Professor Marc Cohen shares with us his 10 toxic truths and the 5 B’s to help us process or eliminate the chemicals and toxins that we are exposed to. We also talk about extreme wellness, the Wim Hof Method, and the cold water hokey pokey. Professor Marc Cohen is an absolute hero of mine and as he says, we are all connected so we are all affected.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Hello, and welcome to Unstress. I’m Doctor Ron Ehrlich. Today, we’re going to focus on environmental stress, and then move into extreme wellness and what that actually means. Now, I know we hear a lot about environmental issues, particularly chemicals and chemical exposure, but I think it’s good to have some broad principles about how to think about this issue, rather than just tell you what to think about it.
My guest today is Professor Marc Cohen. Marc is one of Australia’s pioneers of integrative and holistic medicine and has had a significant impact on education, research, clinical practice, and politics. I mean, I think in the world of health and wellness, he’s a legend. Marc has been involved in research into wellness, as well as complementary and integrative medicine, for more than two decades. He’s gone over a broad range of topics, including the environment and wellness. His research interests are integrative medicine, acupuncture, yoga, just to name a few. This is a really extraordinary conversation. There is so much here.
We do have transcripts available on my website, as we do for every episode, so please use them. There are often articles that we’ve mentioned or links to websites, they’re also included. It’s a great resource, so don’t forget to go and visit the website, my website, DRRonEhrlich.com.
Now, when we think about stress, as you know, I define it as anything that has the potential to compromise your health. And if you’re a regular listener, you’ll know we look at environmental stresses from lots of different perspectives. What I love about today’s episode is Marc gives us a framework for really understanding the issue in a very broad and holistic way. He refers to it as “The 10 Toxic Truths.” Now, this topic can get a bit depressing and overwhelming but don’t be. Don’t be depressed or overwhelmed. In order to fix a problem, you’ve got to actually know what that problem is.
Now, when I asked him to give us some tips about how to deal with those toxic truths, listen carefully for The Five Bs. That’s right, Bs. Oh look, I’m not gonna give anything away just yet, these are pearls you’ve gotta listen to.
Then after we deal with those issues, we go on to talk about extreme wellness. Marc has been following the work of Wim Hof, an extraordinary man who holds over 20 world records for doing some fairly extreme things around controlling his body’s nervous system, temperature control, immune system, and much, much more. That’s Wim, W-I-M, and I’ve been really interested going to his workshop in Sydney. It’s gonna be a fascinating thing and Marc’s talking about him.
Now, Wim has developed a new breathing method, and we’ve talked a lot about breathing on this show, but this is different. And in particular the confrontation with cold and its health benefits. Now, Wim goes to extremes, but there is some important lessons to be learned for us all. Particularly about dealing with stress, building resilience, boosting your immune system, and really taking control in ways you may not have even thought possible. So it’s clearly an important message for us all.
As I said, there’s so much in this episode. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Professor Marc Cohen.
Welcome to the show, Marc!
Professor Marc Cohen: Well, thanks, Ron, it’s a pleasure to be with you again.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Marc, supermarkets and shops, pharmacies, they’re full of products with a huge list of ingredients, which include chemicals. And I guess most of us just assume that if they’re on the shelves if they’re on the market, they’ve been tested. But that’s not always the case. Should we be concerned?
Professor Marc Cohen: I think we should be afraid. We should be very afraid. Because most of the products on the shelves, most of the chemicals in those products, have not been tested for safety, for human safety. And if you’re actually reading a label, it means you’re reading something with a packaged product that has been processed and there are so many different industrial chemicals that are added intentionally to products. And you know, this is the full range of products, whether it’s personal care, or furniture, or whatever we use in our home.
There are fire retardants, there are pesticides, there are all sorts of preservatives that are toxic to our health, and they accumulate over our lifespan. And they’re not tested, in a large part, for human health. And then there are other chemicals that are inadvertently added, that are just contaminations and they’re there by accident.
It is a concern, and if we look at the trajectory of human disease, cancer has now overtaken heart attack and stroke as the biggest killer on the planet. And the biggest killer in Australia. That’s not a genetic change or anything, it’s that this is true that there are more carcinogens around us. We’re seeing cancers in younger and younger populations, as we are with obesity and diabetes. We’re getting type 2 diabetes now in children, where it used to be in your fourth or fifth decade of life.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: I’ve read and heard you say that there are a staggering 140 thousand chemicals out there in the world?
Professor Marc Cohen: Oh, they’re the ones that are commercially produced. So they’re the ones we actually produce. There are literally millions more that we produce inadvertently. Any time you burn something, you create smoke, smog, and that’s full of fire and particulates, and different chemicals. But then, in terms of the commercially produced chemicals, yeah, 140 thousand plus.
A lot of them, more than 3,000 produced in high volumes, which means there are many millions of tons produced every year. And I think we’ve come to a situation where we have mass production of products. With products that have to be mass produced and then distributed and shipped and sold on price point to be the cheapest possible product. Then those products have to have a useful lifespan, and they have to fit the purpose, but often it’s not thought about how we dispose of them. The recycling’s not thought about it.
