Cold Thermogenesis in Tibet & the Dangers of Biohacking

Dr. Jack Kruse & I hanging out at PaleoFX
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There is a lot of buzz lately about Dr. Jack Kruse’s biohacking experiments using ice baths to induce cold thermogenesis. This is an intriguing and powerful type of biohack, one we’re still learning about.

My first experience with cold thermogenesis coincided with my exposure to yak butter tea, which led to the creation of Bulletproof Coffee.  On a high altitude trekking trip in the Himalayas near Mt. Kailash, the temperature was -10 F and there were 20 mph winds. It was so cold my insulated water bladder drinking system froze to slush.

I was traveling with a porter, a young guy about half my size. He wore a thin leather jacket, a t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. Nothing else.

While showing off for a cute Australian girl, the porter stepped through ice into freezing water up to his groin. We were miles from a road and there were only maybe 10 people within a day’s walking distance. I was worried about him getting hypothermia, so I handed him an extra down jacket I’d brought.

This uberman took the jacket I thought might save his life and stuffed it into his pack, thinking I was asking him to carry it for me. All I could think was, “WTF?” so I gestured to him to put it on. He smiled and said, “It’s not very cold.”

I watched other guys like him who were half my weight but could carry twice what I could, and do it all day long. I watched the porter survive on nothing more than yak butter tea and a little roasted barley flour.

I figured I was dealing with a race of Bulletproof genetic freaks, the Sherpas. But the reality is that I had no appreciation for how the human body responds to cold.  At the time, all I could think of was getting warm by drinking some yak butter tea, but little did I know cold exposure might turn out to be a biohack in the future.

You can read the full story of how Bulletproof Coffee got started here, but the rest of this post is about how to make yourself Bulletproof with cold thermogenesis (and how not to do it).

After reading Jack Kruse’s articles on cold thermogenesis, talking on the phone with him the night before he had elective surgery using only ice to recover, I decided to give a few cold thermogenesis protocols a try.

My previous attempts at cold exposure were not fruitful. Tim Ferriss’s neck ice packs didn’t produce any reduction in inflammation I could feel, and no change in fat, but they work for some.  (his advanced protocols call for drinking ice water, cold showers, and then ice baths.) Cold showers a la Tim didn’t work for me even after the neck packs; cold showers tended to be so shocking that I felt awful after them for hours. One time it even induced a double heart beat, which is uncomfortable but not dangerous. (It helps to have an ER doctor for a wife though…).

If you don’t know what cold thermogenesis is, there are a variety of articles listed below for you to read.  Follow safe protocols! You should listen to our interview with exercise scientist Dr. Tim Noakes where we talk about adaptive thermogenesis to cold.

Safe cold thermogenesis protocols involve gradually increasing exposure to cold over time so that you can overcome your dive reflex.  You start with putting your face in cold water, then using ice packs, then sitting in an ice bath for almost an hour. Read on to see what happened when I skipped steps.

 

Research on Cold Thermogenesis

Here is our interview with Dr. Tim Noakes.  In the interview, Dr. Noakes talks about working with a swimmer who was training to swim in the Arctic Ocean.  Dr. Noakes had the athlete spending large amounts of time in an ice-cold water tank to prepare for the swim.  After several weeks of training, the athlete would start sweating half an hour before entering the water.  His body was adapting to the cold by massively increasing heat production (thermogenesis).  However, you don’t have to be a world-class swimmer to benefit from cold thermogenesis.

There is some interesting research behind cold exposure that suggests it can improve thyroid function, cause fat loss, and increase overall resilience.

A study in rats found that cold exposure revamped thyroid function and increased BAT oxygen consumption by 450%.

One study in humans found that cold exposure can increase energy expenditure, and may assist in fat loss.

Another study found that adult humans have more brown adipose tissue (BAT) than previously thought.  BAT can significantly increase energy expenditure in response to cold.

Doctors use cold exposure with patients to increase leptin sensitivity, boost strength, speed wound healing, and cause fat loss.  Sounds good to me.

I did the thermogenesis protocol for 2 weeks without a problem.  I started by plunging my face into ice water for about 5-10 minutes at a time.  You’re supposed to do this for about 30 days to teach your body not to over-react to ice exposure. I felt noticeably better sleep (sadly, not monitored with Sleep Cycle) and more energy.

