The Cold, given its potential to strengthen the immune system, boost fat burning, shield the nerves, improve sleep quality, reduce pain, regulate blood sugar levels and much more, is the loving friend that we all need now in our lives. These times require a strong immune system, which made me think of an old hobby of mine: “cold running”. In this article I share a memorable cold running story of mine and tell you about three different Nobel Prize winning methods I use everyday to make myself stronger against diseases. This story took place three years ago on the Finnish Independence Day.
Finland, a nation of 100 years. Today is a day of celebration and it seems that nature shows its best as well. The whole month of November was grey and the beginning of December provided depressing darkness but today there is no escaping from the sun shine. The rays are shining from a blue sky and the motionless surface of the lake complements the view to further please the eye and the mind. Today, there is no need for light therapy lamps to wake up! The swans are flying in a V-formation. A single, little bird is chirping in the snowy forest. I feel like I am in Narnia or some other magical place. First, I look for the swans and then for myself: I find myself on the surface of the water. It is below zero degree centigrades, and against any norm, I am wearing only a t-shirt and shorts but WOW – it has been a while since I felt so ALIVE! I am with a friend, just as crazy as I am, and we have been going on for more than an hour while enjoying fully the limited supply of vitamin D while providing a proper challenge for our cardiovascular system. According to current information, we are fighting against the formation of cancer cells through stress proteins, also called heat-shock proteins (cf. Hsf1). The stimuli in our bodies are partly due to running and partly due to the exposure to the cold. The term ‘cold running’ (ie. running in the cold without proper clothing) is not very popular yet, but this is what the term denotes.
We started our journey from my home at 11:45 am, fueled only by some coffee, polyporus tea and raw chocolate as nourishment before heading out. There’s not a huge spike in our blood sugar levels and we still enjoyed the autophagy (“self-devouring”; regulated mechanism of the cell that removes unnecessary or dysfunctional components) going on inside our cells. By the way, the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to a Japanese autophagy researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi.
The first steps in the crispy, cold air come as a mild shock but from experience I know that right before the first kilometre the suffering transforms into a feeling of being invincible. Coldness turns into coolness and the body figures out that today is not the easy way out from this and starts producing heat. I have hardly been running during the summer and my BMI indicates that I am slightly overweight, but now my step is springy and I am not even exhausted. This takes us to the second Nobel Prize winning method and it is as simple as nasal breathing. The vasodilator gas, nitric oxide (NO) is produced in the paranasal sinuses and is excreted continuously into the nasal airways of humans. This NO will normally reach the lungs with inspiration, especially during nasal breathing and it protects the heart, stimulates the brain, kills bacteria, and more. It is the main weapon for me against inflammation via increased blood flow. When NO is produced in the white blood cells (such as macrophages), huge quantities are created and become toxic to invading bacteria and parasites. Before you call me crazy, check out who received the 1998 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.
The body gets an amazing stimulus from the cold air so that my mind can also concentrate on the essential: the company and the view that a 100-year-old Finland can sure provide. The first people we encounter after a few kilometres of running reveal that our shenanigans are not considered normal by the other people. At that moment I can’t fathom that kind of thinking as my pineal gland has begun to produce huge amounts of ‘happy hormones’ and I am feeling almost immortal. We say that we live in the north but how many of us really expose ourselves to the northern conditions? We have a steady 21 degree centigrades in our houses and when we need to leave the house we put on puffy jackets and walk straight into our heated car to take ourselves to our destination. Sound familiar? How should our bodies know that we live in the north? There is no built-in GPS in our body.
“Put some clothes on, for heaven’s sake! You’ll catch a cold!” … “Don’t you think that you are a little underdressed for this weather?” We’ve all heard these remarks from some family members. Ninety percent of the passers-by had these or similar remarks about our clothing but I didn’t heed their advice. My friend cleverly always retorted to them “As long as you stay moving, there’s no danger”. We know that these comments come from a good place, but sometimes to grow, you have to challenge yourself.Everybody knows that one person who catches a cold very easily. Have you noticed how they always dress so warm and even wear woolly socks in the bed during summer? In theory, they live in a “southern” climate and they catch a cold because of that! To them, our cold running trip could be fatal. I can’t even remember the last time I caught a cold or I was down with a fever because my body is truly acclimated to the cold. I have been taking fairly regularly dips in a hole in the ice or in cold plunge pools for nearly a decade. I can stay in 6 degree centigrade water (42.8 Fahrenheit) for 21 minutes. Water conducts heat (or cold in this case) four times faster than air due to the molecule density of water. So, I have been training my cold tolerance and my body’s thermogenic ability quite a bit. And it’s easy! Just expose yourself to cold in increasing amounts. A good example of people who have a good tolerance of cold are the homeless; usually alcohol-ridden people who have spent their days and nights all year round outside exposed to the weather conditions. Their blood circulation on the surface of the skin is boosted thanks to the survival mechanisms of the body and alcohol. There is some evidence that alcoholics have greater amounts of brown adipose tissue (BAT), which can produce heat without vibrating (cf. muscle). BAT is extremely good for your body: it burns calories while you are exposed to the cold! BAT can also be found in animals that hibernate.
