Recently scientists have been studying the effect of intermittent hypoxia on health and its potential as a treatment for various diseases. The results are surprisingly promising, so keep reading to discover exactly what this is…
In January 2016 I released an article about the real life super human Wim Hof, detailing my time spent training and going deep on his method that he calls The Wim Hof Method at his home in Holland.
Since then Wim has grown hugely in popularity with 1000s of positive anecdotal reports ranging from complete reversal or lowering of symptoms of a variety of disease conditions and also dramatic increases in fitness and wellbeing.
The Wim Hof Method is a series of different exercises featuring cold exposure, push ups and special yoga like stretches and poses while holding your breath, but it is most famous for the special breathwork technique that involves hyper oxygenating your system by rapid breathwork, then holding your breath for as long as possible.
Wim Hof teaching me and my colleagues Dave Dunn & John Vincent the Wim Hof method at his home in Holland.
I personally gained a lot of benefit from learning very simple pranayama techniques when I went into remission from an autoimmune condition called ulcerative colitis. This involves extending my exhalation and holding my breath after expiration that is called Rechaka Pranayama.
Russian scientists have for many years shown the many health benefits of ‘hypoxia therapy’ that is exposing people to brief periods of low oxygen.
Dr Buteyko a russian scientist created the Buteyko method that has shown incredible results for autoimmune conditions like asthma. This method also involves holding your breath for extended periods that he calls ‘the controlled pause’.
We have been told over and over again that we should all be doing lots of deep, heavy breathing, and that we need lots of oxygen to be healthy. But all these techniques mentioned above involve breath holding that seems to contradict this.
So how does holding your breath lead to superhuman abilities and reversal of disease symptoms?
Current Methods For Intermittent Hypoxia
For the last 50 years scientists have been studying the effects of hypoxia and have tried various methods of inducing it. It is now a well recognised therapeutic healing modality called ‘Hypoxic Therapy’
Quick ascent to high altitudes for short durations.
Normobaric hypoxic gas mixtures. Using commercially available “Hypoxicators” are instruments that deliver a hypoxic gas mixture containing 10% oxygen. This mixture is called “HGM-10.”
Intermittent Hypoxia Therapy
Intermittent hypoxia is defined as repeated episodes of hypoxia with intervening periods of normoxia (normal breathing).
An IHT session consists of an interval of several minutes breathing hypoxic (low oxygen) air, alternated with intervals breathing ambient (normoxic) or hyperoxic air. This procedure is repeated over a 45- to 90-minute session per day, with a full treatment course taking three to four weeks.
Standard practice is for the patient to remain stationary while breathing hypoxic air via a hand-held mask. The therapy is delivered using a hypoxicator during the day time, allowing the dosage to be monitored. Biofeedback can be delivered using a pulse oximeter.
The actual durations used in different experimental studies vary widely, with hypoxia periods ranging from 3 to 90 min.
Nisshesha Rechaka Kumbhaka Pranayama
This is a breathing technique from pranayama that involves holding your breath after expiring all the air from your lungs.
Dr P Malshe at the Antar Prakash Centre for Yoga, tested different varieties of Pranayama for their efficiency in producing hypoxia using a pulse oximeter.
They recorded the SpO2 during different breathholding techniques.
They discovered that a particular sequence ‘Bhastrika followed by Nisshesha rechaka’ is very efficient in producing hypoxia. This is simply ‘hyperventilation followed by breath holding in full expiration’.
The physiological explanation is as follows: The hyperventilation washes out carbon dioxide which at particular concentrations signals your brain to breathe. Once that is done, the breath can be held for a longer duration.
It is the pranayama technique that creates hypoxia the fastest and breatholding called Kumbhaka in pranayama is one of the most revered techniques for controlling energy in your body.
True yogis speak of the importance of slowing down your breath in order to experience optimum health and mental clarity.