The next step, one I was supposed to start after 2 more weeks of face freezing, is to pack ice around my body while wearing a compression shirt for 30-45 minutes each session. The shirt is there to prevent blood from rushing in and causing bruising after the ice is removed.

Unfortunately, I was staying in a nice hotel in NYC for a Cloud Computing conference.  It was so nice; they decided not to install sinks or tubs.  Instead, they had one of those shallow stainless steel hand sinks and a walk in shower.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice hotel, but it was a little fancier than the traditional cold thermogenesis protocol would allow for.  I also hadn’t brought a compression shirt since I wasn’t ready to use one with cold thermogenesis.

Being a biohacker, I decided to carry on with the protocol no matter what.  The hotel didn’t have an ice machine, so I called the front desk and had several buckets of ice delivered to the room.  Then I did the following:

  1. Packed the ice into plastic ziplock bags.
  2. Laid down on the bed.
  3. Placed the ice across my chest, abs, and shoulders.
  4. Relaxed and tried not think about the cold.

After 5 minutes, I felt great. No shivering at all. But it was late at night and I dozed off. About 45 minutes later, I woke up and removed the ice, then went to bed.

When I woke up, something was wrong.  I was in pain.  About 15% of my body felt like it had been beaten with heavy sticks.

The following day, every spot of my body covered by an ice pack was red and puffy.  It looked like I’d been beaten with sticks.   I had left the ice packs on my body far too long – to the point where I had (according to my ER doctor wife) first degree burns over 15% of my body.

Ouch.

Oops.

This is a real life situation where biohacking went wrong.  It’s taken me weeks to recover and my last round of blood tests still show higher inflammation (C reactive protein or CRP) as a result. I also had to sleep 15% more to recover my energy. This is a major injury. It happened for several reasons:

  • I didn’t bring a thermometer to measure my skin temperature.
  • I didn’t have a compression shirt.
  • I didn’t have a tub.
  •  I dozed a little with the ice packs still on me.

Basically, I didn’t follow the protocol I meant to follow.

Biohacking may seem like a risk free endeavor (besides getting blood drawn and spending hours on Bulletproof Mindware), but things can and do go wrong in ways you would never guess.  When doing something with any kind of risk, you need to be prepared.  Gather the right tools, prepare mentally, and be flexible.

As my emergency room doctor wife said when I returned home,

“Only you would go to NYC to present at a Cloud Computing conference and come back with frostbite.”

Don’t let it happen to you.

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By Dave Asprey

  • Very interesting article. I believe cold exposure has some merits although I’m reluctant to try it for myself as I hate being cold.

    Do you plan to keep going with the experiment despite those mishaps?

    • Dave Asprey

      I’m still doing it – it helps enormously!

      • Dave, where are you seeing the most benefits?

      • I’ll second that. Now, I haven’t been doing it that long. I would do a day here, a couple days in a row, and a day there – now I am committing to everyday for 30 days, and perhaps longer. Today was actually my first over 5 minute shower @ 48-49 degrees. It felt great.

        Bulletproof coffee, nootropics, and CT ARE a freakshow awesome, incredibly fantastic morning ritual to significantly enhance the probability of enjoying a KICK-ASS day.

        I feel like a billion bucks today, not a million, a million ain’t shit. Billion with a B.

        TheIdealState.com

        • Chris Wyllie

          Overwhelming CT Experience:
          Hey Dave, I’ve had a similar bodily reaction to that when you fell asleep on the ice, however I was fully cognizant of what I was doing! Reading Jacks protocol and the purported benefits of CT I ambitiously jumped right into a tub of ice. After 40 minutes and some violent shivering, I developed welts all over my body and felt as though I had been run over by a truck. Did I overwhelm the immune system, and actually increase inflammation rather than reducing inflammation and strengthening the immune system as the cold is meant to do?

          Would more CT be recommended to reduce the inflammation!? Is that what you did after your injuries?

          Have you continued to incorporate CT in your bio-hacking regimen?

  • There’s so many aspects both physical and psychological that are affected by CT. Yes, the cold sucks, yet it is this “suck” that creates adaption. The “Suck” is usually the proper heading for sincere adaption. Live for the suck; make the suck your bitch. Otherwise – why in the hell would the body desire adaption. Comfort, familiar = steady state. I really loathe even the mere idea of steady state.

