I can now hold my breath for 3 minutes and 30 seconds. You’re probably thinking, “Big deal. What good does that do? And what does holding your breath have to do with telomeres?” Allow me to explain.
I first became acquainted with breath work while learning the Wim Hof Method (WHM). Previously, I never gave holding my breath a moments thought. If someone had mentioned it to me, I would have scoffed, “Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” I had, however, seen people wearing masks designed to restrict breathing and also heard about hypoxia (oxygen deficient) tents in which some athletes sleep in an effort to mimic high altitude conditions. I thought users of those tools must either be brain damaged idiots, or well on their way as a result of depriving their brains of oxygen.
A big part of the WHM revolves around breathwork. Wim has his students breathe deeply for forty repetitions while sitting on the floor. After the last complete exhalation students hold their breath for as long as possible. Initially I struggled, but soon found myself making progress and actually enjoying it. Regular readers know that the WHM also involves doing breathwork during freezing cold showers. I lost consciousness during one of those sessions.
I no longer follow the WHM, but the foundation the course provided will stay with me for a lifetime and it provided a framework for methods I continue to practice with even more focus and diligence. I now take organized yoga classes a few times a week and do breathwork several times a week. While I continue to take ice cold showers, I no longer perform breathwork during them. Wim may disagree with me, but I am unconvinced that merging breathwork with cold therapy magnifies the effect of either. That is, I do not believe there is a synergistic effect gained from performing them simultaneously.
Mammalian Dive Reflex
Those of us interested in reversing our age just love to hear about biohacking. The mammalian dive reflex is arguably one such biohack that makes it tempting to do breathwork in the water. This reflex is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to dive underwater for extended periods of time. Facial contact with water activates the dive reflex, resulting in a decrease in heart rate, the diversion of blood from the extremities, the movement of blood into the lungs and other vital organs (blood shift), and splenic contractions which aid in the blood shift at greater depths and pressures.1 The dive reflex is so powerful that in 2012, German Freediver Tom Sietas managed to hold his breath underwater for a staggering 22 minutes and 22 seconds. He earned this record by hyperventilating on pure oxygen for 30 minutes just prior to holding his record setting breathhold.2
As intriguing as breathwork in the water is, it’s something I have not yet explored because it is simply way too dangerous to do on my own. In the summer, when I have access to a pool and if I am training with someone, it may be something I revisit. Even with a training partner, it is still seems kind of dangerous.
What I Do Differently
Since I stopped doing the WHM, I have begun to do my own form of breathwork. [Warning! Be aware that some people pass out when they hold their breath.] Surprisingly, our first inclination while performing breath holds is the need to exhale (dispel carbon dioxide), not inhale (take in oxygen). So, one of the tricks I use to extend the length of my breath hold is to inhale and hold as much air/oxygen as I possibly can when I begin the set. Towards the end of the set, I exhale small amounts of “air” in little puffs. When you exhale, you not only expel carbon dioxide, you also lose a little oxygen. That’s why I try to exhale as slowly as possible. When I practiced the WHM, I did my breathwork while sitting in a half lotus position. Now, I just sit quietly, totally relaxed, in a comfortable chair.
I have also begun to use a breathwork tool to increase my lung capacity. No, not the stupid looking masks that make wearers look like Bane from Batman you may have seen people running with. The tool I utilize looks like a mouthguard with a regulator at the end of it. It restricts airflow making it harder to both inhale and exhale. I inhale as much as I possibly can, pause, and then inhale even a little more, hold it as long as is comfortable, and work hard to exhale as much as I possibly can. Exhaling until there is literally nothing left in my lungs is truly hard work. In addition to a lung capacity workout, it is a genuine abs routine. I typically do sets of 10 while driving, which occasionally elicits funny looks from other drivers. I have found this tool demonstrably helpful with respect to how long I can hold my breath. You can find breathwork tools if you search on Amazon or Google for “breathwork” or “breath training”.
Experts Condemn Breath Holding
Some “experts” would say that what I'm doing is harmful. They think that restricting oxygen is always bad. Critics of breath holding believe it causes one’s internal biochemistry to get out of whack. They say holding your breath disturbs your natural biochemistry; instead of being more alkaline, the body becomes more acidic and more prone to disease.3 I concur that an acidic body is more prone to disease. Nevertheless, I find the conclusion that breathwork causes an acidic environment rather strange. I certainly hold my breath far more often than most people. I also happen to frequently measure my PH. In fact, I just interrupted writing this blog to measure it and my PH is perfectly balanced between an acidic and alkaline state at 7.5. “Experts” can say all sorts of things that often seem compelling. Do your own research and experiments. Accept nothing as a given.
Some say the quality of a person's breathing is closely linked with their emotional state. I tend to agree. A study in the "Indian Journal of Psychiatry" showed that 56 percent of children who have breath-holding spells react with temper tantrums, some to the extent of head banging and people who hold their breath tend to be angry, irritable and annoyed.4 This sounds like me before I began this mission to reverse my age! I accept the study’s conclusion that holding breath throughout the day is bad, yet the study makes a glaring error. It equates unconscious breath holding with conscious breath holding. Unconsciously, chronically, holding one’s breath is likely very harmful. I used to be guilty of it myself. Don’t laugh too hard at me because there is a good chance you too inadvertently hold your breath, especially when you are stressed or deep in thought. Ironically, I would never have realized how often I hold my breath during if I had not been introduced to breathwork in the first place.