But to mass produce products like that, often it’s cheaper and easier to use different chemicals to preserve them, to produce them, to distribute them, and we’re living in a toxic world, unfortunately. But that’s inevitable. You can’t get away from entropy.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Now, Marc, you’ve come up with a way for us to better understand the issues around environmental stress and technology, or tech toxicity, rather, with your … well, and technology, perhaps, too … with your 10 Toxic Truths. Could you share those with our listener?
Professor Marc Cohen: Yeah, sure. This is something I was coming up with, and I really did this to make sense of everything to myself, and try to look into the literature. What do we really know about toxic chemicals? What is the uncontroversial, scientific state of our knowledge? What do we know, what we don’t know, and coming up with this.
I’ve been lecturing on this for many years now, and this research and understanding is really depressing. I want to give a warning to your listeners here because once you know this stuff, you can’t un-know it. I mean, you can try and suppress it, push it down and try and forget about it, just like we try and forget about the fact that 4.6 million children will die every year from malnutrition, and half the world live in a few dollars a day, and a third of the world don’t have water to bathe. These are all truths everyone sort of knows somehow in the back of their mind, but we don’t think about.
We can become aware, and then we can start to put a hazard on it. That’s just sort of the warning there. Like for sort of personal issues going for this, because it’s really depressing to find out about how toxic we are. So, just in brief, because this has been covered … And there’s an article in Organic Gardener magazine which goes into it in more detail.
The 10 Toxic Truths, I’ve sort of put them into pairs, because it used to be thought that the dose makes the poison, and that was based on Paracelsus 500 years ago, came up with this sort of truism, that it’s the dose that makes the poison. Everything can be poisonous. But now we know, it’s not just the dose that makes the poison, it’s the type of chemical or toxicant, the type of toxic exposure. It is the dose, but it’s also the timing, the combination, and luck. And the luck is the luck of who your parents were, and your genetics, and the luck of where you live, and the industrial accidents or exposures around where you live.
They’re the five things, and the toxic truths are mapped to those. So, when we go through them, the first toxic truth is that everyone is affected, and we don’t really know the full extent. That’s the first two. Everyone is affected. There’s no living thing on earth that doesn’t have industrial chemicals embedded, the DDT, and fire retardants.
The biggest survey that we have of toxic chemicals we have in humans is done in the US, the Anaheim Study. And they found things like fire retardants and BPA and more than 90% of the population. And the full extent is unknown because we don’t measure this. We’re not really doing a survey out of the 140,000 chemicals, they measure about less than 300. So we don’t really know the full extent, and all we can do is see the effects. So that’s about the type of chemicals.
And then to do with the dose, tiny doses can have big effects. So we know that there’s the ability of non-linear dose-response curves. And that’s where you have an effect on, say, endocrine systems, endocrine disrupting chemicals can affect your hormonal system, which then has a massive effect on your body. So even with a very small dose, just like that very small dose of a hormone has a big effect on your body, it’s the same with toxic chemicals that affect our hormonal system.
So tiny doses can have big effects. And the tiny doses actually buy and magnify up the food chain, and that’s where you know you get a toxic dose of micro-plastics or pesticides or whatever it is into a phytoplankton that then, the zooplankton will eat the phytoplankton and concentrate that and then the shrimp will eat the zooplankton and concentrate, and then a little fish will eat the shrimp, and a bigger fish eat the little fish.
And as you go up the food chain, you get huge bio-magnification so it can be up to 10 million times the levels in the top of the food chain, and that … predatory fish, predatory birds, predatory mammals. And of course the very very top of the food chain is the human infant. Because by eating breast milk, this human infant is eating the product of humans. So human infants, sitting at the top of the food chain have the highest exposure in terms or soluble effects, soluble chemicals. Which is very high in breast milk, being studied all over the world as a marker for exposures. And, wherever they’ve studied it they’ve found them.
This is true, for example, even in New Guinea highland women who live 2,000 meters elevation, 2,000 kilometers away from any agriculture. And they’ve got DDT in their breast milk. Because it’s part of the global biosphere and it comes down in the rain. So, an organic foray on pesticide use, in the sixties, and Rachel Carson was sort of talking about years, still everywhere.
And the levels are going down. That’s true. They’re still used in some reasons in limited capacity. And that’s what the organic chlorines, because they are persistent, in that they last in environments decades, were replaced by the organic phosphate pesticides, which are less persistent but more toxic. So again the phosphates are based on nerve gas. These are war chemicals, most of these.
Fertilisers came out of munitions explosives, and pesticides came out of nerve gas. So these are essential war chemicals. So then we’ve got the issue about the combination. So we know that the toxic truth number 5 is chemical cocktails are synergistic. It’s worse to have a combination of chemicals than a single chemical. And there’s an effect that’s been well described and that’s the “something from nothing” effect. That’s where you can have a dose of two different chemicals that, by themselves, do nothing. But you put them together and they actually do something.
And you think that the complexity … Because no one’s exposed to single chemicals. We’re all exposed to a whole cocktail based on our life history and our lifestyle. But when they test them they test them one at a time. Because you can’t account for all the different combinations. But we certainly know that mixture toxicity is a thing. And when you’re exposed to a mixture it’s worse.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: So, if a toxic material, say, mercury has a toxic value of 1 and another chemical has a toxic value of 1. When you add them up, 1 + 1 doesn’t necessarily equal 2. In fact, it may be equal to a much higher number.
