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 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.