A new proof of concept study has shown that Wim Hof Method practice can effectively bring down inflammation in people suffering from axial spondyloarthritis— a prototypical chronic inflammatory condition.
Previously, research showed how a group of healthy individuals, trained with the Wim Hof Method, were able to voluntarily activate their innate immune response when undergoing an experiment to induce inflammation. The results showed how this group, as compared to a control group, had higher levels of anti-inflammatory markers after receiving an endotoxin – a dead bacteria which is harmless for the body. Normally, when an endotoxin, or live bacteria for that matter, enters the body, the innate immune system responds and starts to fight off this infection. This results in a person feeling ‘sick’ and experiencing symptoms such as fever, nausea, headache, and shivering. The fact that the people trained in the WHM could voluntarily influence the immune system was remarkable. During the experiment, they did not show any of these symptoms! As the study found increased levels of anti-inflammatory markers, researchers started to wonder whether this was only the case for healthy individuals during acute inflammation, or whether the method could potentially be used for patients suffering from chronic inflammation-related conditions.
This was precisely what the present study investigated. The goal was to assess whether the WHM could modulate innate immune responses in patients with axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA), which is a chronic rheumatic inflammation of the spine. This is a prototypical chronic inflammatory condition, making it a very good starting point for investigation. They primarily wanted to know whether the WHM could safely be applied in this group of patients, and they therefore tested for any safety signal during and after the training period. Further, they also looked for changes in inflammatory markers that are valid biomarkers to test disease activity in patients. During the study, they also made use of patient-reported questionnaires on disease activity and quality of life.
So, what did they actually do? 24 patients with axSpA were randomly divided into a treatment and control group. The treatment group received extensive training in the WHM over a period of 8 weeks, both during the group training and at home. During those 8 weeks, measurements in terms of levels of inflammatory markers and the questionnaires were taken at the start of the training, midway (week 4) and at the end of training (week 8). Follow-up measures were taken 16 weeks later, at week 24. The control group did not receive the WHM training during the first 8 weeks and functioned as a comparison. However, after these first 8 weeks, the control group was also trained in the WHM.
The study shows positive results because first and foremost the WHM is found to be safe to practice for patients with axSpA. Secondly, a decrease in inflammatory markers was found for those trained with the WHM as compared to the control group. To be more technical: a significant decrease in ESR levels was shown, as well as a decrease in serum calprotectin levels, although the latter did not reach statistical significance. What do these decreases mean? It indicates that the disease activity declines – the lower the inflammatory levels, the less sick a patient with axSpA is. Finally, various self-reported patient measures of disease activity and quality of life improved following the intervention.
To conclude, this study is a promising discovery in the effect of the WHM for patients with immune-mediated inflammatory conditions. Not only is this the first study to test the effect of the WHM on patients rather than healthy individuals, but it also shows positive effects on safety, anti-inflammatory markers and self-reported mental and physical health. This could possibly have major implications in treatment protocols for people with chronic inflammatory conditions, and serves as a strong basis for further research.