    Think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. At some point in our existence we went from significantly outdoors to significantly indoors; if one were to use a little loose reasoning one could deem that the daily temperature difference experienced from a primarily outdoor era to a primarily indoor era was at least 10-60 degree difference depending on geographic location and season. Imagine our biological systems’ adaption from one era to the next; that much of a variance would have major effects on the variables within the overall environmental equation.

    By all logic, the body would adapt by slowing down metabolism, and storing more fat as the body no longer would be burning these calories to keep 10-60 degrees warmer.

    Environment changes that bring about FAT ASS: 1. Permanent, fixed dwelling. 2. Less need for movement. 3. Processing of economically and physically satisfying food products (Corn, Soy, Wheat, Canola).

    TheIdealState.com

  • Kenneth Bruskiewicz

    I’m wondering if Ferriss’s protocol would be better in some situations, since it lacks the… how should we say it… entropy? Of having a more complex procedure. The tradeoff with having so many steps, phases, and so on, is that one could be more prone to making honest mistakes, like what happened here.

    What I like about a lot of the Bulletproof interventions is that they’re almost “fire-and-forget” — nothing like calorie counting or meal timing weighing you down. I think biohacks are much more endearing when they’re simple.

    Some fascinating reading here, thanks a lot.

    • Dave Asprey

      I didn’t get much benefit from the Ferriss ice pack protocols.the Kruse method takes 30 days of training then is simple; just get in ice every couple days. Or use ice packs, but with a compression shirt.

  • Scott Clevenger

    Great post Dave. Sorry about your pain. I have been visiting bulletproofexec.com for about two months. I now have a sleep tracking device, train with dual N back, drink BP coffee, and have also been tinkering with a few supplements. After feeling like I had GERD after two weeks of BP coffee (not entirely sure why, possibly rapid increase of fat intake), I was curious about the biohacking learning curve. Before you shared your experience of overdoing it with the ice, I had considered asking about yours and others experiences of biohacking mishaps. If there are others, would you be willing to share your biohacking blunders? Thanks for continually passing along useful information.
    Scott

    • Dave Asprey

      Biohacking learning is really about self awareness. If you do bio and neurofeedback your instrumentation develops faster.
      Your GERD will often resolve if you add betaine hcl with fat meals, or ox bile or lipase. You will learn to digest fat!

  • Hey Dave,

    It’s nice to see you address CT. I’ve been reading about it since I was first introduced to the idea by Tim Ferris’ book. I even did cold showers for a while and saw some good results. However there is a question that I can’t seem to find answered.

    Is laying in a cold tub significantly better than taking a shower?

    I live in a place where I can only take showers and the tap water temp is 48F. At this temperature I feel like I’m freezing to death and can’t stand it for more than 15 min. In the same time people report staying in water with ICE which should be around 32F for 40 min with ease. So I’m wandering – what’s the deal? I am addicted to being optimal :(

    Also if lying in a tub is impossible and cold showers are not enough is it better to just place ice in bags over your body? For some reason I seem to tolerate the later much easier.

    Also being the hacker that you are – have you found any secret supplements foods to make the CT easier?

    Thanks
    Jimmy

    • Dave Asprey

      Ice water is 40 degrees. The goal is to get your skin to 50-55 degrees, so your water will work. Showers are harder than soaking because they pull heat faster from the movement of water. Fat eaters have a harder time acclimating than carb eaters, but fat waters get far more benefits. More fish may help!

      • Cool. That explains a lot because I am definitely a fat eater – some days I am below 30gr carbs. I will just increase the salmon and fish oil caps then. I guess that if the point is to drop down the skin temp to 50-55 degrees and showers do that more quickly they are more “time efficient” which is great for me :)

  • Thanks for sharing this Dave. It’s interesting to hear about your experience with the Sherpas. As you said there is still a lot to learn about the cold so hearing first hand accounts of their abilities is very motivating.

  • Jacob Haskins

    For the adventure of it, I lived in the Alaskan bush for a few years, including time in an Eskimo village on the Bering Sea coast. I remember one winter where the day-time highs were -30 F for a few weeks straight. Then, it suddenly warmed up 0 F. What a difference! I was comfortable outside on those days in just a sweatshirt and a stocking cap. The body’s adaptability is really very amazing.

  • Gladina

    It’s so great to see you doing CT! For me, the benefits have been outstanding! I love how Jack Kruse endorses BP coffee, and now you with CT! I came across both these sites separately and now they are like partners in a way!