Professor Marc Cohen: It might equal 5, yeah. We know some of the ways that can happen, so for example, it might change the way it’s excreted or the way things are metabolized. And often with herbal medicines, we can use that to our advantage but with toxic chemicals, it can actually make them more potent.
I mean, there may be some more counter-effects that make them less potent, but generally, mixtures are more toxic than single exposures. And the other side of that, toxic truth number 6 is a bioaccumulation occurs over the lifespan.
So the combinations we’re exposed to, the input of those toxicants, is greater than our ability to excrete them. So they basically accumulate in our bodies, and especially the ones that are fat soluble because we don’t normally excrete fat. So fat’s a very precious biological resource. We don’t want to excrete it, we want to preserve it and use it. So these fat-soluble chemicals build up in our body over our lifespan and there’s actually a theory that says that part of the reason, one possible reason for the obesity epidemic, is obesity, and centripetal obesity; in centripetal obesity where you put the weight on around your belly, is a way of getting these toxic chemicals out of the general circulation and sort of diluting them.
And that’s our bodies attempt to use the public health principle of “the solution to pollution is dilution”. So if you can’t excrete them, you can dilute them by just putting on more fat. And of course, the fattiest organ in our body is our brain. And that uses most of the energy, and it’s 20% of all our energy gets used in our brain, and that’s where fat accumulates.
If we think about a fetus; a fetus doesn’t have a lot of body fat but they’re all brain. Most of the fat in the fetus is in the brain. So, these chemicals can pass through the placenta. There’s a Canadian study that talked about babies being born pre-polluted. And then, you know, you get breastfed and those chemicals come out through the breast milk. And I must say that breast milk is still the best possible food for infants. Even though it has high levels of toxicants, it can have, it’s the best possible food. Although we also know that breastfeeding is a good way for the mother to detoxify. Because you’re excreting these sort of lymphiphilic toxicants, these fat-soluble toxicants from breast milk.
We also know if that you’re a second or third child, you get less toxic breast milk than if you’re a first child.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Gosh. I hope my brother’s listening to this because it explains so much. Marc, please go on.
Professor Marc Cohen: Well if you have an older sibling, you need to thank them because they took a toxic load, they took the heat for you, yeah. They’re the most vulnerable, and they’re also the most exposed. And we’ll talk about that in a minute. But in terms of the combinations, it’s worse to have combinations, and those combinations increase.
If you think about where people get cancers, it’s in the fatty tissue. The breast, the prostate and the bone marrow, et cetera.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: So this idea that weight gain, apart from high carbs affecting hormones like insulin, et cetera. Weight gain, the accumulation of fat, may also be a response to toxins?
Professor Marc Cohen: And fatty liver is one of the consequences of that. Where you build up huge fat deposits within the liver. So you know, moving on. As I say, it becomes really depressing. But we know the windows of development are critical. It depends when you’re exposed, and certainly, here again, children are worse off. Because if you’re exposed during critical periods of development; when you’re developing your organ systems or you’re developing your cognitive pathways, you’re much more vulnerable.
And they’ve actually done studies, for example, on organic phosphate pesticides, which are the commonly used water-soluble pesticides. And they measured these levels in the urine of pregnant women in their third trimester. And they showed that the levels in the woman’s urine while she was pregnant correlated with that child’s intellectual development at age 7. So yeah, very early exposure can have a latent effect.
And then we also know that around the timing effect, that these effects are trans-generational. So what you’re exposed to doesn’t just affect you, it affects your children, it affects your children’s children, and possibly your children’s children’s children. Down up to 4 generations.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: So this is epigenetics, where not just the thought we have, which are actually chemicals the body produces called neurotransmitters, but also foods and now chemicals can attach to our cell membranes and cause our genes to express themselves in a particular way, be it positive or negative.
Professor Marc Cohen: That’s correct, yeah. There are exposures, toxic exposures can epigenetic changes that have been transmitted through the generations. And that’s not just toxic exposure to chemicals. There’s been a lot of research on toxic exposure to events. Like, first, Holocaust survivors, and whole generations being traumatized by war or famine or different population events that have epi-genetic transfer down the generations.
We’re still sort of mapping the ability and how they’re actually transferred. There are studies that show that stress can actually impact two or three, even four generations later.
And finally the last sort of two is the risk of your having an impact is; it’s not equal, it’s unjust, and it’s actually greatest for the young. So the risk factors for children are much higher because they have a longer latency period to develop disease, they’ve got a bone ripple immune system of detoxification pathways. They actually extract more toxicants from the food and the air because of their high metabolic rate, et cetera.
So the risk for children is much higher than for adults. Also, the risk is higher for more vulnerable populations, say, people in poverty who live in industrial areas. And people who don’t have the resources. People who have malnutrition increases the risk. Because if you don’t have the right nutritional defenses to feed your detoxification pathways and process things. So malnutrition, poverty, and young age are all … all increase the risk, and also makes you more vulnerable.
And finally, exposure is unequal and unjust, and accidents happen. So again, how you’re exposed living in poor areas, being very young, your children have more hand to mouth activity, they extract more toxicants from their food. They’re crawling along the ground, where there’s dust from diesel, and there’s pesticides and all that. So the many ways that children have more exposure.
