Various research institutes all over the world are continuously studying the effects of the Wim Hof Method. Here is an updated overview of where this research is currently at.
Brain over Body
Scientists from the Wayne State University aimed to discover the underlying correlation of cold resilience in the brain and body by applying a thermoregulatory challenge to Wim Hof and a healthy group of individuals acting as controls. To investigate the relationship between conscious and autonomic aspects of central nervous system (CNS) function they used fMRI, while PET/CT was used to assess the involvement of the periphery.
The fMRI analyses showed that the WHM activates two important brain areas; centers for pain/cold stimuli modulation responsible for initiating a stress-induced analgesic response and higher-order cortical areas which are uniquely associated with self-reflection, internal focus and sustained attention in the presence of aversive external stimuli. Given that the PET/CT scans failed to show a significant activation of the periphery as in the brown adipose tissue, the results provide compelling evidence for the primacy of the brain (CNS) rather than the body (peripheral mechanisms) in mediating Wim’s responses to cold exposure.
The significant activation of the cognitive cortical areas indicates a release of endogenous opiates/cannabinoids. These endocannabinoids are known to promote the feeling of euphoria and well-being, pleasurable feelings which can be often observed after stress-induced activities or which can explain the absence of pain during high-stress situations. The rise in the release of endocannabinoids could possibly constitute a mechanism to mediate decreased sensitivity to cold exposure, since another key property of endocannabinoids is their analgesic action. Interestingly, endocannabinoids are known to inhibit edema and inflammation, which is in accordance to the reported reduction of the immune response associated with the WHM practice .
This study also suggests the compelling possibility that the WHM might allow practitioners to “develop a higher level of control over key components of the autonomic system, with implications for lifestyle interventions that might ameliorate multiple clinical syndrome.” Based on these findings a new study is currently being designed to test the effect of the WHM on people suffering from Bipolar – a mental disorder.
Inflammation & Pain
In the Netherlands, Radboud University Medical Center (UMC) in Nijmegen completed a new study about the effects of the various components of the WHM on inflammation and pain. The results are currently being compiled and written.
Additionally, a new study on the effect of the method on people with Rheumatoid Arthritis is currently being designed. Rheumatoid arthritis is a very common auto-immune disorder affecting up to 1% of the population in the developed world. It involves severe inflammation of the patient’s joints, causing swelling and pain in the affected areas. Findings from previous studies, indicating that training and practicing of the WHM can render a person capable of voluntarily suppressing their immune response, suggest a possible application of the method to rheumatoid arthritis patients.
Kenkodo Metabolomic Discoveries in Germany is working closely with Radboud UMC. They are analyzing blood samples that have been taken by Radboud UMC in previous studies. Using this data, they seek to deepen the understanding of the metabolic activity in blood cells when practicing the WHM. Its various parameters can provide new insight into shifts in metabolic rate.
The basis of this study lies on the fact that exposure to cold seems to boost the metabolism and to induce the brown fat. Cold exposure can trigger the human body to increase heat production through thermogenesis. Brown adipose tissue regulates this thermoregulatory mechanism through a chain reaction which releases heat. It has been shown that mild cold acclimatization triggers the thermogenesis and increases the activity of the brown adipose tissue. Considering that it is still unknown how the frequent exposures to extreme cold conditions can affect these metabolic parameters, this study will hopefully shed some light on the matter.
The Amsterdam Medical Centre (AMC) in the Netherlands completed a study of the WHM on inflammation and quality of life of people with Spondylitis. Spondylitis refers to a wide range of auto-immune diseases which severely affect the spine, causing bouts of inflammatory pain. Based on the findings of a randomized controlled trial which showed that WHM has immediate effect on the production of proteins which regulate the immune system, this research group were testing whether the method had any efficacy on ameliorating immune-mediated inflammatory diseases.
More specifically, the subjects of the study are patients suffering from a specific type of spondylitis called active axial spondyloarthritis which affects the bones and joints at the lower back and the basis of the spine. The participants were exposed to a special training program which includes training on specific breathing techniques, on mindset and concentration and gradual cold exposure. The efficacy of this program will be assessed based on the study of certain biomarkers relevant to inflammation and quality of life. The study is currently being sent for publication.
Motivation and Experiences of WHM Practitioners
RMIT University in Australia has conducted a survey study, exploring the motivation and experiences of WHM practitioners worldwide. This will offer insight into 1) the positive impact of practicing the WHM on health & wellbeing and 2) any potential adverse effects, which in turn improves safety protocols.
The survey is led by Professor Marc Cohen who is pioneering in the field of integrative and holistic medicine and has over the years conducted a wide number of wellness-related studies, from sauna effects to the importance of including acupuncture practices in hospital emergency settings as a successful treatment of acute pain incidents. In this context of interests, his research team conducted a wide survey in order to investigate the resilience benefits of the cold therapy, breathing exercises and the committed mindset suggested by the WHM. The survey collected more than 3000 responses from WHM practitioners around the world focusing on issues related to demographics, practices, health benefits and safety.
 M. Kox, L.T. van Eijk, J. Zwaag, J. van den Wildenberg, F.C.G.J. Sweep, J.G. van der Hoeven, et al., Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111 (2014) 7379–7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111.
 O. Muzik, K.T. Reilly, V.A. Diwadkar, “Brain over body”–A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure, Neuroimage. 172 (2018) 632–641. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.01.067.