    A few days ago I totally enjoyed a swim in Lake Ontario. It wasn’t even that cold—50°F/10°C. I do face dunks daily, take showers or baths (depending on what my schedule is) and I often use ice packs as well.

  • Jonathan

    Good luck with that CT protocol.
    Personally I don’t feel comfortable taking advice from a doctor who can’t string a sentence together and who is well known in the paleo community for just plain making stuff up. Just saying.

    • Dave Asprey

      Jack is controversial, yes. But that doesn’t mean everything he says is false. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is never wrong, including me. Notice that I referenced medical studies here, and I’m experimenting on myself to verify it works. There is a noticeable positive effect! I’m also a fan of earthing even though some people say there isn’t enough evidence. Sure there is – try it, double blind yourself if you can (easy with some things like earthing, harder with ice), then see what happens…

  • Dave, great material. Did you ever do the interview with Wim Hof or Justin Rosales? It looks like Jack has taken all this to the next level.

    But I was looking all through his CT article series for the actual protocol. Appreciate all the references and background, this guy’s writing style is like swimming through a med school library. :-) The protocol itself is on another page with an odd URL: http://jackkruse.com/the-evolution-of-the-leptin-rx/

  • Jonathan

    William
    Jack is on another level alright. The level of demented theorising that’s no longer grounded in science and can’t be bothered with the discipline this requires. As for his website, I’ve seen adverts for spiritual cleansing in New Age shop windows that are more coherently phrased.

    • Jonathan, thanks. I’ve been following Wim Hof and Justin Rosales for some time now. Convinced what they are doing is real and has benefit. I have done the 5 minute cold showers and do see some effects. Have yet to get into the ice bags.

      Justin and Wim did a book together, which I have, http://becomingtheiceman.com/ . In some ways I think this is better presented than Jack’s protocol. E.g. Justin lays out some very specific signs you should watch for to avoid getting hurt.

  • golooraam

    hi Dave

    Great meeting you a few weeks ago at the symposium. Was super excited to hear Dr. Kruse talk about how optimal coffee can improve CT sessions – so now I’m up to 2-3 cups of bulletproof coffee a day (ok, sometimes 4 cups!)

    Quick CT question – have you used either the VAsper Training in Mountain View or been in a cryo sauna? Any thoughts or experience you care to share?

    Im trying to mix things up, so I had an ice bath at home yesterday, but today I’m going for my first Vasper session and going for my first cryo bath tomorrow

    Thanks

  • Dan Williams

    I used to love going for runs in a really cold rain…the wetter and muddier the better…and would feel totally invigorated for the rest of the day (and the next).. Maybe some CT at work there?

    What about simply spending some time in a cold lake?

    Living in Seattle, we have plenty of access to cold water…even through the summer, going hiking gets you plenty of places to plop down in icy-cold streams.

    Thoughts?

    • Dave Asprey

      I think you’re right about the running in the cold rain. Cold lakes = CT!

      • Dan Williams

        Unofficial polar bear club…here I come.

        Also, I have a moderate phobia of the water (nearly drowned when I was 4), so this would be a good kick in the pants for a number of reasons…

        As Patches O’Hoolihan would say about life: “…you have to grab it by its haunches, and you gotta hump it into submission!”

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  • JC

    I had issues with the cold showers as well. For three days now I’ve been doing something a little different. Instead of getting into a cold shower I now take a bath in the morning by sitting in the empty tub and then letting the water run in. As it rises my body gets used to the cold slowly. By the time it gets to my hips I’ve had almost no difficulty. I then start cupping water over my arms then my stomach and finally just rapidly pouring it over my head, neck, shoulders and well everywhere else. It’s amazing! I’m starting to feel like I “need” to do this even after only 3 days, but we’ll see how this holds out. It is definitely SO much easier than hopping around under a shower head though!

  • PV

    Key is to bring body core temperature down a few degrees.

    Started with convection: Beathing cold air, alternating between shiver response and not shivering, with gentle gradual long pulls of cold air. Kept windows opened in winter. Lowered heart rate with not shivering.

    As body adapted, included conduction. Drank cold water, start from warm showers to end with ice cold showers. Gradually warm showers get colder.

    Started with high carb moderate protein foods frequent meals to boost metabolic rate and compensate fast burning carbs and glucose. Gradually changed to high fat diet, moderate protein, low carb.

    Anaerobic exercise with some aerobic.

