Wim Hof Method

Women’s Empowerment

The Many Benefits of the Wim Hof Method explained by Dr. Mirja Effing

by | Mar 5, 2023 | Wim Hof Method

This article originally appeared on my podcast, Transforming Matters. Listen to it here:

Dr. Mirja Effing opened the first functional clinic in Germany roughly one year ago, during the crux of COVID-19. She treats a wide variety of patients, including outpatient patients who come for their overall health and well-being, as well as patients who have been referred with diagnosis and symptoms and who come for intense treatment. In these cases they come to her clinic where they can concentrate on their healing away from their busy lives and responsibilities. Dr Mirja Effing explains that what her clinic offers and what it looks like is different. Although she offers medical treatment, the clinic itself looks more like a hotel; with a sauna, swimming pool, individualized rooms, and healthy delicious food. 

After reading about the Wim Hof Method, and hearing from a patient about his experience at a Wim Hof Retreat with Michael Nuss and Rachel Babaganov in the Allgau, Dr. Mirja Effing decided she wanted to try the method out for herself to see what the hype was about.

The day before the retreat, tired from a week of work, she second guessed her decision of joining an outdoor retreat in the winter, thinking it could be better to spend the weekend cozy and warm indoors. Something kicked in, and she decided to push past her comfort zone. Along with her 10 year old son, she joined the retreat and ‘’she understood what it means to go beyond’’.

On Friday evening, she looked around and saw other ladies who were skeptical and afraid. Soon after, Michael instructed everyone to take off their sweaters and go outside in the snow. Dr. Mirja was ready to walk away. Michael said, just try to be with whatever comes up, and about five minutes later, she realized she was absolutely okay. After a weekend of breathwork, cold exposure, and pushing past her belief systems, she herself came to the conclusion that the Wim Hof Method is not only a good method to strengthen the immune system and the mitochondria, but also a tool which can be utilized in functional medicine. 

What do you think about the Wim Hof Method with Children?

“Kids know their limits,’’ especially when they live in cold climates, she says, ‘’but parents tell their kids to put on their jackets’’. 

“I always had this feeling that my kids knew when they had to put on their jackets, and I also had the feeling that my kids were the healthiest kids. On the other hand, I always felt like a bad parent telling my kids to not put a jacket on (in the winter). This weekend convinced me that I am totally right!’’ If you actually listen to yourself, Dr. Mirja explains, then you can slowly start to understand where your limits are. Kids are even more sensitive than adults so surely they can feel their limits.

When it came to the breathwork, she was a bit more cautious. She allowed her 10 year old son to experiment with the breathwork before they were to attend the weekend workshop. After he experimented with it, he told her he was comfortable and happy to do it. For Dr Mirja Effing, he believes that if a kid has the feeling for something, she can trust them fully. ‘’If we really give our kids the trust, then they give it back and just do what they can do’’. 

When I asked her son what he liked most about the Wim Hof Weekend, he explained, he mostly enjoyed the craziness of the adults, going barefoot in the snow, playing around, and not being told not to have fun and play! 

The Wim Hof Method and Long-Covid

Long Covid, explains Dr. Mirja Effing, is nothing new in functional medicine, but merely a normal phenomenon. When someone has a virus, infection or bacteria, the mitochondria, or power house of the body, starts to decrease and therefore you get tired. This natural process usually forces you to slow down, and rest, giving the immune system time and energy to heal instead of taking an ibuprofen and pushing through. Afterwards, when the immune system kills the bacteria or virus, the mitochondria recovers, and the person should feel healthy. 

With Long-Covid, Dr. Mirja Effing explains, the mitochondria does not recover. This occurs with viruses like Epstein Barr virus or Borreliosis (Lymes Disease). Dr. Mirja gave a lecture about this phenomenon, showcasing three women she treated, who after one infection ended up in wheelchairs due to this phenomenon. The truth is, she explains, that before Long-Covid this phenomenon was not as accepted, and therefore these people were believed to have psychological issues. Now, with long-Covid at the forefront, there is more awareness and social acceptance of these diseases.

She also believes that the Wim Hof Method can act as a way to strengthen the immune system for these people and help the mitochondria recover

Why does the mitochondria not increase and recover post infection?

Dr. Mitja explains that most people who do not recover, usually have or had other health conditions, for example: heavy metals, or high levels of stress.

For example, some patients with Long-Covid, who also had high levels of mercury from amalgams (dental fillings), have a harder time recovering, as the mercury already weakens the mitochondria.  Therefore, not only does she focus on the root, for example in this case by removing the amalgam, but also using the Wim Hof Method to help strengthen the mitochondria. 

So how does the Wim Hof Method support our Immune System?

She explains that the Wim Hof Method Breathwork, which I will now refer to as Breathwork, is a mixture of hyperoxia and hypoxia. What she finds to be the most interesting, is the state of hypoxia induced by the breathwork. In her clinic, she has an oxygen machine which brings people into a state of hyper and hypoxia over a period of 45 minutes – quite like the WHM.

In 2019, a Nobel Prize was given in medicine to the discovery Hypoxia-inducible 1-alpha also known as HIF-1-alpha. This finding showed that hypoxic states can be beneficial for the mitochondria. As a doctor, she was always taught to treat everything with oxygen, but this finding showed the many benefits of the hypoxic state.

So what is the benefit of the short hypoxic state (and changing to hyperoxic state) which we do in the Wim Hof method?

