Hormesis is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. Is hormesis a basic principle of biology — or is it merely a strange but unimportant quirk of nature that only applies in exceptional circumstances?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb–the options trader turned philosopher–is intrigued by hormesis, and sees it as but one example of a much broader phenomenon: a fundamental principle he calls “antifragility”. The principle of antifragility applies not just to biology–but to sociology, economics, and perhaps even physics. Taleb has been developing this idea for a number of years. Antifragility made a subdued appearance in his 2007 blockbuster work, The Black Swan, a guide to dealing with unpredictable yet momentously consequential events in our increasingly volatile world. Taleb has now more fully developed the concept of antifragility in his most recent book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
The antifragile is the antithesis of the fragile. You might suppose that the opposite of “fragile” is something like “robust” — something that resists change. But Taleb points out that that would be the wrong answer. A fragile thing – a package of wine glasses, perhaps — is easily broken when subjected to a stressor, such as being dropped. Something robust is merely resistant to breakage. But an antifragile object actually benefits by being subjected to stress. Taleb conjures up an image of the fragile as an object we would ship in a box marked “Handle with Care”; by contrast, a box holding the antifragile would be labelled “Please Mishandle”
At first, this seems to be a tease. Are there really such antifragile things? Yes, indeed; the world is full of them, including you and me. And there are steps we can take to become ever more antifragile.
My recent post on Why I don’t take vitamin D supplements generated a lot of interest and a few misconceptions. In that article, I did not suggest any practical alternatives to taking high dose vitamin D supplements. Here I will suggest a way that may provide the benefits of vitamin D without popping any pills, spending all day in the sun, or ingesting copious amounts of fish.
Some readers got the idea that I believe vitamin D is not beneficial, and that I discount the evidence from studies that show the benefits. I want to dispel that notion. I do acknowledge the key role that vitamin D and the vitamin D receptor (VDR) play in bone mineralization and regulation of innate and adaptive immunity, and among other things. I further acknowledge that many (but certainly not all) studies support an association between higher vitamin D3 levels and reduced incidence of diseases such as cancer.
As I wrote:
Nobody doubts the important role of vitamin D in the body. But are higher levels of a hormone like vitamin D–whether or not provided as a supplement– always a good thing?
My doubts are focused on several points:
My article created a dilemma for several commenters. These people acknowledged the risks, but nevertheless cited benefits they personally experienced from supplementing with vitamin D–ranging from fewer colds and flu, to relief of autoimmune symptoms, and even lessening of depression.
For these people, a key question remains:
Is there a way to get the benefits of vitamin D supplementation, while avoiding the dependency and risks of taking vitamin D capsules daily for the rest of your life? While I don’t have a definitive proven answer to that question, recent research leads me to speculate here that there is a promising approach that is within everyone’s reach.
It lies within a powerful natural biological process called autophagy.
Wim Hof can raise or lower his body temperature at will, overriding his autonomic nervous system. He is able to sit in a box of ice for almost two hours. He can swim 50 meters under arctic ice. Wearing only shorts and going barefoot, he has run a marathon in Lapland and climbed through snow to the summits of Mt. Everest and Mt. Kilamanjaro. In carrying out these feats, he is able to avoid hypothermia, the normal human response to extreme cold. Monitoring by physiologists show that he keeps his core temperature constant and normal during these challenges.
Yet Wim is not a genetic freak or Tibetan monk. He is a 52 year old Dutch man without much body fat. He believes that anyone can adapt to the cold and learn to control body temperature.
In this article, I will try to answer two questions:
- How does he do it, and can anyone really do the same?
- Is this basically an impressive stunt, or is there any benefit to learning Wim’s methods?
I will end by reporting on a preliminary experiment of my own with cold exposure.
How much weight lifting or other exercise is optimal for fitness? What is the right amount of carbohydrate restriction or fasting for sustained weight loss and health? What level of exposure to allergens will reduce allergies? How many hours of sun tanning is healthy? How frequently should plus lenses be worn to reduce myopia? Do I need to take cold showers every day to get their benefit? How much stress is enough — and how much is too much?