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  • Jonathan

    Hi Dave,

    I’ve read some studies that say the thermogenic response to cold is usually accompanied by mitochondrial uncoupling in skeletal muscles. Does this mean it will negatively impact hypertrophy or performance in some way? Your site and podcast are fantastic

    thanks

  • Reka

    I’ve been warm and cozy all my life, and always suffered from the cold a lot. I started cold showers this summer, and now I’m taking walks in the cold and do some basic yoga poses outside in the mornings, and I actually enjoy it, now I can walk around with just light clothing, carrying my jacket in my hand, this is awesome! (I didn’t try the protocol though, just some gradual cold exposure.)

  • Dave

    Dave,

    I’ve been thinking about trying an Epsom salt CT bath. What is your opinion of this? Do you think there would be any enhanced or reduced anti-inflammatory effects from combining the two techniques? Thanks for all you do.

    • Garrett K

      Epsom Salt crystallises at cold temperatures. That’s why float tanks are kept at 93.5F, and float centres (plus the float rooms) are generally kept at an ambient temp of around ~80F.

      Give it a go, but the Epsom Salt likely won’t stay dissolved at cold temps, and you’ll pretty much be sitting in a cold bath with crystal Epsom Salt underneath you 😛

  • Mike

    Dave, awesome info in the CT Articles. But one detail caught my attention; in the 6th article, kruse says:

    “Eating MCT, in winter is probably not the best choice for a cold adapted mammal, because they do not help fluidity of cell membranes. (…) These fats also can make a cold adapted mammal gain weight when eaten off season because of this mismatch. (…) If you want to see proof of this fat reversal ask any person who uses the HCG diet how coconut oil or palm oil work for them on protocol. In short it sucks.”

    What is your opinion on this? Do you still drink BP coffee when doing CT? Have you noticed a difference in terms of weight?
    Thanks!

    • giraffe

      Dave, what are your thoughts? Also intrigued by this… should we be ^butter and decrease mct during winter or during heavy ct?

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  • Frans

    From Holland (like me) This Guy mastered resisting the cold http://www.icemanwimhof.com/en-home

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  • Piter Nortug

    interesting stuff. i am going to experiment in a different way. i live in the alps and from today i will allow my home to be as it is, temperature wise, for the whole winter coming without heating., keeping a temperature of around 60 f.
    outside it goes down up to – 10 f easy, so outside is not a problem.
    i have a concern though: what impact will it have on my immune system? strengthen or weaken?

  • Dennis Hoagland

    Dave,

    You’ve mentioned Tim Ferriss’s CT techniques in this article as well as on the Joe Rogan Experience recently (11/4/13). You’ve brought up his use of ice packs and cold showers but both times neglected to mention his use of Ice Baths. Ferriss’s protocol actual does ease one into Ice baths.

    Tim’s CT Protocol:
    1. Ice packs on back during the evening

    2. 500ml of ice water a day
    3. 5-10min cold showers
    4. 20 min ice baths

    You must have known Ferriss is known for being a HUGE advocate of ice baths, but you only mention things he proposed that haven’t worked for you. This bothers me

    • Adam J

      The author of “4-Hour-Bro-science”, or : “Anecdotal Evidence, after four hours of reading”.

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  • In Tibet and China, the thing that I’ve seen done is to pour 2 buckets of near freezing water over your head first thing in the morning when you are warm. This shock is what gets the immune system to respond favourably. Never do it when cold, sick or open – like after exercise or sex etc – your pores are open and the cold drives in. Leave it at that.

    One thing about the Wim Hof method. You’re born with a certain amount of fuel supply (Jing in Chinese medicine); lets call that your wood supply. The spark that ignites the wood is a combination of nutrients and oxygen – that burns the wood and creates energy – the Chinese call that Chi/ Qi. When you force inner heat, all you are doing, is burning more wood – you have the fuel tap on full rather than a slow drip.

    Just see what happens to people who do this for long periods of time. You will find them depleted; however, it looks good on the internet and people can do extraordinary things, but they are burning themsevles out.

    Tummo was never about this super human type of thing – it is about transformation and realisation through the use of inner heat. Being able to withstand cold is just a byproduct.

    Just use 2 buckets of near freezing water (2/3 degrees C) and pour them over your head first thing – the fuel tap stays on a slow drip and you also supercharge your immune system over time, so long as you are not sick to start with. If you are sick, then get help from an expert who is not an internet guru!

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