And then, accidents happen. There being, industrial accidents that exposed huge populations in every stage of the chemical cycle. So you know, the BP oil spill or Exxon Maldives disaster and Bhopal with the pesticide factory exploded. And Fukushima, and Love Canal and even Cranbourne in Melbourne where there was … they built a suburb on a toxic waste dump. So it’s really is where you are. There’s no place on Earth that’s pristine and in fact, there’s … I think in Europe, I was reading there are more than 500,000 locations in Europe that are “no-go” areas for humans. These areas are so toxic, through a lot of true war chemicals, but also industrial plants where they’ve used PCBs et cetera. But these are areas where humans just cannot go because they’re so toxic.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Okay. Well, you warned us that this can be depressing, but a big part of solving a problem is becoming aware of it. And there’s a lot of things we can do about it. I mean, we’re constantly making choices. And there is hope.
Professor Marc Cohen: Oh I think there definitely is hope. For all of these things, we can address these issues. So, while toxicants are everywhere, nature has almost an infinite power to remedy and heal. Then we can actually choose what we’re exposed to. Positively by choosing the products we buy, and choosing what goes into our mouth, and choosing what we bring into our homes. And choosing how and where we live.
So there’s … we have an incredible amount of choice once we’re aware of these issues. To actually change our exposure levels. To choose to wear protective clothing when we’re using chemicals et cetera.
So there really is hope. And I think we’ve put a lot down to individuals to change things, and it does help the individuals to change things. But I think we have to change things at a societal level as well. I think we’re not aware of how much power we actually have. We think that the corporations and the politicians are in power, but they’re only in power because we give them power. And we can change that just as easily.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: I mean, we get to vote every 3 or 4 years, I wonder what power that actually has. But we do know that money talks. So we can’t vote without money.
Professor Marc Cohen: And actually we get to vote even with just our attention. Like what we choose to focus on. And I think in today’s environment, click-baits on the internet trying to get your attention, and there’s a science about how much dopamine they can make you secret by different images, and different headlines, and false headlines that are just attractive.
We actually can choose where we focus our attention. We don’t have to follow where we’re led, we can actually choose where we want to go.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Okay. So we’re aware and try and make sensible, informed choices. But detoxing ourselves is clearly a very important concept we should be doing. What should we be doing?
Professor Marc Cohen: Yeah, so I’ve done a lot of thought about this and I’m actually putting together a whole program. The principles are very very similar. One is to stop putting the toxicants in in the first place. There’s no point to detoxing if you’re going to keep on toxing. So you want to reduce toxic exposure. And I guess public health is a voice, you know, “stop smoking”, “stop drinking”. These are very simple ways to reducing your toxic exposure. And there are many others.
But you want to limit what goes in, and you want to keep your channels of elimination open. And when I talk about your “channels of elimination”, I’m talking about the 5 Bs. And that’s your bladder, your bowels, your breath, your body, and your brain.
So for your bladder, you want to keep your body flushed, and you want to filter water. I think there’s a truism, “if you don’t use a filter, you are one”. And I don’t think we can trust the governments and water supply companies to give us pristine water anymore. So, and again, you want to stop toxicants going in, so filter your water. And then keep your body flushed. Peeing lots of straw-colored urine. And there are lots of different herbal teas, I’m a big fan of Tulsi-Holy Basil tea, which enhances your detoxification pathways. Lots of herbal teas will be slightly diuretic, and keep your body flushed with clean water. So that’s your bladder.
With your bowels, you want to keep your bowels open, so you know, high fiber diets to keep your bowels moving. I’m really a fan of intermittent fasting, and I think everybody does intermittent fasting because we don’t eat while we sleep. But to give your bowels a break every day by maybe fasting 12 to 14, maybe 16 hours. So don’t eat after 8 o’clock at night and then don’t eat again until 10 in the morning or 8 in the morning or as you feel. So it gives your bowels a break. And then eating, not just high fiber, but fermented products. So you’re feeding your gut flora, that whole microbiome, which there’s so much research about now.
That’s it. And a lot of herbal products, research now on turmerics it shows that it’s not just good for you to know, to get into your blood but it actually stimulates good bacteria and prevents bad bacteria growing in your gut.So yeah, feasting and fasting, and the idea that the feast is in the first bite. And fasting overnight. And then, eating fiber and fermented products. That will keep your bowels clean and open.
And then your breath, and that means trying to breathe clean air. So, whether you’re using air purifiers or if you live in the city you need air purifiers. But if you don’t, then going out into nature and walking the park, or going to areas where there is fresh air. So that’s the breath, breathing clean air and making sure that it’s clear.
And then your body. And the way of cleaning your body, I mean washing your hands is a very simple, and they’ve even shown office workers if they wash their hands about 6 times a day they’re less fire retardants in their blood. And that’s because your computers, your phones, all the plastics around you in your office; they’re all made with fire retardant. Because you think about plastic. Plastic’s made from petrol and petrol’s highly flammable.
So the way they prevent these things from being a fire hazard is they use brominated fire retardants. And they come off on our hands and then we touch our mouths. And you don’t need to touch your mouth to absorb. So just washing your hands is a big factor. And another one I’m a big fan of is sweating. It doesn’t matter how you do it. If it’s a sauna or going for a run or dancing, digging in the garden, or whatever it is. But cleaning your body from the inside out. It’s also keeping your body flushed, it’s clearing your skin. It’s also a detoxification pathway.
