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The benefits of breathwork and extreme cold exposure: The Health Stack with Robbie Bent

By Matteo Franceschetti
January 25, 2021
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robbie bent
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Health is based on three pillars: sleep, nutrition and fitness. I chat with some of the most interesting people I know to discover more about their Health Stacks: the behaviors and products they use to stay healthy and fit.

Recently, I had an hour-long Zoom conversation with Robbie Bent. Robbie is the co-founder of Inward Breathwork, a guided breathwork app, and formerly the lead of ecosystem development at Ethereum. Robbie and I discuss his passion for breathwork and extreme cold and heat exposure.

Highlights

  • How psychedelics and Vipassana retreats saved Robbie from addiction

  • Robbie practices daily cold exposure through ice baths, which have been critical for Robbie’s health and wellness

  • One of Robbie’s favorite ways to detoxify his body is through high heat exposure in a custom built Finnish sauna

  • Breathwork is a core passion for Robbie, he practices different types of breathing exercises every day

  • Robbie shares his secrets on how to shut off his brain during the day and relax, which has been crucial for his mental health

My journey to health, wellness and sobriety

I started my career in investment banking, and I worked at a hedge fund right out of college. While working at the hedge fund, I thought that I could start something even bigger. I left investment banking to start my own tech startups. Since then, I founded three startups, two in telecom / hardware and one in the crypto-ecosystem. 

When I was 26, the second startup I worked on raised about $25 million and ended up failing entirely. I had to fire 100 employees and was the last person left. Moreover, I was broke and had to move into my parents house. I was raised by aggressive, strict Eastern European parents that pushed me to measure my value in terms of money and success. All of this stress from the company’s failure led me to develop a severe addiction problem. At the time, I felt like there was no way out of my situation. 

When I was at my low, I decided to try and work on myself, and I started with meditation. I began by mediating for 10 minutes a day using Headspace. Meditation led me to discover Vipassana, and I decided to go on a Vipassana retreat - 10 days of silence with 10 hours of meditation each day.

The retreat was a completely life-changing experience.

At the retreat I also learned about psychedelic medicines from other participants and I eventually went on to try LSD and Ayahuasca for psychedelic therapy. Since the Vipassana retreat and my experience with psychedelics, I have been sober.

After becoming sober, I began to get back into work and found a new passion within the crypto-ecosystem, and started working at Ethereum.

My insight into extreme cold exposure

I always recommend doing cold exposure daily. If you don’t have access to something like an ice bath, cold showers are a great way to start. When you are starting out, you might have to ease into it. If you start at 32°F cold water, it may be overwhelming, so I’d recommend starting at a temperature where you can spend 30 seconds in the cold! It will take about 5-6 times for your body to adapt to the cold, so cold showers are great for beginners because the shower typically doesn’t get extremely cold. If you are consistent with your cold exposure everyday, you will start to see the benefits exponentially. One of my favorite benefits from cold exposure is that it has been shown to increase your most powerful antioxidant systems by 50%

If you want to elevate your cold exposure experience, then the second easiest and cheapest way to start is to buy a chest freezer. There are many that retail for around $500. Some people will outfit their chest freezers with remote temperature control via an app on your phone. The only issue with chest freezers is that they require changing the water every 60 uses, or whenever the water begins to get murky. 

The next level up from chest freezers are commercial units. The Morozko Forge is a great option that retails for around $10,000. They are a nice wood unit with steel and copper cables to create a conductive surface under the machine that creates the ice. Personally, I custom built an ice bath with the help of Morozko.

I take an ice bath everyday, typically around 2:00PM, after my meditation to power up for an afternoon of work.

While I have tried cryo-chambers, I find that ice baths are the most effective for cold exposure since water is more dense than air and pulls the heat from your body more quickly. In an ice bath, it is important to submerge all the way up to the ears, ensuring that your neck is covered. This is because your vagus system, the system that connects your brain to your organs and body, is more exposed in your neck. If you want to go even further, you can increase your norepinephrine response even more by submerging your entire head.

Why I detox at 190°F

Finding a good at-home sauna can be tough. I initially had an infra-red one in my house that only went up to only 160°F, but found that it was not intense enough. I began to research how the temperature of a sauna, as well as infrared lights in a sauna, correlate to potential benefits. I found that there is not much legitimate research into the effectiveness of infrared saunas vs. dry saunas. They are still helpful in increasing sweating to detoxify the body, but don’t get hot enough to be as effective as Finnish saunas, which go up to 185-190°F and are backed by more credible scientific research. The sauna I have now is a stove Finnish sauna that I supplemented with infrared panels. 