‘A Yogi measures the span of his life not by the number of years but by the number of his breaths…
When the breath is expired, it is Rechaka, the first kind of Pranayama. When the breath is drawn in, it is the second, termed Puraka. When it is suspended, it is the third kind, called Kumbhaka. Kumbhaka is retention of breath. Kumbhaka increases the period of life.’ Sri Swami Sivananda
Wim Hof Method
The Wim Hof method is a series of breathing exercises that results in your ability to hold your breath for progressively longer periods of time.
It is probably the safest and most accessible way of creating intermittent hypoxia without needing any expensive equipment.
Initially you hyperoxygenate by breathing in more air that you breath out, then hold your breath after full expiration for as long you comfortably can. To complete the routine you take one big inhalation known as the recovery breath that resets you back to normoxia.
This is very much the same thing as Bhastrika followed by Nisshesha rechaka.
This means you also go through a period of normoxia and hypoxia during the process that is repeated for around 30 minutes once a day, with the addition of a period of hyperoxia.
However in the Wim Hof method you also have the retention on the inhalation at the end for 10-20 seconds which resets the body back to normal, but also creates an extra powerful surge of fresh O2 that now rushes into the cells, especially the brain if you direct it in the right way!
Wim Hof also teaches you to do push ups while holding your breath which would dramatically stimulate hypoxia and mimics endurance training in high altitude that has also been shown to improve various health markers in studies.
The Buteyko method skips the part of hyperoxygenating your system and goes straight into breath holds and other breathing techniques that slow down your breathing rate and intake of oxygen.
These techniques are repeated for 10-15 minutes a day. Buteyko models Rechaka (holding breath after expiration) and Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) that are both ancient breathwork techniques from pranayama.
What Happens When You Hold Your Breath A Few Minutes A Day?
The basic biology that we are taught at school is that when you breath in, you inhale oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide as a waste product of metabolism.
Oxygen is vital for all living cells whether neuronal or other kinds of cells taking part in tissue formation but on the other hand it is potentially dangerous in excess and leads to the formation of free radicles that damage cells. This is why antioxidants in the diet are so beneficial at preventing aging and degenerative diseases.
So oxygen levels in the blood are kept under tight check by a complex system that regulates and monitors the usage and uptake of this essential element.
According to Buteyko, most people over breath under chronic stress, breathing out carbon dioxide and breathing in too much oxygen.
When you hold your breath you build up CO2 and deplete O2 in your blood stream.
The longer you hold your breath you become ‘hypoxic’ which is a state of very low O2 levels in your blood.
If it continues for too long the lack of O2 will have serious consequences as we need O2 for life to exist. However short periods of hypoxia also known as intermittent hypoxia has been shown in various studies to be beneficial to health.
This is where the magical effect of intermittent hypoxia kicks in.
What Happens During Intermittent Hypoxia?
All the effects of hypoxia are generated through the now well-documented “Hypoxia-Inducible-Factor-1”. These effects are primarily to help you survive lower O2 environments. It seems that inducing hypoxia through breath-holding creates a positive stress response by turning on your survival mode in the way extreme temperatures from saunas and ice baths do too.
- Increase in red blood cells through the production of EPO
- Produces growth factors that lead to development of new blood vessels. This happens even in heart disease so can help prevent heart failure.
- Induces Nitric Oxide Synthase that has a variety of positive effects on cell tissues. Nitric Oxide helps protect cells from oxidative stress and also stimulates vasodilation. It may even help erectile dysfunction as it is involved in the vasodilation needed to erect the penis.
- It induces Tumor protein p53 also known as the ‘guardian of the genome’ that protects the DNA of a cell and prevents cells from turning into cancer cells.
- Stem cells can only survive in hypoxia. Stem cells are abundant in fetal circulation where O2 is low. They disappear from the circulation soon after birth. They survive in various locations called ‘Niches’ in the body such as bone marrow in adulthood. The amount of stem cells in the body reduces with age. It is possible that stem cells may migrate from bone marrow to various tissues where they stimulate repair and growth of new cells by just a few minutes of hypoxia a day (intermittent hypoxia). This could benefit many degenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
- It has shown in rat models to stimulate neurogenesis in the brain by the proliferation of neural stem cells that can also help memory, cognitive function and even act as an anti-depressant.
