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Can breathwork improve your health?

Have you ever heard of “hormesis”? According to The Journal of Applied Physiology, “hormesis is the idea that low levels of stress stimulate existing cellular and molecular pathways such that the capacity of the organism to withstand greater stress is increased”.

This is why we go to the gym to exercise. We put stress on our muscles to get stronger and on our cardiovascular systems to be able to run or bike more efficiently and recover faster. The same concepts apply to intermittent fasting and time restricted eating. We “exercise our minds” so we get better at thinking and problem solving. But what about breathing? What if we “blew off our carbon dioxide” and hyperventilated to “super oxygenate” our system? What impact might that have?

Breathing and “breathwork” has long been considered to be the link between our conscious and unconscious minds. Breathing also serves as a vital connection between our autonomic nervous system and our somatic nervous system. Think of the autonomic as the “automatic” things that happen in our bodies like our hearts beating and our stomachs digesting. The somatic nervous system involves those things with intention like walking and talking, standing up and sitting down. These are things you decide or intend to do. Breathing is an activity that is BOTH automatic and intentional.

You can hold your breath and change the speed or depth of your breathing just by intending to do so. You can “impose your will” over your breathing. So, what implications does this have with hormesis? What impact does “breathwork” have on our physiology in the short term and long term?

According to Wim Hof (AKA “The Iceman”), breathing in particular ways has a positive impact on our physiology and allows us to perform otherwise phenomenal feats. He has used breathing to activate his immune system, reduce inflammation, avoid altitude sickness, and perform athletic feats requiring prolonged breath holding.

Having recently dealt with COVID-19 and a wide range of responses to infection we all witnessed, as well as the controversy over vaccination, the ability to influence the immune system is undoubtedly of interest to many people. Wim Hof claims you can influence your immune system — and science supports Wim’s claims!

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2014, “While it has long been held the autonomic nervous system and the innate immune system cannot be voluntarily influenced,” subjects were able to consistently influence their immune systems. Specifically, they reduced inflammatory cytokines (TNF-α, IL-6, and IL-8) and increased an anti-inflammatory cytokine (IL-10). The end result was less inflammation, quicker return to baseline, and fewer symptoms of illness upon the introduction of a bacterial pathogen in the e-coli family.

In addition to acute illnesses like COVID-19, the influences described would also be very helpful in the management of autoimmune disorders including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, MS, and Sjogren’s Syndrome to name a few. Improvements in leptin levels were also noted in those who were trained in Wim Hof’s methods suggeting these techniques could be useful in weight management, as well.

What exactly is “Wim Hof Breathing”? It is a series of deep inhalations and releases followed by prolonged breath holding upon the last expiration of the sequence. Beginners typically do 20-25 deep breaths and release at two to five second intervals followed by breath holding of one to two minutes. This is usually done in three rounds for beginners and takes about 10-12 minutes total. You can search online and find videos demonstrating the method for beginners and more advanced students. Wim has a website and app if you would like to do a deeper dive into his methods.

Wim Hof’s methods also involve cold exposure which can be as simple as turning your faucet to cold for the last few minutes of your shower. The first time you try this you will likely panic and jump back or turn the shower off! It does get easier, and the first 12-20 seconds are the hardest. From there you can progress to cold plunges in ice water or even go visit Wim in Poland and join one of his retreats to train firsthand in the method. It’s on my bucket list!

The bottom line is, this is a simple method that requires no equipment and little time to make a huge difference in many acute and chronic illness states. All it requires is intention and commitment to get it done regularly!

Michael Buyze, L.Ac. is a healthcare entrepreneur and visionary who has over 40 years of healthcare experience with expertise in acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, functional medicine, clinical exercise physiology, and nutrition. He owns and operates East Wind Healthcare, an acupuncture and wellness clinic with a 24-year history of helping people in the Fox Valley with offices in Appleton, Oshkosh, and Fond du Lac. He holds Master of Science Degrees in Chinese Medicine, Business Administration and Exercise Physiology. He and his team offer acupuncture as well as wellness programming for acute and chronic pain, fertility, autoimmune and many other chronic disease states. Acupuncture consultations and wellness consultations are available by appointment. Contact information: East Wind Healthcare, 3000 N Ballard Road, Unit#3, Appleton, WI 54911; 404 N. Main St., Suite 201, Oshkosh, WI 54901 and 180 Knights Way, Fond du Lac WI 54935 (inside Forum Health); Tel: 920-997-0511; Website:

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