Episode two of Netflix's The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow features Wim "The Iceman" Hof, a self-proclaimed healer whose main tactics are breathing and cold exposure. To prove his methods, Hof takes six Goop employees through a series of breathing exercises that culminate in "snowga" -- that's yoga in the snow -- and jumping into a near-freezing lake.
One woman who deals with extreme anxiety claims she hasn't had a panic attack since the plunge, while another describes how emotionally freeing the breathing exercises were.
It's true that the benefits of cold therapy are many -- quicker workout recovery, reduced inflammation and general pain relief, to name a few -- and they're backed up by decades of science that have tested the effects of the familiar ice bath.
More recently, trendy whole-body cryotherapy has ousted ice bathing as the most popular way to reap the benefits of cold temperatures, but there's a caveat: Most research on whole-body cryotherapy ends with "there is insufficient evidence" or points to ice baths as being just as, if not more, effective.
So why would you expose yourself to below-freezing temperatures when the standard 50-59-degree temperature of an ice bath is known to work just as well?
According to Hof, baring your body to wickedly cold temperatures can teach you to better withstand the stressors of everyday life and generally make you a healthier, happier, stronger human.
As someone who has studied and written about cold therapy before, I was prepared for some pretty outlandish claims in Goop's Cold Comfort episode. I certainly got what I expected, but I was also confronted with some research that shockingly proves Hof (mostly) legitimate.
The Goop Lab episode 2: Cold Comfort
The episode opens up with a panorama over a wintry Lake Tahoe, landing on Hof pulling a thermometer from the water and reading its chilly temp out loud: 7 degrees Celsius; 44 degrees Fahrenheit. "You cannot just jump in," Hof explains. "This is dangerous," going on to say that a human wouldn't last long and "would go into involuntary gasping."
But apparently, when trained with the right breathing techniques, anyone can enter the water and get benefits like mental clarity, a strengthened immune system, reduced anxiety and more -- which is why six Goop staff members opt to undertake Hof's cold therapy activities.
Hof teaches the six Goopers how to enter the water safely. He does this by showing them a breathing technique he developed -- which is essentially intentional hyperventilation -- that purportedly allows you to control your autonomic nervous system.
By the end of the episode, all six previously nervous Goop employees jump into a 38-degree Lake Tahoe and easily swim their way to shore. Afterward, everyone discusses how surprisingly easy it was -- and having had my fair share of cold-water swims, I know that it usually feels like your limbs lock up and you're going to drown.
So despite the eyebrow-raising claims (read: breathing can give you the ability to consciously control an unconscious part of your nervous system), Cold Comfort is worth exploring.
Goop Lab's claims about breathing and cold exposure
Hof's method includes two main components: breathing exercises and cold exposure. His main claims include that:
- Through breathing, you can control your autonomic nervous system and improve both your mental and physical health, increasing your ability to fend off stress, anxiety and illnesses.
- Breathing can increase your body's pH, making it more alkaline, which Hof says is necessary for withstanding extreme cold.
- Cold therapy can make you stronger overall, both mentally and physically, by teaching you to work through something uncomfortable.
What does the science say?
Of the six Goop Lab episodes, Cold Comfort may very well be the most scientifically grounded, if seemingly very staged. (The case study featured throughout the episode ended in a lot of head-shaking on my part.)
Surprisingly, though, Hof is the subject of several scientific studies published in actual peer-reviewed journals that prove his methods effective. For example, one 2018 paper in the journal NeuroImage states that Hof was able to activate control centers in his brain that produce analgesic (pain relief) responses. This is likely how he's able to withstand the piercing temperatures he exposes himself to.
Another paper published in 2014 showed that people who were trained with Hof's method can suppress their immune response, enabling them to better fight off a direct injection of the endotoxin E. coli. An additional 2014 report suggests that Hof's breathing techniques can help hikers ward off a condition called "acute mountain sickness," which occurs with drastic changes in altitude and temperature.
Also well-documented is the fact that breathing exercises can impose all sorts of beneficial outcomes, including: lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, decreased anxiety and depression, increased relaxation and improved sleep. This happens largely because of a down-regulating effect on the autonomic nervous system -- Hof's claim about conscious control may not be too otherworldly, after all.
And as for the whole "alkalize your body" thing, there's not much research about doing so and whether it would be beneficial or harmful (or if it's even possible). A key concept that Hof seems to disregard is that different compartments of the human body have wildly different pH levels for important reasons.
For example, your stomach, which contains a great deal of acid and enzymes for breaking down food, operates optimally at an acidic pH of 1.5 to 3.5, fluctuating a bit depending on your meals. Your blood, on the other hand, is slightly alkaline with a normal pH of 7.35 to 7.45. Overly alkalizing your body isn't known to be helpful and, in fact, humans need a "tightly controlled" pH of about 7.4 to survive.
Also, it's highly unlikely that breath work is a mechanism by which you can alkalize your body. If anything, you'd need a special diet to do the legwork.
The verdict: While promising, these concepts need more research. The findings need to be replicated to prove that Hof's methods really do work, and the language in the show should've alluded to that.
One other point about this episode: They should have done a better job of emphasizing that you must practice the breathing techniques before attempting cold exposure. I worry that people might watch this episode and think it's a good idea to go romp around in freezing temperatures wearing a swimsuit, all because Hof sits cross-legged on icebergs and has an unbreakable immune system.
What do the experts think?
Dr. Jennifer Gunter, who famously grinds false claims into the dirt on her blog, specifically questions Hof's tactics: "Could people watch this episode and think that they should abandon proven therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy to follow Hof's method? Could someone trying this at home hallucinate? Or have a seizure? We don't get that information."
She encourages viewers to look past the admittedly impressive physical feats of Hof (like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts) and understand that endurance is "not synonymous with health or longevity."
Overall, experts seem to think that the entire Goop Lab series is just an unfortunately long infomercial for expensive, unattainable "wellness" goals that disguises itself as an informative miniseries.
Clare Wilson, a medical reporter with expertise in cell biology, says that Goop Lab "shows how easy it is to fall for bad science."
Can this help you?
If your question is, "Can breathing exercises and cold showers generally make me feel happier and healthier?" the answer is yes, most likely.
Again, intentional breathing is known to reduce stress, help you center yourself, think through your emotions and calm anxiety. Cold showers, ice baths, ice packs and even splashing your face with cold water can offer benefits like pain relief and, at the very least, temporarily invigorate you.
But if your question is, "Should I jump in the closest body of near-freezing water or make snow angels naked?" The answer is no -- at least, not without being thoroughly trained in Hof's breathing and cold-exposure techniques.
Until more research investigates the Wim Hof Method, you're better off sticking to milder versions of cold therapy and maybe practicing some more proven mindfulness techniques such as meditation and diaphragmatic breathing.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.