body in a journey to unlock our own biology. (see Main Message 3).
The environmental stimulus is so much missing to our everyday lives that we need obstacle races and continuous challenges to feel alive. Just taking a cold shower all this become more clear. (I challenge you to have your next shower, a cold shower) This is the type of stimulus we are all missing.
Scott first meeting with Wim Hof in Poland was for him to de-mask a fake Guru. He was enrolled to do Wim’s training course (breathing, hours in snow, climb iced mountains in shorts).
After doing, with one breath, more than double the number of pushups he was normally doing with all his possible strength, Scott started reconsidering Wim Hof and his training.
Wim Hof is a difficult figure to dissect: a New Age universe of compassion, connected to divine energies for a world peace. Then of course there are the astonishing results, feats and endurance. Scott did not think it was possible, but what he learned during his training is that without an open mind the cold will never be a friend and progression in general will not happen.
Wim puts his students through cycles of sauna and cold snow baths to experience vasodilatation and vasoconstriction respectively. Hof technique is in fact based on controlling vasoconstriction/vasodilatation, have mind focus and concentration and stimulate body heat production (via Brown Fat activation, see Chapter 2).
Wim Hof showed to the scientific community that not only he is able to consciously control his body heat generation but also his immune system. He did that during the famous Radboud University Medical Center experiment by Kox, M. et al. 2014.
The method he teaches Scott is so powerful, that just after a week, Scott climbs a mountain (Mount Snezka) in sub-zero temperature shirtless. So Scott decides to understand more about what happened to him during this training. Did he already unlock his hidden evolutionary strength or just risked hypothermia? Was he actually stronger or he just was thinking stronger? His research about a human in a first place begins.
Evolution took advantage of mutations over the course of incremental biological changes: the gift of absolute pitch, super taste, natural navigation and sense of direction, the ability to see 100 million colours.. these are just fews of the abilities some among us have thanks to human evolution.
But culture and technology can overtake our biology if we don't use and train our innate abilities. We become entirely dependent on external aid and resources.
For example how many of us know the “Master switch of life”? This is simply the body's reaction to decrease immediately the heart rate when cold water touches our face.
Nowadays we live in a narrow band of homeostasis and unlocking our biological responses happens only by chance. Who knows how many “dormant superpowers” may lie within us? No more “wild” human today to see what is capable of.
Let's imagine for a second the profound effect that technology had on human form. For example the discovery of fire that let us cook food and changed the position of our teeth and ultimately our brain size.
Or brown adipose tissue (BAT) that before was keeping our ancestors warm thanks to thermogenesis and that today is just present in newborn babies.
But scientists showed recently that BAT can be generated in our body thanks to regular cold exposure. BAT also come and go with seasons.
The body also has 4 strategies to keep warm:
- Shivering to increase metabolic rate
- Shunt blood to core and close-out extremities
- White fat insulation
- BAT thermogenesis
Today we live in a bubble of technology and we are not able nor conscious to adapt to the external conditions. We need more “metabolic winters”, periods where the body adjusts to scarcity and discomfort between times of plenty.
And today, in the last 100 years, we also solved the two biggest challenges of the past: cold and calories scarcity. Our body shocks to this sudden change and obesity and chronic diseases are rising.
Let's look at our pets: they also suffer like their sedentary owners of this same “ evolutionary mismatch disease”
We need to reintroduce seasons back into our lives.
Scott meets with an exercise physiologist to plan tracking his physiology as he undertakes the WHM for 6 months continuously and regularly for a total of 3-4 hours a week.
How does the body stores and uses energy during physical exercise? Is it mainly running on carbohydrates or fat?
During these 6 months Scott also introduces environment training in his life: temperature variation and in touch with the seasons.
Sneezing is one of our most primordial reflexive pathways. But who decides to make his sneezing need to stop, just like that it will. With the cold feeling it is the same.
This mental trick is the first step of taking control over the autonomic nervous system. Delaying a sneeze is a wedge between autonomic and somatic nervous system at the point an environmental stimulus meets an innate response.