Hypoxia & Stem Cells
Stem cells are currently at the frontier of medical research. They are cells that have the ability to turn into all kinds of other cells meaning they could potentially help regrow organs and tissues that are effected through disease and old age.
Stem cells are in the highest concentration in the embryonic stage. The mother’s womb actually is very hypoxic with oxygen concentrations the same as the top of Mount Everest. It is this hypoxic environment that is so important for the multiplication and growth of the stem cells.
After birth when the baby is exposed to much higher levels of oxygen, stem cells actually disappear from circulation. In an adult they exist only in special areas of the body that are still relatively hypoxic called ‘Niches’ One of these areas is your bone marrow.
It has been shown in rats that the number of Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) in the peripheral blood increases by as much as 15 folds by hypoxia.
It is also well recognised that stem cells retained their self renewing properties when cultured in hypoxic environments of 2% oxygen compared to 20% in normal air,
Bone marrow stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells have low numbers of of mitochondria, and are more adapted to anaerobic survival rather than oxygen rich environments.
Studies have shown that oxidative stress is a major factor in causing degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and osteoarthritis.
This could be as result of stem cells staying locked in ‘Niches’ by excess oxygen in the blood.
Is Carbon Dioxide Toxic?
In normal amounts carbon dioxide is not at all toxic. It diffuses from your cells into your bloodstream and from there out via your lungs and is always present throughout your body.
You would have to inhale large quantities of CO2 for a prolonged period of time to causes any harm to the body. This duration would be much much longer than what you would expect during intermittent hypoxia.
Diseases That May Be Treated By Intermittent Hypoxia
“Low dose” Intermittent Hypoxia training created by the Wim Hof method, Buteyko Method and Intermittent Hypoxia Therapy devices may be a simple, safe, and effective treatment with considerable therapeutic potential for multiple clinical disorders is receiving increasing support from experimental and clinical studies.
Type 2 Diabetes
This debilitating illness has reached epidemic levels around the world. The current methods of treating it are with drugs that include stimulating insulin release from the β cells by sulfonylureas, stimulating peripheral utilization of glucose by biguanides, and reducing insulin resistance using thiazolidinedione derivatives.
These medications require constant use and their effect diminishes over the time meaning higher doses and more need to be taken, This can lead to all kinds of nasty side effects.
Often extremely restrictive carb free diets need to be employed if a patient wants any chance to reverse or manage the symptoms without relying on medication.
However human embryonic stem cells can be directed to turn into cells that produce insulin. Mice have been seen to regenerate β-cell mass after losing 70%–80% of it.
Coronary artery disease
When blood vessels providing blood flow to the heart die or are blocked, this reduced blood flow can result in a heart attack. A popular surgery is known as a bypass. Blood flow is redirected to the heart by creating an artificial blood vessel. Stents are sometimes used to widen the affected blood vessels too.
However In recent years scientists have been looking for ways to see if the body can create ‘natural bypasses’ by the formation of coronary collaterals.
When narrowing of coronary arteries is gradual by atherosclerosis it has been shown that coronary collaterals form naturally to improve blood flow.
It is thought tissue hypoxia leads to the formation of VEGF that stimulates the growth of these new ‘natural bypasses’
Patients with sleep apnea and hypoxic spells have also been shown to create coronary collaterals naturally.
Dr Buteyko hypothesised that sleep apnea, asthma and other disorders that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood was actually the body attempting to create a hypoxic environment.
The Buteyko method actually works by creating intermittent hypoxia, which makes perfect sense as to why it has such incredible results at curing asthma and sleep apnea.
As we age normal wear and tear on the joints causes cell damage and if your rate of cell repair is lower than the rate of damage you get the disease known as osteoarthritis.
Scientists are trying to harness stem cells, multiply them in culture and then put them at the site that needs recovery.
Hypoxic conditions have been shown to increase hypoxia-inducible transcription factor HIF-2α that leads to growth of stem cells in osteoarthritis patients.
Parkinson’s arises from the loss of dopamine producing brain cells from the substantia nigra portion of the brain. Symptoms include trembling, loss of gait, posture and low moods.
