Plant containing noxious dietary phytochemicals.
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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  1. Baron says:

    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:

      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.

    • Haggis says: covers this.

  2. P. D. Mangan says:

    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.

  3. e.p. says:

    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.

  4. Mark Bovair says:

    These are great replies, thanks! I checked out 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.

  5. Brian S. says:

    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.

  6. Ricardo says:

    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?

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