We can experience a wedge for the cold, when we hold a breath, delay an orgasm, stop feeling ticklish. A window into the roots of human power, the “Master-switch” where the body meets the mind.
Any pre-programmed physical response is potentially susceptible to the wedge effect if it has the 3 following features :
1) clearly identifiable external stimulus
2) the stimulus triggers a predictable autonomic biological response
3) the response/reflex/feeling/sensation produced can be visualized independently of the external trigger
(to try a wedge effect, set up an external stimulus and resist the sensation that it triggers)
The training can start with the most primordial human reflex: the urge to breathe. Breathwork is the very first step. The body cannot detect the lack of oxygen but only building up of CO2. Releasing CO2 can replace a bit the need of breathing fresh air.
Here's a list of some breathwork to start with, to find the meeting point between body and mind and get trained to gain consciousness of our biological body:
- Basic breath-hold: doing 30 deep breaths we have CO2 reduction and O2 saturation. The breathing resembles a controlled hyperventilation, and we can feel dizzy and tingling.
- Power push-ups: after 3 rounds of basic breath-hold breathing, do a last round of 40 breaths, hold breath-out and do as many push-ups. You will probably do most push-ups you have ever done, and with empty-lungs! This is the most effective system to crack into the nervous system.
- Power breathing : after a breath-out apnea there are two methods to extend the limit: either let what is left of the air out or apply the same method also used to control vasoconstriction. The method consists of rolling a set of muscles contractions from feet to head. At the end breath-in and hold 10-15 seconds. (Hof says that after 3 minutes of breath-out holding, we have cracked into the sympathetic nervous system that control the fight-or-flight response).
- Visualization/meditation: shut down lower brain functions and focus only on one thing, the light point in between the eyes and the forehead. Notice how the body feels.
These activities can prime the nervous system for ceding some control to the conscious mind. Now this needs to be combined with an environmental trigger to access autonomic responses that we usually have no access to.
Cold exposure at the beginning hurts and gives the body a shock. See how your body responds. You have two objectives: breathe and keep calm, relax and suppress the impulse to shiver. The goal is to command the nervous system to submit to your will.
- Active conditioning: workout in an environmental extreme or another (for example a run outside in the cold shirtless)
- BAT activation: one week of cold training is enough to get some BAT in the body that can have an influence in the body heat generation. With training we can learn to activate BAT on command. The method is similar as for the power breathing: clench your muscles and hands and work your way up to the head. Focus on the point behind the ears and try to pinch this area with muscles contractions.
Obstacle Course Races are an example of environment to trigger the autonomic response and an occasion to train the fight-or-flight response and strength the sympathetic nervous system.
Every obstacle is both physical and physiological. The high from adrenaline is total.
Example: find a challenge that makes you overcame by an animal impulse for survival, so strong that can make you forget who you are. Try to condition your answer to the environment so that can be, over time, actioned at will.
Laird Hamilton, greatest big wave surfer of all times, does the WHM breathing technique everyday. He developed a training program that integrates this breathing.
Scott participates into Laird’s boot camp XPT (Extreme Pool Training), doing breath hold exercises underwater in company of Orlando Bloom and finishing with enhanced ice baths with forced circulation of water.
Hamilton says that the ability to control his body temperature in water while surfing is half the reason he has any success riding big waves (the other half is probably linked to his humble character, his connection with nature and his timeless regard to surfing).
Cold and waves are equivalent forces of nature for Laird Hamilton.
Laird modified the breathing to achieve more athletic performance. He uses to compensate the increase of oxygen demand at higher heart rates when training. The plan is to breathe throughout the workout and from the beginning to never go in oxygen deficit. He starts breathing long before needed so to anticipate the body need of oxygen and enhance performance.
Laird alternates breath-out exercises with breath-in to respectively act on sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic nervous system (relax rest-and-digest).
In India similar breathing techniques exist in Sanskrit Pranayama and in China the Qi in Mandarin. Breath control can in fact lead to spiritual insight (see Main message 6).