Now our journey is nearing a half-way mark as we spot my parents’ holiday home; a typical Finnish summer cottage. We had decided in advance to take a dip in a hole in the ice when we arrive. When we reach the cottage, the mood is elevated and I am even sweating.; mostly on my back, as the cold air cannot reach there so easily. We run into the ice water almost immediately, as this something new for the both of us, combining cold running into a dip into the icy water. We are hoping that the generated heat from the run will help us in our experience. And it did exactly that! We didn’t stay very long in the water and didn’t experience any shock from the frigid pool. The actual process was a relatively easy new feature for us. We dried ourselves and then I noticed that the heat escaped from the extremities to secure the function of core organs. This is a completely normal process when your body fights against the cold exposure. We continue our trip back to my place. The first kilometre running back feels similar to the beginning of our journey but then the warmth spreads across my body and my mind – I feel so euphoric that the colours intensify and I feel every ray of light to caress my exposed body that has been energized by the cold and the sun. At this point, we get excited to take photos of the scenery, perhaps to prolong the unique experience of being part of the northern nature. I think out loud, “The human body is so amazing, so adaptable!” My friend, who has been able to stay over half an hour in a cold plunge pool, replies “The body is as amazing as it wants to be, it only needs challenges”. Both of us give a little smile and it feels as if we were the first people to invent an aeroplane while everybody else is warning that we’ll end up as flat as pancakes. No way, we’re flying.
We reached my house after a two and half hours journey and we put the kettle on. We cycle through the photos that we took during the trip as we ease into a chair. It’s only after the warmth of the tea and house that we notice our bodies are really tired and weary. It was like the warm tea had given permission to our bodies, saying, “no worries , old buddy. It’s my turn to keep you warm again”. I buried myself under a blanket and I felt my body screaming for fuel. I burned twice the amount of calories on that trip. I just had two sandwiches and at 2 pm, I am ready for a nap. “Flying” requires much more fuel than driving a car.
So, that is one of my favourite wintertime hobbies still today, however nowadays I have added another Nobel Prize winning technique into my repertoire: The Wim Hof Method (WHM for short). Now the method itself didn’t win the prize but it uses the same complex cascade of processes involved. If you want to dive into the scientific papers behind it, Google ‘Nobel Prize 2019’ or ‘hormetic hypoxia’. In a nutshell, with the breathing exercises you vary your oxygen levels and once you reach hypoxia (low levels of O2), your kidneys start producing erythropoietin (EPO). EPO itself increases the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. In turn, increased levels of red blood cells affect O2 availability in the body because red blood cells are responsible for the transport of O2 from the lungs to all body tissues. (This is also why some endurance athletes use EPO for doping— it increases their supply of oxygen-carrying red blood cells). Now I ask you, can you see the way this could be possibly helpful to all of us?
The smartest doctor in the room is always your body and the best way to dive into your own physiology is the Wim Hof Method which consists of cold exposure and breathing exercises. It lets you hear the softest whispers your body is trying to tell you before they turn into loud and painful cries. During the breathing exercises the heightened oxygen levels hold a treasure trove of benefits: more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens. The technique can be found easily on Google or on YouTube. Another reason to love this – it’s free!
The 2014 Radboud study showed that WHM practice upregulates your immunity by increasing the production of white blood cells and B-lymphocytes. These are the little critters that protect you from foreign marauders such as viruses. WHM practice won’t keep COVID-19 from invading your body, but a strengthened immune system means a bigger arsenal to combat the infection, and therefore fewer and less severe symptoms.
Now, if you’re not feeling too well, and you’re looking to use the Wim Hof Method to fight off the infection, do not do the cold training parts of the method. When you’re sick, your immune system has its hands full just fighting off the virus. If you then expose yourself to the cold, you add another stressor, forcing the immune system to divide its capacity and fight a war on two fronts. We all know how that worked out in the past.
-Joonas Jaatinen, D.N