If you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor space, I recommend getting a barrel sauna because it is the cheapest and most effective way to install a sauna at your house. They’re able to get to extremely high temperatures and are usually electric or wood-fired.

Personally, I use my sauna about four to five times a week, for 15 minute sessions around 190°F. 

The importance of breathing correctly

Breathwork is a huge part of my life. Breathing is how we gain conscious control over our autonomic nervous system, the nervous system that controls our circulation, digestion, and immune system. We have little to no control over the function of our autonomic nervous system outside of our breathing. 

Breathwork is a huge part of my life.

Breathing through your diaphragm as opposed to through your chest is more preferable. Most people are chest breathers because we are always over-stimulated. However, this can signal to your body that you are in a stressful situation, and put your body in fight or flight mode. You are not breathing fully or properly when you are breathing through your chest, so breathing into the diaphragm is absolutely necessary to avoid being in a stressed state the entire day.

There is a metric called CO2 tolerance you can track. Similar to how HRV is a metric for your stress response, your CO2 tolerance is a metric you can track for breathing. CO2 tolerance is a measure of how much CO2 is in your body. Your brain has receptors that tell your body when to breathe out by continuously tracking the amount of CO2 that’s in your bloodstream. This is important because if you do not have enough CO2 in your body, your blood will hold onto oxygen, making it more difficult to oxygenate your brain and organs. 

Breath, by James Nestor is an amazing book about the history of breathing, the different types of breathing, and also the basics of breathing. Nestor discusses how humans' jaws and teeth are out of alignment because of the foods we eat now. This impacts how much much air we can inhale and exhale through our mouths, ultimately resulting in a lower CO2 tolerance.

If you want to learn more about different types of breathwork for daily practice, I built Inward Breathwork, a website where you can find all the resources you need. I built it because there was no one site where you could find high-quality programs, music, facilitation, and also information on the science of breathing.

There are many different types of breathing you can do. One example is alternate nostril breathing, which is famous for putting you into your parasympathetic nervous system. During this time, you are slowing down your breathing and stimulating both sides of your brain. 

Personally, in the mornings, I will use a guided breathing on Inward Breathwork called “morning routine breath”. It follows a Wim Hof style of breathing, where you breathe fast, almost hyperventilating, then hold your breath around a minute. As a result, you are alkalizing your body, and turning off the ruminating mind, allowing you to relax the rest of the day.  The morning routine breath also has a guided intention setting and gratitude practice, it’s an entire morning routine in a single session.

In the evenings, I follow a different breathwork routine on Inward Breathwork called “coherent breathing.” Coherent breathing involves breathing at the pace of our natural heartbeat, which for most people is around five and a half breaths per minute. During the evening routine, specific sounds are played that use binaural beats to help relax the brain for sleep. The evening routine on Inward Breathwork is specifically designed to help increase your HRV for optimal recovery and get you ready for sleep.

My mental health hacks

The one thing that has been most effective for my happiness is making time to cuddle with my fiancé in bed  every morning and evening for at least 15 minutes. People usually don’t think of something like cuddling as critical for your happiness, but skin to skin connection increases the oxytocin in your body and is one of the easiest ways to find more happiness.

The other behavior that is critical for my health is being able to shut off my mind. It is important to have hobbies that feel like play to be able to truly relax. Personally, I love to ride on my electric skateboard, Onewheel. I ride my Onewheel during sunny days if I’m going to the gym or the store or just want to take a quick break during the day. During this time, my mind is completely shut off while I’m listening to music and doing something that I enjoy. Another hobby of mine is playing the handpan for 15-20 minutes a day.  It’s important to be able to put a “brake” on the nervous system to allow your body and mind to rejuvenate.

To unwind, I also use float tanks. I do a weekly one hour float session on Sunday nights and it helps my sleep dramatically. Doing one session increases my Oura Ring sleep score by 30-40%.

What’s in my Health Stack

I have used an Oura Ring for two years to track my sleep. I love how it gamifies sleep by giving me a readiness score every morning based on how well I sleep. Checking my HRV on my Oura Ring is also important to me because it’s crucial for understanding my overall health and recovery status.

I also use my Eight Sleep Pod to optimize my sleep. I like to set my Pod to -4 during sleep and then +1 during wakeup time. I sleep in a completely dark room and like to sleep cold and wake up naturally to a warmer bed using the Pod’s thermo alarm. In addition to a cool environment for sleep, air quality is essential. I also use a Coway air purifier in my bedroom to ensure good air quality while I sleep.

Before bed, I like to use the ROWOD app for stretching and mobility exercises to wind down for the day. I do this stretching with my fiancé and it gives us time to talk and reflect on the day. I also enjoy meditating in the afternoons. For meditation, I use the app Insight Timer and also Waking Up.

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