One of my students, Dr. Joy Hussain is doing her PhD in sauna-ing and sweating and looking at the metabolomics of sweat. That you excrete heavy metals and pesticides and things actually in your sweat.
And then finally with your brain. It’s keeping your mind open. Try to reduce toxic thoughts. If you’ve had toxic exposures, psychological exposures and are dealing with those. But again, trying not to put toxic thoughts in, staying away from toxic people, staying away from the news. And just the whole barrage of toxicity that’s in the mainstream media. And keeping an open mind. And having time out, where you’re just really at peace with yourself.
That’s just some simple practices that people can do to keep their channels of illumination open and that will help to reduce the toxicity.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Okay, so we’ve talked about environmental stress and toxicity, and how to keep our elimination or detoxification pathways open. I love that, the 5 Bs. Which is clearly a major priority for us all in our modern world. Let’s switch now, let’s talk about wellness. I know that’s been a major focus for you, both professionally and personally. Over many years. And how do we define wellness?
Professor Marc Cohen: Oh there are so many different definitions. People can have their own pet ones or academic ones. But wellness it’s the way you look, feel, perform and stay well. The wellness is more than health. And one of the two things I like to talk about is that wellness is not an individual thing, it’s a social thing. There’s a great story where Swami Satchidananda, who is the founder of integral yoga, was asked: “what’s the difference between illness and wellness”? And he went up to the board where we’d written and just circled the “I” in “illness” and the “we” in “wellness”. And sat down. And that puts in a nutshell that illness is about the individual, wellness is about the collective. It’s about the way you can’t we well unless you’re in a community, in a society and a planet that’s well.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Yeah I heard you say this many years ago. And you said it earlier today and it’s stayed with me. It’s really a simple message, but it’s quite profound. We are all connected, so we are all affected. I mean it’s a kind of marriage in sickness and in health.
Professor Marc Cohen: Yeah so, your wellness implies that not only are you healthy and well, but also your environment and that there is harmony and synergy between your thoughts, your words and your deeds, and the environment you’re in.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: I know you’ve been very interested, as I have, in this international renowned Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete known as the “Iceman” for his ability to withstand extreme cold, he’s got many world records I think. Can you tell our listener a bit about him?
Professor Marc Cohen: I met with him just over a year ago now, extreme wellness is again, it’s something that I’ve sort of coined the term I guess. And putting together to improve my own understanding of some of these issues. And the way I frame that is to think about homeostasis. Now I like to go back to first principles. And biology. As organisms, we try and maintain a constant internal environment. So our body temperature and our blood pressure and our blood sugar and all these different variables that maintain … that we try to maintain as a constant.
And that’s the whole process of homeostasis and we have these parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems that work through negative feedback to try and maintain a consistent level. Yet to find that point of balance, and if you really find that exact point of balance, this is the sort of state of bliss. You’re at one with the universe because you don’t have to do anything because you’re totally balanced.
And either side of that, there’s like a steady state, where you can manage those variables quite well, and most people spend most of their lives in that steady state. Certainly now in the modern world, we’re very comfortable. We don’t have to shiver or sweat, we can just go into a room and put the air conditioning on, or the heater on, or put a jumper on. We travel in cars and they’re air-conditioned. So most people are in this steady state.
And then there’s outside that steady state is adaptation zone, where you actually have to actively do something, mood change or physiology. Increase your blood pressure or heart rate or the way you think or what you do to actually adjust. And then outside of that is this “panicked zone” or “breakdown zone” where you can’t cope. And that’s the limits of homeostasis.
That limit of homeostasis it’s the edge of what you can cope with; it’s a very interesting point because it’s at that point we often get the sense of flow, where your whole body is engaged in a single activity. But it’s during your steady state … your blood pressure can be doing one thing, your temperature, and your thoughts … you can be thinking about this or that, and you’re not acting as a coherent organism.
Whereas if you’re at that edge of balance or edge of flexibility of what you can respond to. Your mind, your body, your brain, your breath. All of that have to be working together. And we can explore that. And a lot of practices do explore that. In yoga, often you’ll go to the edge of a stretch and you’ll just breathe and stay there and focus your mind. And in doing that … if you go too far you’ll hurt yourself, but if you just go to the edge of where you’re comfortable, you’ll find that naturally, your flexibility will increase, your strength will increase.
So we can explore the edge of our adaptation in really basic ways. I like to talk about the language of our cells. If you think about every cell in your body, full of mitochondria, that burn glucose and produce oxygen. But in the language of our mitochondria and our cells is water and oxygen and carbon dioxide and temperature and glucose. That’s the language of our cells. And we can modify each of those things consciously by modifying our environment.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Now the mitochondria are the power pack inside each of our cells.
Professor Marc Cohen: Yeah and that’s the little factories where the glucose is burned with oxygen and carbon dioxide’s produced. Or if they are without oxygen then lactic acid is produced lactate. So if we want to change those variables … and this is what Wim Hof does … well, he’s discovered that through his own method, the Wim Hof Method. Which involves a breathing technique, gradual cold exposure, and mental focus.
