Hormesis is the process in which small amounts of an agent or process that are normally toxic in larger amounts produce health in an organism. The organism, or human since that’s what we’re interested in, increases cellular stress defense mechanisms in response to the stress of a toxin, and ends up in better health as a consequence. Some prominent examples of hormesis include fasting, exercise, radiation, and various chemicals such as resveratrol, green tea and chocolate polyphenols, and curcumin.
One interesting aspect about hormesis is what it shows about why we age. If aging is caused by or is associated with accumulated damage, such as to proteins, cellular organelles, and organs, then decreasing the amount of damage we do to our bodies should decrease aging. In fact, the opposite is true. Exercise, for instance, produces lots of damage, in the form of free radicals or tears in muscle, yet we end up healthier and stronger with exercise. Therefore aging cannot be caused by damage; it seems more likely that it’s caused by the body’s failure to repair itself. By causing damage through hormesis, we end up with less damage and more robust defenses against it.
Similarly, fasting and calorie restriction deprive the body of resources. Yet when faced with a lack of food, the body goes into repair mode. When given food, the body ages as usual. Age is not caused by the body’s inability to repair itself through an allocation of resources.
The lesson of hormesis for health is that making things tough for ourselves, within reason, results in better health. The life of ease, eating what we want, taking things easy, coddling ourselves physically, always results in poorer health. When going easy on ourselves, we become fat, lazy, fatigued, we become prone to the diseases of civilization such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
In some ways, this seems paradoxical. Don’t we work hard, both personally and and in terms of society and civilization, so that we may become prosperous, and then not have to work so hard? We want to enjoy the fruits of our labor, not to work in the fields all our life. Yet ultimately we find that, at least in terms of health, this is an illusion.
I think there’s a good analogy between being hard on ourselves in order to improve or remain physically healthy, and doing the same in order to improve or retain mental health.
Our minds tell us to take things easy. So many people pursue the couch potato lifestyle because it’s the path of least resistance. Pleasures beckon, whether they’re the pleasures of food, drink, relaxation and passivity. Television watching, which I recently read the average American watches for almost 5 hours a day (sic), is pure passivity, and probably the majority of people look forward to nothing so much in their leisure time as plopping down on the sofa and watching television. Then there’s the palate-pleasing junk food which so many are unable to resist, because resistance requires effort, and passivity means eating it.
And what comes of all this? Unhappy, fat, depressed people. By failing to stress themselves mentally, they get no mental hormesis and thus become mental couch potatoes, and their minds become unhealthy. By having no ambitions or goals, they find themselves adrift in a sea of ennui. There’s been an “astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans“, with 1 in 4 women in their 40s and 50s taking them. No doubt this is caused by a number of factors, such as the medicalization of emotions, Big Pharma, etc., but the couch potato lifestyle can’t help, in my opinion.
Retirement is also an illusion in the sense that having no job to attend does not by itself make anyone happy unless goals or projects substitute for it. Retirement just makes people feel empty and useless.
To be happy, just as to be healthy, one must be tough on oneself, at least minimally. One must have goals and projects, challenges, mental work, that make the mind upgrade its defense mechanisms and become healthier than before. Then the mind can defend itself against boredom, depression, a feeling of being lost.
For men, this task is not too difficult, since we are oriented toward the outside world, to challenge both it and ourselves, as part of our nature. But to do that we must resist the siren song that tells us to take things easy, to relax and enjoy ourselves. The world as a whole seems to be in a conspiracy to convince us to avoid challenges. For instance, the spectator sports industry, which is of course gigantic, has convinced many if not most men that rooting for a sports team from the confines of their living room is a suitable way to spend leisure time. Other aspects of society have convinced men that retirement, i.e. doing nothing much at all, is a goal to be striven for.
Just as with physical health as with mental health: never-ending tasks in which being easy on yourself produces the opposite results from what you had hoped. Hormesis applies as much to our overall mental and spiritual well-being as it does to our bodies.