Hormesis for health

hormesis for health

Plant containing noxious dietary phytochemicals.

In the last post I wrote about the process of hormesis for health and how it relates to exercise. As noted in that post, hormesis describes a process that has wide application, namely the placing of a stress on a biological system that results in that system becoming stronger, as it increases processes for coping with stress.

In a new review paper, Mark Mattson, who has done a large amount of work on the cell biology associated with calorie restriction and intermittent fasting, discusses how hormesis can radically improve health: Challenging Oneself Intermittently to Improve Health. Mattson also practices what he preaches; see here.

Mattson concentrates on three forms of hormesis: intermittent fasting, exercise, and “noxious dietary phytochemicals”.

Our ancestors and hormesis for health

Our human ancestors lived and survived in ages when food may have often been hard to come by, when exercise in the form of walking, hunting, building, gathering, and so on were daily required activities, and in which they ate plants that contained toxins. It stands to reason that we’re adapted to these conditions, and any deviation from them is potentially injurious to health.

We now live in an age of, we might call it, anti-hormesis. Exercise is no longer a requirement, food is available whenever we want it, and a junk food diet excluding dietary phytochemicals is the norm for many. As a result, we have the obesity epidemic, rampant diabetes and heart disease, and all the rest.

In his paper, Mattson describes the biological mechanisms that strengthen the organism upon being exposed to these hormetic stresses. Intermittent fasting protects against obesity, diabetes, cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, and can extend life in experimental animals by 30%. Exercise does much the same, and also improves neural connections and number; those who exercise regularly can literally expand their brains, and presumably their cognitive capacity, i.e. intelligence.

The third category is dietary phytochemicals, which Mattson specifically labels “noxious”. This fact appears to be little appreciated even among scientists, who continue to mislabel these chemicals as antioxidants. The fact is, plants do not want to be eaten, and they have developed an array of chemical weaponry that discourages animals from eating them. Specifically mentioned as potent hormetic phytochemicals are sulforaphane (from broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables), curcumin (from turmeric), resveratrol (red wine), and epicatechin (tea and chocolate). All of these elicit potent responses from the cells of the animal that ingests them, including upregulating antioxidant defenses, phase 2 enzymes, and other processes that increase health and extend life.

In the last part of the paper, Mattson decries the routine use of drugs to treat metabolic diseases, when diet, fasting, and exercise are far more appropriate, safe, and cheap. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the use of these natural treatment modalities will always be the choice of a minority, for the simple reasons that they require, willpower, effort, and may be uncomfortable, all things that go directly against the spirit of the age.


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Baron says November 18, 2014

How do you combine intermittent fasting and weightlifting? Most weightlifting diet regimens I’ve seen include frequent meals, and ideally eating protein when one wakes up and also shortly before bed. It seems difficult to balance that with intermittent fasting.

    Mark Bovair says November 18, 2014

    Baron – I have been grappling with this exact same question. I was using IF very effectively to stay lean and I felt great. Then I started to push some heavy weights and felt a dramatic drop in performance when I would IF at any point. I have ditched IF for now as I try to gain muscle, but I plan to return to IF when I enter maintenance mode again.

      The Myth says November 19, 2014

      Leangains.com. Best stuff out there on IF and bodybuilding. I use this same system with my own tweeks..check out http://themanthemyth.com/what-now/ to see results… less than 2 hours gym time per week, no drugs, no protein powder, no creatine. Max dead lift is 410lbs at 165lbs bodyweight.

    Haggis says November 18, 2014

    leangains.com covers this.

P. D. Mangan says November 18, 2014

Leangains does go into this. In short, frequent meals are unnecessary for hypertrophy. I don’t practice IF on workout days, only on off days, but some people, like Berkhan of leangains and his clients, practice IF daily.

e.p. says November 19, 2014

I’ve been following leangains-style IF for over 2 years now. I typically eat my breakfast late morning (9-11am), lift around lunchtime, then have lunch, a snack, and dinner with the family at 5PM. My food is all in a 6-8 hour window and I train in a fed state. It has worked nicely for me. -e.p.

Mark Bovair says November 19, 2014

These are great replies, thanks! I checked out leangains.com and did my workout today at lunchtime while fasted (protein only). I felt great and didn’t struggle to complete any of my sets. Followed it up with a large lunch. Gonna try this for a while. I was lifting fasted without the protein and hitting a wall, adding in the protein got me through.

Brian S. says November 21, 2014

A few months ago I went on the leangains plan. I’m down ten pounds. All lifts are up. I concur that intermittent fasting is a good idea.

The Broscience of Juice Cleanses - The Man The Myth says December 15, 2014

[…] Eat some foods that make you stronger. Foods rich in antioxidants are bitter because they are technically a little poisonous, but you know, in a good way. The antioxidants in coffee and tea work the same way. There’s a sweet spot here so don’t go overboard and start taking max doses of that stuff in pill form. You’re probably over-doing it then. […]

Anxiolytic, Nootropic, and Fat-Burning Theanine - Rogue Health and Fitness says January 28, 2015

[…] of green tea and its extracts comes from a component called EGCG, a polyphenol and one of those “noxious dietary phytochemicals” that induces hormesis and causes an increase in cellular stress defense mechanisms, such as […]

Muscle, fasting, and health: a rant - Rogue Health and Fitness says February 5, 2015

[…] Mattson, one of the preeminent scientists in the study of aging, advocates a tripartite rule for good health and long life, and these include dietary phytochemicals, exercise, and intermittent fasting, all of which are […]

Ten offbeat ways to improve health and slow aging - Rogue Health and Fitness says August 17, 2015

[…] vegetables daily. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, and contain sulforaphane, which up-regulates stress defense mechanisms and prevents cancer. Broccoli sprouts have the […]

Ricardo says October 6, 2015

Would you guys lift after a 24 hours fast, without taking anything pre-workout?
And if you eat something, what would it be? Just proteins? Some maltodextrin and/or waxy mayze and proteins?

I tried working out after a 24h fast last year during summer, consuming just 10g of BCAAs before the workout, but I believe it may have harmed my muscle growth. What do you guys think?

    P. D. Mangan says October 7, 2015

    Personally, I would eat before working out if I’d fasted that long, at least some whey protein.

The Richest Sources of Dietary Polyphenols Are Not What You Think - Rogue Health and Fitness says June 14, 2016

[…] and other plant compounds such as terpenes and alkaloids are thought to work by hormesis. In other words, these compounds represent low-dose toxins, to which the body mounts a defense, […]

Higher Altitude Means Much Lower Death Rates - Rogue Health and Fitness says October 11, 2016

[…] a word, hormesis, which is the biological response to low doses of toxins or stressors that results in making the […]

How a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Slows Aging - Rogue Health and Fitness says January 9, 2017

[…] On the other hand, glucose restriction increases lifespan in C. elegans. Restricting glucose activates the equivalent of AMPK, the cellular energy sensor, which in turn inhibits mTOR and increases stress defense mechanisms, notably Nrf2. Essentially, it acts as a form of hormesis. […]

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