So theory’s important, and it’s quite well documented. In fact, I think a couple days ago, the latest study came out, fMRI studies of him and other people exposed to cold, and trying to understand how it happened. He sat in an ice bath for nearly two hours. And he’s got, I think, 26 world records for climbing Kilimanjaro and Everest in his board shorts and running marathons in the Arctic Circle and deserts and all sorts of things.
And he has incredible control over his physiology through these three disciplines of cold exposure, breath control and mental focus. And his practices involve going to the extremes. Some of the breathing practice you go to the extremes of oxygenation and carbon dioxide buildup. And it’s a very simple practice.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: So this is so interesting. We’ve talked a lot on this show about breathing. We had Dr. Rosalba Courtney, who did her Ph.D. on breathing. And also, Patrick McKeown from the Buteyko Institute. And we’re all discovering about how important breathing is in regulating our body chemistry, affecting our energy levels, how we sleep, even our posture. But this takes breathing to another level.
Professor Marc Cohen: Well, one of the … going back to basics. One of the things I like to talk about is the 5 Phases or the 5Rhythms I learned about first in Chinese medicine, the 5 Element theory. And then I studied martial arts, which talked about it. And then I discovered the 5Rhythms dance practice, which Gabrielle Roth talks about. She describes flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness as these are the phases that anything in nature that transforms goes through.
And our breath can do those. So the breath you’re talking about, just the slow breathing through your nose, well you’re not even conscious of your breathing. We call that the “flowing breath” or I call it the “flowing breath”. And then what Wim does, or his method, he goes through all these 5 phases of breathing. From that flowing breath, you then make a decision to go into the staccato breath, which is in and out hyperventilation. So a big breath in, and relaxed out. It’s basically a panting type of breath. Very short, sharp, and you’re doing it consciously.
And if you do 30, 40, 50 of these big breaths in, and then relaxed out, in and out breaths, then you’ll blow away all the carbon dioxide. Or you really reduce your carbon dioxide level. And after a couple minutes, you’ll start to get a bit light headed. And it’s actually not … it’s a little bit uncomfortable the feeling because you start to feel a bit dizzy and luminous and light headed. And what you’ve done is you’ve created what they call respiratory alkalosis. You’ve blown off your carbon dioxide so your blood’s become alkaline.
And that changes a lot of the physiology within our body. Because the alkalinity of your blood will control how tightly hemoglobin will bind to oxygen. For hemoglobin binds much tighter to oxygen when your blood is alkaline. So it drops your carbon dioxide and raises your oxygen level. Now normal the oxygen level is quite high anyway, you know 96, 97, 98% saturation. So you’re hyperventilate will go to 99, which is as high as it will go. And your carbon dioxide will drop.
So it’s like you’re pumping these bellows during this hyperventilation it’s like you’re stretching like a rubber band; where you pull the oxygen up, or pull your carbon dioxide down and the oxygen up. And so they’re separated. And then you get to the point where you’re a bit light-headed, and with the Wim Hof Method, you’ll then hold your breath.
So you go from breathing as much as you can to not breathing at all. In the hold, that’s chaos. Because you don’t know when you’re going to release that breath. Again it builds up energy I guess … because with the breath hold, what happens is the physiology is still being unraveled. First of all, you hold your breath a lot longer than you ever would normally, because the drive to breathe is due to carbon dioxide buildup. And if you have blown off all your carbon dioxide you don’t have the drive to breathe.
And it’s really important that people don’t do this underwater or operating machinery because there’s a risk of shallow water blackout. Because what can happen is, because your carbon dioxide’s so low, you might not get a drive to breathe, even until the point where the oxygen’s so low that you’ll pass out. So you just don’t feel like breathing but then if you pass out and you’re underwater, people drown. Shallow water blackout is a known risk. And in fact, free divers, even though they don’t prolong their breath hold, they don’t do this technique generally because of that risk of shallow water blackout.
So you’re holding your breath, and then what happens then is that you hold for maybe, a couple of minutes, but then the carbon dioxide will start to build up. And as that carbon dioxide builds up, that urge to breathe will build up. And then it will build up to the point where … again, here you’ve hit another extreme … When you stopped hyperventilating and held your breath, you’re at an extreme of high oxygen, low carbon dioxide, and high pH, alkaline pH. At the end of the breath hold, the oxygen goes very low. The carbon dioxide goes very high, and the pH goes very high. Sorry actually very low, so you go back to acid, so you’re going essentially acidosis.
And you can get the oxygen … now medically now I’ve been doing this technique for over a year now and started doing it with an oximeter. And because of the long breath hold, because there’s low carbon dioxide, you don’t feel like breathing. You can get your oxygen down 60 or 50% saturation. Whereas in a hospital, oxygen goes below 90 the alarm bells will ring.
And this is a technique, there is a technique called Intermittent Hypoxic Training. And I remember about 10 years ago I was with my brothers and we did a trip up to Everest Base Camp, and this is when I was working with Rosalba, who’s one of my Ph.D. students. She did her Ph.D. on breathing. So Rosalba was brilliant, and she put me on to this guy Oleg, who has these hypoxicators, which are machines that feed you hypoxic air. So they take you to high altitude air but just with a mask and an oximeter. And what they do is they take you, or they give you, low oxygen air until your blood oxygen goes down, and then they bring you back up again. And they bring you backwards and forwards.