The use of stem cells to regrow these particular brain cells is currently being investigated.
Autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohns, asthma and arthritis result in an increase of inflammation at the areas affected by the disease. Cytokine plays a major role in the development of inflammation.
In experiments with rats induced with a form of rheumatoid arthritis that were treated with intermittent hypoxia, it was shown to have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, by a cascade of effects that lead to the inhibition of cytokines.
The Buteyko method also has many years of anecdotal evidence of people recovering from a variety of chronic autoimmune conditions. Now the Wim Hof Method also boasts similar success stories from its users.
Being a past sufferer of an autoimmune condition I believe the cause and treatment is probably more complicated than simply holding your breath.
Factors such as poor digestion, poor lifestyle choices, leaky gut, emotional and physical stress are to be taken into account for the progression of many chronic diseases not just autoimmune.
However intermittent hypoxic training may offer some relief of symptoms and be part of a wider protocol that takes into account the other lifestyle factors.
Memory + Cognitive Function
In this highly competitive and busy world people are always trying to get the edge on their ability to think sharper, faster and with better memories.
The field of nootropics has grown widely in the last few years with attempts to create complex smart drugs and vitamin formulations with the aim to boost cognitive function. However an over looked natural nootropic may lie in simply holding your breath.
Neural stems cells have been shown in studies to proliferate in the brain under hypoxia leading to neurogenesis and the growth of new brain cells. Memory has also been shown to be improved in studies with rats.
Other studies have shown its ability to heal brain lesions that would be caused during degenerative diseases like Alzheimers, Dementia and Parkinson’s.
Intermittent hypoxia causes vasodilation and also increases blood flow to the brain. Could combining certain yoga postures such as inversions and headstands with intermittent hypoxic training be a powerful method to improve cognitive function?
Not many people know this but I also produced the music for the Wim Hof Method…
The Renegade Pharmacist’s Verdict
I am a huge advocate of intermittent hypoxic training having experienced the benefits first hand for the autoimmune condition I had.
I still practice it daily using the Wim Hof method and the extended exhalation technique taught to me by Swami Ambikananda Saraswati. I also recommend the Buteyko method to people who are suffering from inflammatory diseases like asthma.
I am as you can imagine a big fan and proponent of the Wim Hof method. All though it is similar to ancient breathing techniques, he has take out the dogma and simplified them considerably making them more accessible.
I also believe you really do not need expensive hypoxic therapy devices that are being marketed around the world, when you can simply do it for free by learning to hold your breath by following Wim Hof or Buteyko.
I do believe more research needs to be done to determine whether intermittent hypoxia can actually reverse degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, dementia and Alzheimers. At the moment most studies have been done on mouse and rat’s but with promising results.
If this is actually conclusively provable to be of benefit in humans then it would make one of the biggest breakthroughs in our battle against degenerative brain disease that now affects millions of people worldwide.
Unfortunately at present only drug companies have the power and money to finance the extremely expensive trials that need to take place. They are unlikely to fund research to prove a technique that is free and where no profit can be made.
My own father has been recently diagonosed with Parkinson’s and so this has really motivated me to go deep on finding a cure for him and others. I have seen him suffer so badly with the symptoms that I really have a new driving force to help others in a similar situation.
My Call For Help
As a pharmacist with a masters degree, I feel my education has been useless if I do not do something more profound with it.
Currently only drug companies have the finances and resources necessary to do proper conclusive phase 3 clinical trials.
Therefore I am calling out to all the extremely wealthy billionaires and millionaires of the world to club together and create fund to research whether free tools such as breath holding can really reverse degenerative diseases.
I would as most people would prefer to live longer and with a healthy brain with the peace of mind I did something worthwhile for this planet.
So now I am very motivated to dedicate my time to be one of the ‘renegade’ scientists to attempt to prove this. Therefore I am looking forward to your support in my mission.
Please contact me if you are someone committed to serving mankind in this way.
After all we all go to the grave with the same amount of money that we came to this world with, so may as well do something world changing with it, especially if we can!
Niraj Naik MPharm AKA The Renegade Pharmacist