During hypoxia, HIF-1-alpha activates many genes. One of the effects of these genes is apoptosis, creating a cascade of effects in the body in which ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ mitochondria get eaten by ‘killer cells’, therefore allowing new and healthy mitochondria to be built. This is an extremely intelligent system of the body. 

  • In hypoxic states, the kidneys respond by secreting Erythropoietin. This glycoprotein cytokine is known to stimulate red blood cell production from the bone marrow and provide the body with more power.
  • Hypoxia also has been found to stimulate angiogenesis, or the forming of new blood vessels.
  • By stabilizing HIF-1-alpha, through hypoxia, this can also lead to glycolysis, which helps reduce fat by metabolizing glucose into energy.
  • Hypoxic states also create a short period of oxidative stress, which helps the body to build more antioxidants and get rid of inflammation, virus and bacteria.
  • In the embryo state the blood which flows from the mother to the embryo also changes from hyperoxia to hypoxia in order to clean the bad cells
  • The parasympathetic nervous system is activated which leads to a reduction in blood pressure, better sleep and deeper relaxation!

In some cases, people who have severe mitochondrial reduction, and severe fatigue, may first require the building blocks for the mitochondria, including omegas.

How long do you need to hold your breath in order to get these benefits?

‘’It doesn’t matter’’, says Dr. Mirja Effing.

Everyone has their limit, just listen and feel. Do not force it!

It is also not good to overdo this hypoxic state as that can also be damaging to the body. 

What about the adrenaline (and stress) which is being released during the Wim Hof Breathwork?

Dr. Mirja measured the vitals of a participant who attended the Wim Hof Method. She found out that during the breathwork:

  • The body swings between the sympathetic and parasympathetic state. 
  • After each sympathetic state, the parasympathetic state was higher. 
  • At the end of the breathing session this participant, who was very stressed at the beginning, was in a deeper state of relaxation.

Therefore, you need short sympathetic activation or ‘hormetic stress’ to enter a deeper parasympathetic state.

What about pregnant women practicing the Wim Hof Method?

Due to a lack of research, officially the Wim Hof Method advises against practicing the Wim Hof Method while pregnant. Dr. Mirja Effing says in her opinion and expertise, breathing is not the problem. What could be problematic, is the breath holds or hypoxic state, because the effects of hypoxia are unknown to an unborn baby. Deep mindful breathing on the other hand, can help maintain well-being during pregnancy.

What about the cold and mitochondria?

The cold activates something called the heat shock proteins. This activates the autophagy process, in which the body gets rid of old and weak mitochondria.

For very weak patients, cold exposure, unlike the breathwork, requires a lot of energy. For this reason, those who are in an acute illness should be mindful of cold exposure as autophagy occurs without the buildup of new mitochondria.

‘Kniep’ or mild cold therapy, (a treatment in Germany) where you expose only certain parts of the body to the cold, for example the feet or arms, could be a more milder treatment for these people. 

“The cold requires a lot of energy!’’

It can happen that you forget to drink water because of the cold, for example on 

Cold exposure hike. Drinking water and giving your body the proper building blocks for the mitochondria (omegas etc) are important for proper recovery from the cold. 

Listen to your body when it comes to cold exposure. Too much cold exposure can also be detrimental.

Dr. Mirja Effing, also suggests getting proper supplementation for mitochondria either from food or supplements. For example, ketones (from coconut oil), omega-3,  carnitine (amino acid), Coenzyme Q10, and minerals (zinc, selenium, magnesium) are the building blocks for healthy mitochondria.

If you feel tired after ice bathing, or find it difficult to warm up, then consider whether you are doing too much cold exposure or whether you need to supplement. As Wim Hof says, ‘’feeling is understanding’. The point is not to overdo it, but to use the cold as a tool to improve your health. 

Is there a difference if you are a woman practicing the Wim Hof Method?

Naturally, women have a different constitution than men. Body composition and size have a lot to do with cold perception. Women more often, are smaller than men, and have less muscle mass. Women also tend to have a lower metabolic rate, and therefore feel colder. Men and women also deal with stress differently.

Listen to your body, and the cues of your body. Slowly, you will begin to perceive how often and how much cold exposure works for you. For example, some women find that practicing cold exposure during their period leaves them feeling tired and cold. On the other hand, some find cold exposure to be the cure to their cramps.  Try it for yourself. Everybody is different. You need to become the ‘’captain of your own ship’’ – Wim Hof. 

Dr. Mirja Effing is an exceptional woman who studied medicine in Germany with a focus on Tibetan medicine. During her studies she spent time in Nepal and India, learning about alternative forms of therapy. After becoming a specialist in General medicine in the beautiful Alps of Germany, influenced by her time in Asia, she became more interested in alternative forms of healing.

She therefore focused her attention on functional medicine, which involves finding the direct cause of a disease and treating it accordingly. She has now opened a Health Center in the Allgau focusing on functional medicine. Services include fasting, burnout prevention, pain therapy, treatment for long Covid and so much more. Her son and her joined a Wim Hof Weekend Retreat in the Allgau in 2023 and the conversation kept going. We speak about the many benefits of the Wim Hof Method, including mitochondrial health, hypoxia and the benefits and cautions women should take when practicing the Wim Hof Method. She speaks about similar practices at her own clinic and considerations to optimize your practice and health.