Leaning into the Fight or Flight

Picture of Wim Hof in ice bath

People are curious and sometimes slightly confused, when I mention that I moved to Hobart from Darwin 3 x years ago……”What made you come all the way down here?” they ask….

well…….”What could be more logical than going from as far North as you can go, to the Southern most part of Australia?”.

In the same sense……There’s probably more confusion when I mention my mission to make cold showers, or ice baths a healthy habit. You can see contorted and sour-like faces appear, imagining piercing cold water snapping them into the ever present moment.

“Why would you do that”?

Some might have heard of an extremely charismatic individual, using cold water and breathing techniques as a means of self development…..Wim Hoff, or “The Iceman”, has broken nearly every record you can think of in terms of Ice and cold exposure……he’s even climbed Mt Everest in his shorts!

image of XPT and Laird Hamilton training ice therapy

And ever since reading “What doesn’t kill us” (a book based on his techniques), by Scott Carney, I’ve been fascinated at how this type mental discipline, might benefit our psycho-emotional and physiological well – being.

But I’m also acutely aware (As a Practitioner) of overdoing “Faddish” disciplines, diets and programs that might sometimes border on torturous “no pain no gain” ideals.

Many have heard of Wim Hoff’s breathing methods, shown in scientific trials to control the autonomic nervous system and certain immune responses in the body, however Chinese medicine theory tell us different things about overdoing cold water exposure.

But can we find a healthy balance between the above and evolutionary adaptation ideas?

Tasmania has some of the coldest waters/environments in Australia, so it seems we couldn’t ask for a greater place to road test cold exposure. So if we want to understand more broadly about what is happening from a theoretical, scientific and evolutionary perspective, can we use the production of Stress hormones (Cortisol/Adrenaline) to talk about it? Let’s do that.

Adrenaline/Noradrenaline (Epinephrine/Norepinephrine) is commonly referred to in Fight or Flight responses….and is a hormone/Neurotransmitter produced in large quantities during the shocking nature of ice/cold water exposure….(a mechanism that also helps restrict blood from non vital areas of the body).

This relationship was observed in Chinese Medicine Theory…The theory is that the kidneys are the source of yang or heat/function, an important function worth preserving. So, when we expose ourselves to cold we stimulate the kidneys and in the case of science the adrenal glands, which sits on top of the kidneys, to rapidly fill the body with adrenaline. This helps drive heat into the body as a protective mechanism, protecting vital organs by cutting off peripheral blood flow. So we might theoretically make the connection with stress hormones (science) and Kidney Yang function (TCM theory) to heat production, as a survival mechanism.

The buzz term fight or flight doesn’t just refer to our response to predators, but environmental extremes which deplete our energy stores. The body and metabolic processes have set specific operating temperatures which are a required for survival. So in the “fight against the cold” the body ramps up stress hormones and metabolism to create energy, produce heat and stay alive.

With the Wim Hof method (WHM) or gradual cold exposure, done in a controlled and safe way, your body gets adaptive benefits (with time). Increased accumulation/profusion of mitochondria throughout the body, known as “brown fat”….which in turn generates higher levels of body heat in cold environments because there is an increased ability to create energy (think of weight lifting causing muscle hypertrophy after muscle recovery).

Scott Carney in his book “what doesn’t kill us”, after months of cold exposure and breathing techniques, without any dietary changes, showed evidence he had shifted into a ketogenic or fat burning metabolic preference.

No diet changes. Just cold exposure and breath work!

Likewise, Lynn Wilcox, the first woman to break the men’s record for swimming the channel trained extensively in sub 10 degree Waters, including sub 4 degree Waters in Iceland and Antarctica. Her body showed some amazing adaptive responses to cold exposure that were previously unknown to scientists.

How does this relate to us here in Tasmania and two Chinese medicine therapy?

A lot of people including myself, complain about the cold, and I am definitely skinny enough to warrant those complaints. However, we can (in a way) be thankful to have our relatively cold water and environment, given it’s those extremes that seem to drive some potentially beneficial physiological and metabolic processes. But only if we are willing to get out of our comfort zone.

Chinese Medicine theory might tell us not to overdo cold environments in order to Protect our YANG qi (function and heat production).

For example we might find balance by following cold exposure with a warm bath (as seen in some contrast therapy) and some ethically sourced ugg boots.

These systems may actually have positive health outcomes if done safely and smartly. But always consider balance.

It’s also that Evolution trump’s Chinese medicine theory and a good dose of cold water is healthy in moderation, leading to increased resilience to cold and positive metabolic changes. And that’s another thing:

The mental resilience that is built from regular exposure to cold is an interesting side benefit that comes from forcing yourself to do something challenging.

That’s a slightly different to how I speak about Stress, in this article.

It’s something the Ancients mentioned thousands of years ago, when they said that the kidneys are the storehouse of the Zhi (the willpower), willpower needed to push through that resistance you feel when your faced with a bath full of ice water.

Sometimes we have science reaffirming ideas that were understood millennia ago. And I love that in the end science and TCM theory can help give us a clearer path to walk with a more balanced approach to health and mental well-being.

So with all that said, are you willing to take the plunge?

Chad Wuest

Acupuncturist | Chinese Medicine & Allied Health Practitioner

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