Many of the questions I get on this website and the forums are of this type. People understand the general concept of hormesis, namely that exposure to controlled amounts of stress can be beneficial, because it elicits beneficial adaptive responses in the organism. They understand that weight lifting builds muscles, and that intermittent fasting and calorie reduction can be healthful. But too much of any stressor — weight lifting, caloric restriction, sunlight, allergens – can have adverse consequences. With hormesis, it seems, the Goldilocks principle applies: to get a benefit, the level of stress must be “just right”. And because it’s so easy to veer into overload, many people seek to avoid even mild stress: Avoid allergens. Cover up with sunscreen. Eat frequent small meals. Don’t exert yourself. But if you choose this path, you forgo the possible hormetic benefits.
So how do you determine the optimum level and frequency of exposure to a stress? And how much rest or recovery between exposures is optimal? Read More
You’ve embarked on a new weight loss diet or fitness program. You’ve read a book, become inspired, signed up for a program or health club and what’s more — it’s working. For the first week, two weeks, a month, the weight is coming off, you’re hitting the gym on a regular schedule. You even drop a size or two and garner some compliments from friends.
And then…progress stalls. You’re still eating the same foods, faithfully completing your workouts, but your weight loss stalls, perhaps the scale even goes up a few pounds. The progress you make at the gym similarly maxes out…you can’t lift any more weight, your running speed or distance maxes out…maybe even some soreness or injury sets you back a bit. You’ve hit the dreaded plateau. Sometimes it lasts a few weeks and progress resumes. But it can last months. And it saps your morale because you are not getting any more return on your invested effort. In all likelihood, you give up or cut back, your discipline withers. Your weight goes back up, maybe adding a few pounds on top of where you started, and you cut back on or cut out your exercise program. The genie is back in the bottle.
What causes plateaus? Are they inevitable endpoints in any effort to make progress? Or are they at best temporary way-posts or resting points that you can move beyond with the right approach? The school of thought that says that plateaus are unavoidable indicators of biological limits is called the Set Point theory. I think that the Set Point theory is wrong, and that there is a reliable way to push past plateaus to bring about substantial weight loss and improved fitness.
Christopher McDougall’s sensational book Born to Run has been credited for an upsurge of interest in barefoot running over the past year, and its publication probably also explains much of the increased sales and visibilty of the once-esoteric and comment-provoking Vibram “Five Finger” running shoes. Besides being a paean to the joys of running without shoes, McDougall’s book is certainly one of the best written, most entertaining adventure books of recent memory. It sucks you in with tales of the mysterious hidden tribe of Mexican mountain runners, the Tarahumara, and an unforgettable cast of hardy and eccentric ultramarathoners. The adventure culminates in two exciting and unpredictable ultramarathons through the wilderness — one in the Colorado Rockies, and the other in the Copper Canyon of Mexico — with the protagonists of the book running shoeless over trails and boulder fields for 100 miles. While I’m not a total convert, after reading this book I’ve adopted a habit of alternating my runs between barefoot, Vibrams, and regular shoes. After some initial soreness, stiffness, and development of calluses, I found that my calves were strengthened in a way that significantly benefited my endurance and speed in running.
Other than recommending this book as a great vacation read or a way to rekindle your passion for running, I’d like to concentrate here on one of its central claims about the biomechanics of barefoot running, because it resonates so strongly with the thesis of Hormetism and Edward Tenner’s theories about the “revenge effects” of technology — and because it has implications that extend well beyond the sport of running. McDougall’s seemingly paradoxical assertion is that running without shoes makes one less susceptible to injury than using modern engineered running shoes, with their high-tech cushioning. Says McDougall: “Running shoes may be the most destructive force ever to hit the human foot.” (BTR, p. 168) …How can this possibly be true?