Consciously holding one’s breath, meditating, and yoga make one very aware of one’s breathing patterns. I encourage you to start taking note. You may find yourself sitting in your chair at work holding your breath totally unconsciously and become startled when you realize you haven’t taken a breath in awhile. You may become further surprised, as I was, that you do this all the time. Breathe!
Breathing expels toxins from your body. Some authorities say holding your breath keeps toxins inside, allowing ample time for them to disperse and accumulate in your body. They also argue that lack of oxygen has been shown to be a main problem among people with cancer and other serious illnesses because toxins rob your body of energy and make you look and feel ill.5 This I agree with. Again, however, this is a matter of differentiation between conscious breathwork and unconscious breath holding.
Breathwork takes a considerable amount of time, can be really uncomfortable, and is potentially not only dangerous, but deadly. So why the heck would I do it?
While some experts deride breath holders, others claim it is an activity that confers many benefits upon its practitioners. Some of the claimed benefits include: vasodilation, improved circulation, increase in red blood cells, improved memory and cognitive function, proliferates anti-aging stem cells, and induces cancer protection. When doing breathwork,
“Your muscles relax. When you breathe deeply and you are relaxed, fresh oxygen pours into every cell in the body. This increases the functionality of every system in the body. You will also notice improved mental concentration and physical stamina. As your muscles let go of tension, your blood vessels dilate and your blood pressure drops. Deep breathing triggers the release of endorphins, which improves feelings of well-being and provides pain-relief. Good breathing habits help the lymphatic system function properly, which encourages the release of harmful toxins.”6
This is an incredible list of potential benefits. I find the fact that breathwork floods one’s cells with oxygen, making them function efficiently at optimal levels, one of the most compelling reason to perform breathwork. All the other benefits are bonuses. I also happen to have definitive experience with breathworks ability to oxygenate cells. Those of you who have been reading since the beginning may recall that I was initially quite concerned about my O2 saturation readings. Some of my early readings were 88, 90, and 93. My O2 saturation numbers are now regularly 97 or 99 and occasionally hit 99.
Many people erroneously believe any CO2 is toxic to humans. Contrary to popular belief, a limited amount of carbon dioxide confers many benefits upon the human body. It brings more blood to your brain and heart (vasodilation), allows more air to enter your lungs (bronchodilation), and calms your nervous system, reducing depression, anxiety, and even the symptoms of epilepsy.7 Sure, we couldn’t survive if all we could breathe is carbon dioxide. We need oxygen to survive, but even too much oxygen can be toxic. Allowing some CO2 to build up inside our bodies is not a bad thing. Quite the contrary.
Ancient yogis reportedly enjoyed a reputation for having incredibly strong, “unbreakable” bones because of bone mineralization caused by carbon dioxide and increased CO2 stimulates the mitochondria in your cells to multiply.8 Having more mitochondria is like getting a new engine with more horsepower.
Limited exposure to carbon dioxide reduces inflammation throughout the entire body. This is critical! This is yet another really compelling reason to perform breathwork. I firmly believe in the concept of “inflammaging” and data has begun to accumulate confirming this theory. “Inflammaging” is chronic inflammation throughout the body that accelerates aging and may be the root cause of several diseases. I consume many vitamins and supplements in massive doses simply in an effort to reduce inflammation. It is arguably why I recover so quickly from grueling workouts. Faster recovery is the holy grail for any competitive fitness athlete. While it is often not associated with aging, it should form the cornerstone for any anti aging protocols.
Breathwork may be the most overlooked telomere lengthening therapy of all. There is zero data or information linking the two. Nevertheless, just because nobody has associated breathwork with telomerase activation yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In my view, lack of oxygen in the blood and inflammation are two concepts strongly associated with aging. Breathwork counteracts both, and as such, stands a good chance to activate telomerase. I am thrilled to be focusing on it and making such progress. I will continue training to improve my personal record.
I find the arguments against breathwork uncompelling. Most of the information I found equated chronic unconscious breath holding, which I agree is bad, with the type of intentional, focused breathwork I perform as part of my training protocol. They are neither the same, nor even remotely similar.
The long list of possible benefits associated with breathwork is impressive. Some are measurable and I have witnessed my own body make dramatic improvements with respect to O2 saturation levels. Furthermore, let’s not forget Wim Hof has done some spectacular things with his disciples including controlling their immune systems and being instrumental in helping people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s find relief. Just because science can’t yet explain something, doesnt mean it doesn't work.
I leave you with the words of Wim Hof: “Breathe M@ther F*#ker!”
1 The Mammalian Diving Reflex. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2018, from http://www.freedive-earth.com/blog/mammalian-diving-reflex
2 Beresini, E. (2017, December 20). How Long Can Humans Hold Their Breath? Retrieved February 11, 2018, from https://www.outsideonline.com/1784106/how-long-can-humans-hold-their-breath
3-5 Negative Effects of Holding Your Breath. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2018, from https://www.leaf.tv/articles/negative-effects-of-holding-your-breath/
6 W., E. (2016, May 18). 5 Benefits of Deep Breathing Exercises. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from https://livingthenourishedlife.com/5-ways-youll-benefit-from-daily-deep/
7 M. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2018, from http://nirvana.fitness/co2-health-effects-uses-and-benefits-01-10-2015.html
8 Christopher, L. T. (2016, June 24). Is Holding Your Breath Good for You? – Forbidden Realms – Medium. Retrieved February 13, 2018, from https://medium.com/forbidden-realms/is-holding-your-breath-good-for-you-392795759b7c