So it’s just for a very short period of time you become hypoxic, and then you go back to normal, and then you go hypoxic again for a short period of time and you go back to normal. This has been quite a sophisticated device. Essentially that’s what happened with this Wim Hof breathing. You hold your breath and you go quite hypoxic, but only for a short period of time, and you breathe again. And that’s when you take the breath after your breath hold, that’s sort of this chaotic release.
And then you have these recovery breaths, which is the lyrical phase. Where it’s not the normal rhythm of breathing. It’s quite a joyous state because you’re relieved … you’ve held your breath and now you’re breathing again. And all your body chemistry starts to go back to normal. So your carbon dioxide will go back down and your oxygen will rise back up and the pH will normalize.
And after a minute or two of normalizing, you get into this stillness phase, that final phase. Where you’ll find that your breathing will just start to flow naturally, but it will be much less than it would normally. Your pulse rate will actually … for me, it’s about 10 beats per minute lower than my resting pulse rate. So if my resting pulse rate’s about 55, I get it down to about 40 or 42 in this peaceful breathing phase. And you also have this beautiful mental quietness. So you’re in this really relaxed phase where you’re hardly breathing, your pulse rate’s going very low, and you’re just in this what I call “actively doing nothing”. It’s a beautiful time to meditate or just to relax.
And that’s the still phase. You’ve gone through the flowing, your unconscious breathing. The staccato where you’re in and out and really pumping your breath. The chaotic where you held your breath and then release it. The lyrical where you did a recovery breath. And then the stillness phase where you’re hardly breathing at all and you’re just in this really quiet physiological zone. Then you do another round. Wim, he talks about doing 3 or 4 rounds here.
It’s incredibly easy, but it’s also very rigorous. I mean it’s a discipline. To sit down to a session of breathing, you have to really have mental control. It’s a very disciplined action to say “I’m gonna now do a round of breath, I’m gonna breath in and out for two minutes and hold my breath for two minutes and then recover and do another round”.
What it does, it has a huge effect on your physiology. And at those points of deciding to do hyperventilation, at the end of the hyperventilation and then holding your breath, and then at the end of holding your breath. There’s a point where what I like to say is your mitochondria and your mind are on the same page. Your mitochondria are talking to your mind.
So when you’re hyperventilating your mitochondria they’re really alkaline, and they’re saying “what’s going on? Stop this”. And then when you’re holding your breath, the mitochondria become hypoxic, and they’re saying “what’s going on? Stop this”. So they’re sending messages to your brain to say “take a breath”.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Well, by the time people listen to this I’ll have done Wim Hof’s workshop in Sydney, which you’re also talking at. The idea of building resilience and controlling the autonomic nervous system, the stress response, is particularly appealing; I mean not just to me, I think to everybody. Throughout my life, I’ve just hated the cold, particularly cold water. And I don’t … clearly I’m not alone. But I’ve been having cold showers for the last few weeks. And honestly, I’m amazed at how I’ve adapted.
Professor Marc Cohen: The cold is an incredible teacher. And that’s one of Wim’s basic tenets. The cold is our warm friend. One thing we’ve learned is we’re incredibly resilient. Much more resilient than we think we are. The other is that we can actually be in control of our autonomic nervous system. So if you think about your blood vessel for example, and we talk about cancer’s now the biggest killer.
But the second biggest killer is cardiovascular disease. Atherosclerosis. And there’s about a 100,000 kilometers of blood vessels in our body. And they’re lined with a smooth muscle. Now that smooth muscle is not under our voluntary control, it’s part of the autonomic nervous system. So we don’t/can’t normally exercise those smooth muscles lining our blood vessels. But if you force your body into the heat, they’ll vasodilate. If you force your body into the cold, they’ll vasoconstrict. So you can open and close all those blood vessels in your body just by controlling your outside temperature.
And one of the things I’ve been talking about for a while now, and doing myself, is doing hot and cold showers. And they call that actually a “scotch shower”, and that’s something that Ian Fleming wrote that James Bond does every day. I’ve been talking and I’ll ask people “how many people take cold showers?”. And you find that between 10 and 15 percent of the people take cold showers because they’ve done it all their lives and it makes them feel good and they don’t get sick. There are groups of people all over the world who do ocean swimming all year round, even in the freezing waters. And a lot of them don’t get sick that often.
Now, most people don’t like cold showers. It’s not a pleasant thing. So I’ve worked out a way to make it easier. But you find if you do a hot shower first, then that vasodilates all your blood vessels, and you get the enjoyment of the hot shower. I’ve always loved bathing, I’ve always been a hot water person. It was only a year and a half ago just before I met Wim that I discovered the power of the cold … really the cold bathing. But then, if you’re gonna jump into a cold shower or an ice bath it’s a shock to the system. But what you can do is; you have a hot shower, you turn the heat right up so you feel like it’s almost too hot, so you’re very vasodilated. Then, I’ve actually risen this song and dance, it’s called the “cold water hokey pokey”. So you’ve done your hot shower, and this is the hardest part. The hardest part is actually making the decision to do it.