BAT fat-sucking properties generate heat when cold (uses UCP1 protein) via non-shivering thermogenesis. BAT is an example of how the environment changes the body and alters its biological responses.
The body can be studied under a thermodynamic-lense: when there is too much energy in a system, then the system starts to malfunction. There are 3 ways to fix it:
1)Reduce the overall amount of energy
2)Decrease the body's efficiency in absorbing energy
3)Increase the rate of energy consumption (cold and physical exercise)
An example: Cold can reverse in weeks the symptoms of diabetes.
Another example is the second experiment of Pickkers and Kox at the Radboud University to test Wim Hof Method and look on the link between nervous and immune system. 10 days of training in Poland for a group of students, with ice baths and breathing and focused third eye meditation where enough to show to the scientific community that the brain and the body are not so different after all (see Main Message 12). Both have an interaction with the lymphatic system (the immune system).
And we knew it all along! A person in good spirit and environmental balance is getting an immune benefit and it is healthy. With psychological stress people are being worn down and develop immune problems.
After almost 4 years of first meeting with Wim Hof in Poland, Scott motivation needs a boost to continue practicing regularly and so he books a ticket to Holland training center. After his journey of meeting impressive athletes who claim the WHM pushes them to the new level, now he wants to find that level on its own. What best than Wim’s imminent expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro? The expedition will take a group of people on the top of the mountain in 30 hours with no previous acclimatization. The breathing technique can be applied long term for people that have been practicing regularly and this will reduce the symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness).
Various testimonies exist about the long term and short term benefit and results of the WHM on sick people health. Scott investigate a few and report how some people had their life back thanks to breathing and the cold. Especially the WHM can be effective against autoimmune disease.
It is the case for dutch Hans Spaans that learned how to fight back Parkinson in the last years thanks to regular WHM practice in his daily life, drastically reducing his drug consumption.
How Hans Emmink with Crohn’s disease, started feeling better from day one of using the Wim Hof Method and dropped his steroid medicines.
Or the case of Kasper van der Mulen that had the fastest recovery after a break bone injury thanks to daily long practice of Wim’s breathing technique.
Or how even the skeptic at first (he changed his mind after the power push-ups exercise) Henk van der Bergh got back is life as a blacksmith after winning rheumatoid arthritis chronic pain and inflammation.
These are examples of people that had their lives depending on it, and therefore practiced the WHM at the most of their abilities. It became the routine that saved their life.
In this chapter Scott explains how he experienced his VO2 max during the HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout developed by Brian MacKenzie, who also happens to be a keen follower of Wim Hof. One of the first developer of the HIIT, Brian created some HIIT workout regimes that bring you to exhaustion in short sets of intense exercise. He pushes you outside of your athletic comfort zone for a minute, something that is worth it about 45 minutes of standard training inside the athlete comfort zone. Then he couples this with Hof’s breathing and intervals the workout sets with ice cold baths.Wim’s breathing can artificially boost short term aerobic endurance and the cold soothes muscles for a faster recovery.
Or the future of training could also be a simple fitness pact between friends of training hard early in the morning and outdoor no matter the weather conditions. This is what happened with the November Project of Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham. They committed once a week for a 6:30am outside workout all year round. The human body is made for it and it is good to remember it thanks to some environmental stimulus. The November Project does it because it is fun but our ancestors did it for survival.
But we need to be aware that each person has his own limits that should be listened to. The price can be too high otherwise. People like Wim Hof, Laird Hamilton, Brian MacKenzie and the November Project, know when to pull back far before a fatal toll. But to truly know our limits we have to explore them.
What the Napoleon Grande Armée expedition to Russia and Hitler blitzkrieg from Poland to Moscow have in common? They both miserably failed and succumbed to nature. The cold won the war.
Back in those days, surgeon Beaupré, noted something that he later referred to as “Vital Principle”, or the body’s ability to generate warmth and resist to the environment (see main message 10). It was who abandoned himself to discouragement attitude that died.
Today the military is doing researches on whatever reserves the human body hides to face extreme conditions. They want to know where sits the gap between tolerable suffering and certain death. Castellani, researcher at USARIEM, arrived at the conclusion that the quickest way to change the body is to work in the environment (see Main message 11). The stress from the workout is the wedge that speeds an array of physiological changes and let us look deeper at the levels of mind-body connections.
Scott really wants to try it for himself and heads up to England OCR named Tough Guy, the hardest of all. (Knowing it from my own personal experience in 2015, the 10 miles 200 obstacles race in sub-zero temperatures, is not something not to take seriously). But Scott, thanks to the WHM training, not only finishes the course shirtless, but he does it with a great smile from start-to-end.
He rediscover what he really is and emerges a different person. Like the WHM, this OCR gives people a mean of re-birth.
Tough Guy was for Scott Carney just a test. Now it is Mount Kilimanjaro. With a good dose of nervousness he prepares the shirtless climb in just 30 hours to the top with the rest of the group led by Wim. This will set a new record in the fastest ascent to Kilimanjaro.
The WHM breathing technique is the group best alley to keep their oxygen saturation high and combat the symptoms of AMS. The rapid breathing compensates the lack of O2 with altitude. Breathing more, breathing consciously all the way up.
The real fight is against himself, not the mountain. The WHM can teach a person to take control over their fight-or-flight response but not to be invincible to the elements. In the battle against nature, nature always wins.
Focusing on their breathing a part of the group (Scott, Hof and Bernaerts) climbs the mountain (not without some people to go back because of AMS) in just 28 hours and the rest in 30 hours (22 people). During the ascent Scott notices how the group can influence one people to get cold (or stay warm). At one point they are all forced to put on all the clothes they have to face strong wind, rain and snow. This to avoid the inevitable. But when they reach the top of the mountain they are shirtless. Instead thinking warm thoughts, like a fire burning inside our belly, can give us faith and keep us warm.
After years of working on his biology, a step after another, Scott climbed the mountain. He did what he would have thought impossible 4 years before. He now knows about its limits.
6 months after his first test at Boulder Centre for Sport Medicine with Rob Pickels, Carney does the test again. Now he has 6 months of regular practice of WHM everyday on his shoulders.
It is therefore not a surprise to know that he outperform largely the results of 6 months before. He discovers how his body learned to burn fat instead that carbohydrates during physical activity and can therefore push much farther. (See main messages 12 and 13).
The book 13 Main Messages
To reformulate the chapters content here is the list of what I believe to be the book's main messages:
1) To re-discover the primordial powers within us we need to get rid of comfort and step in discomfort. Technology, that we believe our greatest strength, is ultimately making us comfortably weak.
2) The body we have today as humans is coming from 6 million years of evolution. It is capable of so much more than we think. Environmental stress (cold, heat, hunger, etc..) can bring back some evolutionary vigor.
3) If we embrace the way our body respond to natural world, we can unlock our inner animal strength. There is a hidden biology in our body. We need to attempt to unlock it. The cold can let us do it.
4) Health has 3 pillars: diet, exercise and environmental stimulus.
5) Without stimulation the inner physiology responses that were, trough evolution, designed to fight environmental challenges, can turn against us (for example autoimmune diseases). Reintroducing environmental stress will make us more balanced and we will not see our bodies fight themselves.
6) There is something called the “Vital Principle “in human life: physical limits are not necessarily the most critical factor in determining someone ability to survive (cold, starvation, diseases, etc..). It is the mindset.
7) The quickest way to change the body so that it can withstand a new environment, is by working in it.
8) Humans are not just bounded by the limit of their skin. They are part of the environment they inhabit.
9) Our nervous system crave connection to the world we evolved in. Humans were not built for constant homeostasis.
10) We can all become more human. Cold can be our teacher. Cold is the same as an emotion.
11) Breathing lets you go deep within yourself.
12) The scientific community recognised that there is a link between the sympathetic nervous system and the immune system.
13) The WHM is a larger desire to live well.
This journey of rediscovering the human body and mind limits is very fascinating. Understanding our biology, living the cold and the environment around us. What will I do now? Will I take a similar journey as Scott did or will I just succumb to comfort? What about you?