A breathing solution for poor sleep

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 28, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The brain clears damaging metabolic waste products during sleep through movement of the cerebrospinal fluid—that's why compromised sleep may spell trouble for some of your patients.

  • There’s evidence that respiration modulates the nightly brain-clearing process.

  • The Wim Hof method of breathing is a promising protocol that attempts to “hack” the brain’s clearing mechanisms with controlled breathing sessions during wake times.

The data is clear—Americans don’t get enough sleep. Sleep is well known as the brain’s opportunity to clear out “waste,” so is there anything people can do during the day to make up for a lack of sleep at night?

According to Wim Hof (a Dutch motivational speaker and holder of 21 Guinness World Records), specialized breathing provides similar waste-clearing benefits for a healthy brain. 

But is the Wim Hof breathing method powerful enough to make up for consistently poor sleep? Here’s what we know so far.

Clearing waste from the brain

Sleep is a deeply restorative process. Without enough of it, neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation go into high gear. As a result, cognitive decline and psychiatric conditions have long been associated with insomnia. The buildup of misfolded proteins, infections, and inflammatory markers from poor sleep wreaks havoc on short- and long-term brain function.[]

Research suggests that brain waste is removed via the cerebrospinal fluid. Cerebrospinal fluid volume has an inverse relationship with the volume of cerebral blood. In addition, the movement of cerebrospinal fluid is largely regulated by respiration.

Therefore, intentional breathing practices can induce vasoconstriction and vasodilation, affecting cerebral blood volumes and, consequently, the motion of cerebrospinal fluid. The theory suggests, then, that targeted respiration techniques could essentially “flush the brain” while awake.

The Wim Hof method

The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is built on three pillars: Wim Hof breathing, cold therapy, and commitment (via meditation) to mastering the first two.

If you haven’t heard of him, Wim Hof is known as the “Iceman.” He’s completed impressive feats such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, swimming 66 meters beneath ice, standing for 2 hours in a container filled with icy water, and running a half marathon over the Arctic Circle—wearing only a pair of shorts (that’s right, no shoes).[]

Wim Hof credits his success in part to the breathing techniques he’s developed. Individuals who want to try them should wear loose clothing and get into a comfortable position, either sitting or standing. The breathing techniques are best performed following light exercise (such as a walk outside) and with an empty stomach.

Basically, the method goes like this:

  • Close your eyes, relax, and take 30 deep, full breaths in a row. 

  • Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, expanding your belly with each inhalation and letting the air flow out freely with each exhalation. 

  • After releasing the 30th breath, briefly wait to inhale until you feel it’s necessary. 

  • When you finally breathe in, fill up your lungs and fully expand your belly—a “giant breath”—and hold in the air for 15 seconds before breathing out. 

This completes one round. 

Wim Hof encourages his followers to complete three to four rounds of this cycle, varying the speed or number of breaths as desired. For those who want more guidance, there’s an online video and an app to walk you through the process.[]

Is it effective?

The ideas behind the WHM make sense and have the potential to benefit a large number of people, particularly those with chronic sleep problems and a lack of effective solutions.

Despite lackluster long-term data, researchers have asserted that the WHM, which “results in intermittent respiratory alkalosis and hypoxia, increases plasma catecholamines and causes an increase in heart rate and a decrease in mean arterial pressure.”[] It’s almost certain that these short-term effects can help compensate for a lack of sleep (to some extent) or may improve the brain and body’s resilience to stressors over time.

Wim Hof has a large following, consisting of some individuals who join him on retreats, which include cold immersion activities, like arctic hikes and ice baths. However, most of the current evidence supporting his program is anecdotal, although it is compelling. 

Nevertheless, research has failed to confirm measurable mental and physical benefits for WHM interventions, in terms of both perceived stress levels and cardiovascular health. But given the pressing need for cost-effective, sustainable therapies for sleep disorders, lifestyle interventions like the WHM warrant consideration among HCPs.

What this means for you

If your patients are searching for a natural energy boost, the WHM is a relatively safe option. The immediate brain-clearing benefits are still theoretical, but the deep breathing and meditation aspects of the program have a strong potential to promote mental clarity and better quality sleep. Just advise patients to practice in a safe place where they can monitor for any side effects (like dizziness), and encourage them to continue to pursue medical treatment for known sleep disorders.

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