Another thing, you know you’re at the edge of the swimming pool and the hardest thing is to jump in? You know it’s going to be cold. But once you’re in its sort of okay. But that’s a bit of a shock. So, you’ve had your hot shower, then you turn the hot water off, make the decision. Turn the hot water off, the cold water on, and then you just wet your left foot and leg. And then your right foot and leg. And then your right foot and leg. Then your left hand and arm and your other hand and arm. You keep on breathing calmly and you smile to yourself because that’s what it’s all about.
And then you put your left side in, and your right side in, and your front side in, then you turn yourself around. Continue breathing calmly and smile to yourself, that’s what it’s all about. Then you put your whole head in, you move your whole head around. Stand still, get a drenching. Slowly turn yourself around. Continue breathing calmly, smile to yourself, that’s what’s it’s all about. Then you do the hokey pokey song. And you go “oh hokey pokey” and you put the water under your armpits, put the water on your groin, put the water on your kidneys. And then you just have a dance in the cold shower and you’ll find that you’re dancing around in the cold shower, it’s quite easy. And you’ve started your day singing and dancing, and you feel really alive after that cold shower.
So what that’s done is; by starting very slow, just from your feet and your hands inwards, and starting from a point of vasodilation, what you’ve done is you’ve caused vasoconstriction and you push the blood from your feet and your extremities, from your arms, into your core. So you force your arms and your legs to vasoconstrict. So suddenly you’ve got all this extra warm blood in your core. And that’s pushing blood through your organs, that’s actually changing your cardiac output, flushing your liver and your kidneys and all your organs with warm blood.
So even though your limbs are now cold, you don’t actually feel that cold. And then you know you keep breathing calmly and then you do your left side and your right side and your front side and turn around. And you’re gradually lowering your skin temperature, and vasoconstricting your periphery. So this is an exercise for all your blood vessels. It’s also an exercise for your willpower. Because the decision to do it and actually doing it shows “I’m happy to make a decision to be uncomfortable”. Know I can be comfortable being uncomfortable.
There’s a whole process that’s been talked about more in physiology circles called hormesis. And hormesis is a process of where you have one sort of stress, and by exposing yourself to stress, it makes your stress adaption mechanisms stronger, so you can cope with other stresses later on. So exercise is hormetic. Exercise is quite stressful, you damage muscles, it’s stressful, but by exercising it actually trains your body to then cope with the rest of life.
So, you get the same with cold exposure and with heat exposure as well. The same thing happens in a sauna. Where you train your adaptive responses to stress and that happens psychologically as well. So if you know that you’re happy to make a hard decision and you go into a cold shower and be a little bit uncomfortable, then when life throws you some stressful event you say “oh I can handle that”. I can be comfortable in discomfort. And that’s where this extreme wellness view comes in. It’s exploring your willingness and ability to be comfortable in what’s otherwise an uncomfortable situation.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: So it’s a kind of therapy for your own stress response, by retraining your nervous system, particularly your autonomic, involuntary nervous system?
Professor Marc Cohen: It is. I think in the past stress was seen as the enemy. There’s always mindfulness training and meditation and relaxation and all this is saying that “stress is the enemy, you have to oppose that stress”. Chronic, uncontrolled external stress is the enemy. That’s not good for you. What this is saying is that controlled, conscious, short-term, acute stress can actually be your friend. Because it trains you to cope with all these other stresses out of your control.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Marc, this has been great. Before we finish, I just wanted to ask you what you thought the biggest challenge is for people on the health journey through life in this modern world?
Professor Marc Cohen: Whoa, big question. So the biggest challenge? Well, it’s not physical, I think it’s psychological. So I think the biggest challenge is … just like you know, having a cold shower, the biggest challenge is actually the psychological decision to do it. Because once you’re in it and you’re doing it it’s actually … you can cope with it, you can adapt to it very very quickly.
I think the biggest challenge is realizing how much power we have over our own life and over our own thoughts. And exercising that power. We tend to go to the default position of being lazy, of letting someone else do the thinking for us. Letting our devices keep warm for us or cool for us. We don’t realize how much power we have over our own state of health and well being. And even of our thoughts.
So yeah, I think that’s a challenge. How do we reclaim the power over our own thoughts, and our bodies? And exercise that power. J
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: Marc, it’s been terrific to chat with you. Thank you so much.
Professor Marc Cohen: It’s been a pleasure, Ron. I’m always happy to chat, and look forward to seeing you at Wim Hof’s event.
Dr. Ron Ehrlich: So there it is: 10 toxic truths, 5 Bs. Bladder, bowel, breath, body and brain. Keeping those detoxification pathways open. It’s empowering to know that you can significantly reduce the toxic load that you’re exposed to by making informed decisions about the things you purchase.
We’ve talked a lot about breathing also on this podcast from lots of different perspectives, but this is taking it to a completely another level. We have lessons to learn here about our potential, and I thought a really important part about using stress in a positive way, intentionally stressing our body to train our body to deal with stresses and to build resilience. I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s a recurring theme; building resilience.
Now, if you’re not going on to my website to review the show notes, the transcripts of everything that you’ve just heard with links to articles; you should. They’re a great resource, I mean this … there’s often so much information in these podcasts you may have missed that you can pick up again by, well, listening to it again, but by reading the transcripts.
Now if you’re enjoying the podcast, please leave a review on iTunes, and of course, I’m always open to suggestions and feedbacks. So, until next time, this is Dr. Ron Ehrlich. Be well.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you, or any other person, has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner.