Seth Roberts and the Shangri-La Diet

Even as I have not tried SLD, it is a fascinating idea and it seems that anyone who is serious about better understanding why we gain weight and what regulates hunger and adiposity must take it seriously enough to figure out how it fits into the big picture of human health. Barring that gargantuan task, it’s at a minimum another way to try and hack weight loss if your current regiment isn’t cutting it for you.

I cite Seth Roberts’ blog a great deal over at Linked Down. Seth is a Psychology Professor at Berkeley and an avid self-experimenter. I’ve learned a great deal from subscribing to his blog.

For those who don’t know, Seth Roberts created the Shangri-La Diet, which is a diet centered around reducing the association between flavor and caloric load. I haven’t read the book, so this is an approximation of how it works, but the gist is that the more correlated taste is to caloric load, the greater hunger can be, the harder it will be to cut calories, and the higher your body’s set point for weight will be. “SLD” hacks this relationship via ingesting flavorless calories within certain windows of time. These flavorless calories reduce the brain’s association of high energy density and high flavor. Interestingly enough, the macronutrient source of the calories may be unimportant: you can do SLD with oil, sugar water (so long as it is flavorless), or nose-clipping while eating protein. If you’re skeptical about this diet, I suggest taking a trip over to the SLD Forums and be prepared to see plenty of evidence that SLD works.

Even as I have not tried SLD, it is a fascinating idea and it seems that anyone who is serious about better understanding why we gain weight and what regulates hunger and adiposity must take it seriously enough to figure out how it fits into the big picture of human health. Barring that gargantuan task, it’s at a minimum another way to try and hack weight loss if your current regiment isn’t cutting it for you.

I mention all of this because I stumbled on a 2008 interview between Roberts and Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I’ve blogged about exhaustively. What a great thing to find that two people I admire had a thoughtful discussion and, even better, said discussion has been made available to me?

Blogging, science and the internet FTW.

Back to trying to understand how SLD fits into the grand scheme of human physiology. An interesting comment was made at the bottom of Part 13 of Roberts’ Interview of Gary Taubes:

I’ve thought a lot about how consuming tasteless food could supress hunger. My favorite theory is that it is similar to what happens when an animal is hibernating. The “magical” appearance of calories fools your body into thinking it is living off its fat and then it actually does so.

This comment reminded me of how the metabolic pathways while fasted are the same as when we consume a diet of only fat and protein. One effect of low-carb diets is appetite suppression. Could the common theme here simply be that both SLD and low-carbohydrate diets and/or fasting act to “trick” our bodies into switching to a non-hungry state?

Obviously that can’t be the entire picture because insulin is the storage hormone that is unleashed by carbohydrate consumption (though less so with fructose).

This issue is worthy of further thought.

Delorean: Symptoms of Fat Loss (parts 1&2)

http://avidityfitness.net…ms-of-fat-loss/

There was a time a few weeks back where I started experiencing a bit of insomnia. I immediately associated my sleeplessness with dieting and quickly determined to back off the dieting. It just made zero sense to me that I should be losing sleep because I was trying to lose weight — it just seemed downright extreme and unhealthy, so I quickly backed off a bit on dieting as a result.

Enter in Leigh Peele’s recent blogpost on “symptoms” of fat loss where I learn that insomnia can result from dieting. So it’s not just me, which is reassuring, even though I haven’t had any insomnia problems in two or three weeks (though I also haven’t been losing any more fat!).

So food for thought:

NOW, imagine your body if that flashlight. As time goes on your batteries are running low. How are you going to feel?

  • Less lucid, foggy
  • easily emotional
  • fatigue
  • hunger
  • harder to wake up in the morning
  • muscle soreness
  • sadness
  • insomia

These are not symptoms of overtraining. These are symptoms of fat loss.

Think about it folks – you are removing a physical substance from your body. It was once there but you are trying to take it away. You might say, “well, I put it on easily. Taking it away can’t be that hard. ”

When is the last time you glued something? How easy was that to get on? How much of a pain in the ass was it to get off?

Just fat loss alone doesn’t feel good, it shouldn’t feel good. Anyone that tells you that either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want you to know. That doesn’t mean fat loss can’t be good for you in the long run. It just means what you have to endure while getting there is a real task to be undertaken.

Understanding Bodyweight and Glycogen Depletion

Quick take — If you diet or are planning to start a diet, understanding the relationship between bodyweight and glycogen (Glycogen is carbohydrates as stored by your body) depletion is paramount.

Your body stores energy as fat and glycogen. Whereas fat stores can vary dramatically from person to person, your body can only store so much energy as glycogen.

Glycogen requires water to be stored. In the initial stages of diet/caloric restriction and exercise, your body depletes these glycogen stores, reducing your bodyweight from the elimination of both the weight of the stored glycogen and the weight of the water. Note that nowhere in this process is the much-desired loss of fat!

Thus, even as it will feel good to shed 5 – 10 lbs. simply from a few days of exercise mixed with a caloric-restricted diet, the weight loss will be primarily from a reduction in glycogen stores and water. In other words, what you’ll have lost in the beginning is really little more than water weight.

Take heart in understanding the relationship between glycogen stores and bodyweight as an improved understanding will help you set realistic expectations on whatever diet or exercise regiment you are undertaking in 2009.

A deeper dive:

I first learned about the relationship between stored carbohydrates and water retention from Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. The gist is that for every gram of stored carbohydrate (Stored as glycogen) in your body, there is a set amount of additional water storage that is required.

Taubes had pinned the carb/water storage ratio at two grams of water per one gram of carbohydrate. A random Googled source (Vitanet) pins it at 2.7 gram water per gram of glycogen. I found a research paper titled, Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition, which offers the following data on the ratio:

Glycogen is stored in the liver, muscles, and fat cells in hydrated form (three to four parts water) associated with potassium (0.45 mmol K/g glycogen). . . .

Glycogen losses or gains are reported to be associated with an additional three to four parts water, so that as much as 5 kg weight change might not be associated with any fat loss.

Lyle McDonald of Body Recomposition has also weighed in on this subject:

Carbohydrate (stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen) is accompanied by a good bit of water. For every gram of glycogen stored, you store anywhere from 3-4 grams of water with it.

How does this relationship affect bodyweight? In short, diet and exercise will deplete glycogen stores. If your diet is working, the depletion will occur early and have a significant impact on your bodyweight without impacting a permanent change in your body composition.

Let’s take me as an example. I estimate that I have around 155 – 160 pounds of lean tissue. Tack on another 12 – 17 pounds of fat. After a week or two of being on a low-carbohydrate diet that involves intermittent fasting and plenty of exercise (see here), my liver and muscle glycogen stores will be completely depleted. I’ll weigh about 172.

If I go on to eat a bunch of carbohydrates — cookies, pretzels, breads, fruits and other starchy foods (by eating a bunch, I mean consuming something on the order of 1000 grams of carbohydrates over the course of 24 hours, which is about 4000 calories), I will fully replenish my glycogen stores. In the process of replenishment, the 1000 grams of carbohydrates will require anywhere from 3000 to 4000 grams of water for storage! Converting from grams to pounds, the impact on my bodyweight should be an increase of 9 to 11 pounds, taking my weight up to 183*! Of course, the same change would happen in reverse: re-depleting glycogen stores would drop my weigh back to the low 170s.

Mike over at the IF life alluded to this fact in three bullets back on his Trainer Tells All post:

Muscle size is mostly glycogen and water . . . I can go up and down 10lbs in a week easily depending on glycogen and water balance . . . The first big amount of lbs you lose in the first week dieting is mostly water

Mike’s anecdotal experience is explained by the storage ratio between glycogen and water. What it means is that in the early stages of a diet, the magical drop in bodyweight will be mostly water weight.

Another implication of the water/glycogen relationship on bodyweight is that whereas the first 4000 calorie deficit you create will reduce your weight some ten pounds, the next 4000 calorie deficit is likely only going to reduce your bodyweight a paltry two pounds! This is because a pound of fat stores 3500 calories and requires about a pound of water for storage. Thus, the initial weight-loss will seem easy compared to the drudging continued weight-loss when you’re actually burning stored fat.

Failing to understand what is going on with glycogen stores and water retention will set yourself up for a shock when you inevitably “fall off the wagon” — even if the “fall” is only for a day or two of heavy-carb or more “normal” eating.

Understanding the impact of glycogen depletion/repletion on bodyweight is just one more reason why merely weighing yourself on a scale provides a poor indication of your body composition. You’re better served by taking some physical measurements (waist size, for example). Or even better, take some periodic camera phone self-portraits — over time, you should be able to compare them and get a great feel for your progress (or lack thereof).

* I’ve witnessed this fluctuation on numerous occasions over the past year, but I didn’t quite fully understand it until today. You see, I was fully glycogen depleted going into New Year’s Eve. I proceeded to go on a pre-planned “refeed” (that just happpened to coincide with NYE, of course!). The refeed involved eating plenty of pretzels, chips, breads, fruits, cookies, cereal, donuts, etc. Some incredibly unhealthy, albeit tasty, foods. I also drank a good bit of Pinot Noir NYE, which is the opposite of what you should do if you are re-feeding in that your body will be needing water and alcohol will dehydrate you past certain levels of intake. Anyway, after a 24 hour refeed, my bodyweight went from 172 to 184. Hard to believe unless you understand what is going on. And this kind of fluctuation would be entirely disheartening to the ignorant dieter who might feel they just blew their diet in one day! As it is, I expect I’ll be back in the low 170s within five days after I do a fast and get two or three workouts in.

Further reading:

Free the Animal banner

I just finished up a project for Richard Nikoley, friend and founder of Free the Animal. Richard had commissioned me to create a banner for his site, and after hashing out the concepts, I worked on putting together a design.

Here’s the final product:

Some of the ideas the banner is intended to convey are:

  • Man as a self-reliant, rugged individual — a hunter — evolutionarily designed over the eons.
  • That a man’s health is dependent upon his understanding the nature of his genes and putting that knowledge to practical work in a modern age, an age that is drastically different from the gross majority of man’s biological existence on this planet.
  • Human beings are a dominant, independent species, one meant to be free.

Many of these ideas weren’t spoken when Richard asked me to do this design — that is because many of them were already understood. One thing Richard talks little about these days on FtA is his philosophical stance, which centers heavily around an understanding of human beings.

Human beings are intelligent animals. Our intelligence sets us above all other species, but it also enables us to reflect introspectively about our place with regard to the planet and to each other. Such reflection inescapably leads to an understanding that man should be free, both unbound by other men and unwilling to forcibly control his fellow man*. Moral implications aside, it’s this introspection on our nature that leads us to understand how we should approach our health.

Modern man (post-agriculture) has existed for only a handful of millenia, whereas we were evolutionarily designed over some two million years (To say nothing of the millions of years of evolution that occurred prior to homo sapiens). Evolution gave us genes that function best under certain conditions. It’s reasonable to assert that those prehistoric conditions involved a certain amount of activity (i.e. hunting, gathering, play), some amount of scarcity (inability to find food leading to periodic bouts of famine) and substantially limited agricultural technology. How these inputs and constraints molded our genes is a fundamental question worth asking. Free the Animal tackles this question for the purpose of living optimally, as modern men with ancient genes.

“Free the Animal” is a motto. And Richard is expanding on what it means to free the animal his site. Be sure to check it out!

* Except in cases where force is required to defend himself or his property.

Sugar on the brain

Is sugar another addictive white powder?

A recent study suggests sugar may be addictive. Below are parts of the U.S. News article summarizing the experiment and interpretation of the findings. I suggest reading them all:

“Our evidence from an animal model suggests that bingeing on sugar can act in the brain in ways very similar to drugs of abuse,” [said] lead researcher Bart Hoebel . . .

“Drinking large amounts of sugar water when hungry can cause behavioral changes and even neurochemical changes in the brain which resemble changes that are produced when animals or people take substances of abuse. These animals show signs of withdrawal and even long-lasting effects that might resemble craving,” . . .

A “sugar addiction” may even act as a “gateway” to later abuse of drugs such as alcohol . . .

For the new research, rats were denied food for 12 hours a day, then were given access to food and sugar (25 percent glucose and 10 percent sucrose, similar to a soft drink) for 12 hours a day, for three to four weeks.

The bingeing released a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine each time in the part of the brain involved in reward, the nucleus accumbens. “It’s been known that drugs of abuse release or increase the levels of dopamine in that part of the brain,” Hoebel said.

But it wasn’t only the sugar that caused this effect, Hoebel explained — it was the sugar combined with the alternating schedule of deprivation and largesse. . . .

But longer periods of abstinence didn’t “cure” the rats. Instead, there were long-lasting effects with the animals: They ingested more sugar than before, as if they were craving the substance and, without sugar, they drank more alcohol.

My anecdotal experience confirms the above findings. For one, the more I have abstained from sugar and refined carbohydrates (the latter of which are one tiny step away from being sugar), the easier it has become to strictly avoid sugar/carbohydrate-dense foods. This suggests to me that the addiction can be controlled by almost completely abstaining from the “drug,” sugar in this case.

Of note, however, is that in those instances when I have fallen off the wagon* and started eating sugar/refined carbs, I tend to overeat/binge. Is this the behavior of an addict? Or is it the psychological response to the forbidden fruit? Or is it a predictable response of treating a diet like a binary system? I.e. going from strict adherence to the diet to “Well I already ate that candy, might as well have some ice cream, too!” Any of these are plausible explanations for my behavior.

The alcohol angle is fascinating: I’ve experienced a clear connection between alcohol and carbohydrate-binge-eating. As before, I am unclear how the alcohol is catalyzing my reaction — is it that alcohol impairs my judgment, handicapping my will power? Or could it be more fundamentally metabolic — the alcohol spurs a chemical reaction resulting in craving sugar/refined carbohydrates? Why do I go from having little-to-no craving for French fries and tator tots to no-holds-barred “pass the ketchup now!” after downing three or four beers.

I have previously blogged on how hard liquor has zero carbohydrates. I’ve since learned that hard liquor (i.e. whiskey) will cause an insulin response even though there are no carbohydrates in the alcohol. Could insulin have something to do with this#?

This study, rather than confirming something I’ve suspected about the addictive nature of sugar, leaves me with more questions than answers. Is modern man doomed to be addicted to sugar? Is sugar addiction similar to alcoholism in that the only successful means to control the addiction is to avoid entirely the addictive substance? Can abstaining from sugar/refined carbohydrates make the addiction worse? Is sugar a poison that should be taken in small doses to control its ill-affects (A particularly strange notion)?

It seems there are more questions than answers. However, I maintain that sugar in any close-to-raw form is unnatural, which means that our evolutionarily designed bodies are inept at handling it. And it seems reasonable to conclude that, even if I tend to overeat refined carbohydrates when I do consume them, over the long-term, I’m still drastically reducing my intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates by maintaining a lifestyle focused on a low-carbohydrate, natural diet mixed with intermittent fasting.

* How often have you heard the phrase “fallen off the wagon” to describe failure at dieting? I hear it all the time (and use it). Probably just a coincidence, this phrase originates in alcoholism. Here we have a study that paints sugar as being similar to alcohol in its addictive characteristics.

# I can’t help but wonder if insulin is the culprit behind addiction to both alcohol and sugar. Has anyone looked into this?

Back to basics: Fasting and Fasted workouts

Having returned from India and a month-long hiatus from eating healthy and working out, I started brewing on a strategy to “get back at it” and continue working to my ultimate goal, which is achieving never-before-seen (on me) lean-ness and vasculature.

My approach for most of the summer had been working out about five days a week (doing CrossFit) with daily fasting (i.e. 16 hour fasts daily). I tracked a lot of my daily workouts via my workout blog.

Unfortunately, I ran into any number setbacks as I had a couple long periods where I couldn’t manage to eat right or workout (A two week stint out west and a three week stint in India).

That brings me back to today. I’m going “back to basics,” which for me, was eating breakfast/lunch and the fasting until dinner the following day, with a weight-lifting oriented workout an hour or two before breaking my fast. This method worked for me the first time, stripping away a great deal of fat and focusing my diet/weight-training efforts. This time around, the only tweak I’m implementing is that I will do two fasts per week, lifting on days I break the fast, working out on days I eat, and resting on any day I begin a fast. Per usual, my diet will be carb-light, which means no breads, rices, cereals or starchy vegetables while still allowing for most fruits (apples and berries being preferred), some cheats (ice cream), and alcohol.

Goal is to try this for three weeks, track my progress daily and see how I come out on the other end. Stay tuned.

Being healthy on the road

Traveling has an uncanny tendency to thwart healthy routines. It is difficult both to make time for exercise and to eat healthy amidst the bevy of fast food restaurants, hotels, free food, abundant spirits and people who eat differently than me. How do you navigate these health obstructions while on the road?

I’m hardly an expert, but here is how I’m managing to maintain a low-carb diet replete with activity while being away from home:

  • Be active. Some Hollywood star has the following motto: “I try to break a sweat everyday.” (H/T IF Life) This just seems like a robust life-motto that reverberates in my head — a life where you exert enough effort to break a sweat every day just seems right to me.

    On the road, it can be difficult to do this with limited equipment. I like having a kettlebell around, but if you’re flying, you can forget about taking a 35 lb. or 53 lb. kettlebell along for the ride.

    This means you have to improvise. Good ways I’ve found to improvise include running sprints, doing push-ups, and air squats. I’m still trying to find a good pull-up substitute that can be performed with everyday furniture (Any ideas?).

  • Skip a meal or two. Fasting is such a powerful tool to recenter/refocus after finding yourself lost in the bad habits that result from traveling. I’ve found the easiest way to fast is to skip breakfast. Depending on how you’re feeling around lunchtime, feel free to skip lunch, too. I did this yesterday, not eating anything until dinner and I felt great all day and even managed a nice workout compliments of a treadmill and one of those all-in-one weightlifting machines (Improvise!).
  • Go for level-two fast food. I just made up that Level II distinction. What I mean by it is that you should take the extra ten minutes to seek out local restaurants that can serve up some healthier takeout dishes. For me, I’ve eaten a few greek salads with gyro meat or chicken. It’s not ideal but its better than getting a number five combo from McDonald’s.
  • Don’t strive for perfection. When you inevitably cave to cravings and eat that fresh-baked cinnamon bun that was calling your name at the hotel breakfast bar, let it go. Striving to acheive a perfect maintenance of your healthy habits while on the road is a recipe for failure. It’s okay to deviate — just take steps to get back on track (i.e. trying a mini-fast or having an intense workout in the hotel gym).

So that is what I’ve come up with so far. I’m interested to hear any ideas from any readers regarding other ways to be healthy “on the road”. Please comment if you think of something you’d like to share!

Finally, one of the hardest parts about breaking routines is getting back on track after the traveling is over. That topic remains a discussion for another day: though I will say that I’ve found fasting to be an excellent way to “re-rail” post-vacation.

One month CrossFit update with photos

Quick update on CrossFit progress before I sack out for the night.

Been about a month since switching from my homemade workouts to CrossFit. Since starting, I’ve completed four to five workouts a week. For the past two weeks (approx.), I have been practicing daily eating-window-style fasts1. Over that same two-week time period, I’ve also cut back on alcohol consumption on days I worked out. Even still, there was a glutinous July 4th last weekend, where I managed to scarf down three DQ blizzards over four nights with a monster bowl of ice cream the night in the middle. I slipped up. It happens. It’s okay!

The alcohol-fasting is just an experiment to ensure that I don’t down-regulate testosterone, or increase cortisol, thereby maximizing post-workout gene expression.

If you’re wondering, I consider four to five highly-intense workouts a week to be too much to maintain indefinitely2; however, I’ve been driving myself harder in anticipation of achieving the desired results faster.

Some five months since embarking on this lifestyle-shift, I’m happy to say that the combo has been a resounding success so far and I believe will prove out to be a success indefinitely. My goal is to publish my before shot from February and an after shot in August (Just a guesstimate. The goal is satisfaction with with my leaning out, which is equivalent to achieving some optimal vasculature and probably means reaching around 7% body fat).

Until then, I’ve decided to publish some interim before and after voyeurism. I submit the following self-taken camera phone pictures, taken four weeks apart on June 12 and July 9, 2008, from left to right.

Believe it or not, I’m flexing my midsection in both photos. What’s making up the change? A bit more muscle combined with a bit less adiposity. I’m 27, 5’10.5″ and around 168 in both photos. I’m happy to say that I’m currently more lean and defined than I’ve been since I was less than ten years old. Prior to a few months ago, I had given up on leaning out. Just didn’t think it was in my genes.

I was most happily wrong.

Regarding CrossFit, I did the “Nasty Girls” workout today, subbing out pull-ups and dips at a ratio of 3:1 for the normally prescribed seven muscle ups. This made for three rounds of:

  • 50 air squats
  • 21 pull-ups
  • 21 dips, and
  • 10 hanging powercleans @ 95 lbs

I managed to complete it in 19:56, which is incredibly slow relative to CrossFit vets; however, I was happy with my time — likely because I thought I was about to die at the end, and I managed to rock out all 63 pull-ups and dips.

I could not have accomplished this without practicing insulin control. That is, without a doubt, the secret ingredient to maximizing my health.

Footnotes

1 Whereby I compress my eating window to about eight hours — usually noon or 1 pm to 9 pm though its just a target. My workouts tend to fall in the middle. This is (intended to be) similar to the Lean Gains Intermittent Fasting approach (Martin Berkhan).

2 No reason to put your body through that much chronic stress.

Insulin Control: The Common Denominator of the Low-Carb / Fasting / Caloric Restriction Diets.

Over the past four months, I’ve turned into a staunch advocate of Paleo / low-carb / intermittent fasting (See IF/low-carb, caloric restriction, ketosis, hormesis). I proselytize because this diet lifestyle has had a significant impact on my physical health and my understanding of nutrition. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before my advocacy spurred the comment that there is “No zealot like the converted.” Oof!

The retort stuck with me. I am a passionate about spreading good ideas. And this idea concerning the health of my friends and family was not only a good idea in theory, but also one in practice. The last thing I wanted was for my zeal to turn individuals away. I needed a better in than “low-carb” or “fasting”.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of pre-conceived notions and pent-up negative biases towards “low-carb” in specific and diets in general. Most people have experienced nothing but disappointment from dieting and/or strict exercise regiments. When the low-carb meme went mainstream a few years ago, non-believers and skeptics rightfully vocalized their doubt. My own curiosity brought me to read a good portion of Atkins New Diet Revolution; however, I was unconvinced. Atkins’ rhetoric was all pathos and little ethos: I needed the science. Not surprisingly, I never even tried the diet, more or less writing it off as just another fad.

Fast-forward to today. There is an ever-growing number of branded low-carbohydrate diets, and additionally, there are a growing number of diets that incorporate caloric restriction or fasting (Popular examples of low-carb and/or fasting include Paleo / DeVany, Protein Power, Atkins, South Beach, Warrior Diet, The Zone, Eat Stop Eat, Fast-5, UpDayDownDay, Bantingism, etc.). Such a plethora of similar yet nuanced regiments is confusing. Who wants to wade through them all to explain their own method? Who wants to lay caveat upon caveat on a diet to tailor fit it to your own experience just to explain it to an inquisitor? My eyes glaze over just thinking about it!

There is a better way. All of these diets have a clear, underlying purpose: to control insulin. Why not just call it Insulin control?

By starting with this core tenet, I can transcend the diet denominational mess.

Insulin control gets to the heart of the matter, which is that excess or chronic insulin in the blood leads to fat storage, loss of insulin sensitivity / increased insulin resistance, downregulation of fat mobilizing hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, glucagon and human growth hormone), and can ultimately lead to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. How do you control insulin? Insulin control can be accomplished via reduction in carbohydrate intake or via controlling feeding times (via fasting) so that insulin levels sufficiently drop, which allows fat mobilization to resume.

Calling what we do “insulin control” focuses on the problem and implies the solution. It also grounds the diet/lifestyle to its fundamental science while avoiding the pitfalls of bias-loaded words. Starting an argument from “insulin control” gets me to low-carb, to fasting, to evolution, to metabolic syndrome, to higher-fat consumption, to more natural/less process foods. Why bother with the varying brands when it’s all about insulin control!

Further reading:

  • Go here to get started on some fantastic quotes on insulin, sugar, glucose, etc. If you’re not already practicing a low-carbohydrate lifestyle, read up.
  • Art De Vany wrote a reasoned response to the contention that the Paleo / “EF Way of eating” (See how muddled that is!?) was a fad diet. His most excellent point was that the current American diet is much more a fad having been around for merely decades relative to the stacked millennia of two million years (Tyranny of Present fallacy).
  • In mentioning Johnson’s UpDayDownDay diet, Patri Friedman notes how excellent it is that such a variation of research is occurring surrounding caloric restriction. What I wonder: is caloric restriction / fasting an emerging diet trend? I plan on doing a tiny blog on this later. Stay tuned.
  • While I was writing this entry, the IF life published a diagram that lays out how to stay on track for weight loss. It’s a useful, informative and simple diagram. And what will you note in the middlemost bubble? Control insulin!

Improve your Health via Hormesis – Stress Out.

As alluded to previously, injecting small doses of stress into an otherwise harmonious existence can improve your health. This phenomenon is called hormesis. Here’s a googled definition of hormesis:

A dose response phenomenon whereby a substance that in a high dose inhibits (or is toxic to) a biological process, in a much smaller dose will stimulate (or protect) that same process.

Toxic substances stress us. Stephan explained it nicely over at Whole Health Source:

Hormesis … increases resistance to other, more intense or chronic stressors. It can increase resistance to a variety of stresses, not only the one to which you are exposed.

Hormesis is a powerful, non-obvious-yet-evolutionarily-intuitive idea — I can improve my health by intentionally introducing some stress into my otherwise pampered, stress-free life. And here are a few applications:

  • High-intensity exercise. I lump in here anything that briefly elevates my heart-rate and requires my body to do a significant amount of work. Weight-lifting, sprinting and kettlebell drills readily come to mind.
  • Fasting / Intermittent Fasting. Going without food is quite possibly the easiest path to the benefits of hormesis. Shameless self-promotion: on fasting (application and benefits) and more recently on caloric restriction / resveratrol and the potential for slowing aging.
  • Drinking alcohol. We’ve heard this before — drinking one to two alcoholic beverages a day may benefit cardiovascular health. It seems that the benefit of drinking alcohol is from its hormetic effect.
  • Smoking tobacco. First, I gleaned this application from Arthur De Vany. Dr. DeVany applies it via cigars. I see no reason it could not also be applied via a pipe or some type of snuff or chew. I personally enjoy the occassional cigar or alternatively, will smoke a pipe. One thing to note: inhaling might eliminate the hormetic benefit of tobacco use by taking it from a mild dose to a heavy dose. I simply don’t know.
  • Cold showers. I snagged this one from Richard Nikoley. I then reread the idea from Art and then Stephan, who says it helps fire up “non-shivering thermogenesis”. If you want to read more about activating cold via hormesis, check out what a DeVany reader sent in on the subject of brief exposure to cold.
  • Radiation. I mention this only for completeness, but small exposure to radiation is a tactic to increase resistance to larger doses of radiation later (Surprise, its controversial). I don’t know of any way for normal folks to apply radiation hormesis.

The above are fairly non-controversial ways to practice “stressing out”, and thereby benefit from hormesis (Excepting radiation hormesis). However, I wonder if there are other things one could do. Here are some alternative hormetic possibilities:

  • Get less sleep. Maybe periodically cut back on your sleep by 30%. I’ve occasionally experienced increased alertness on less sleep. However, the positive effect wears off in time. Prolonged lack of sleep also weakens your immune system, which doesn’t sound too beneficial.
  • Binge on fruit. Assuming you are a low-carber, eating a lot of fruit at one time should result in a sizeable insulin response. If you aren’t on a low-carbohydrate diet, binging on fruit won’t do much to acutely stress your body.
  • Get some sun. Beneficial for Vitamin D purposes, seems like this would also make sense for potential hormetic effects.
  • Expose your kids to allergens. Didn’t know for sure where to put this one and I don’t have kids. However, I’ve read that exposing your kids to cats may reduce the risk of allergies and asthma. Is the benefit here hormesis? Also, is there a risk in overprotecting your kids from germs?

If you have any other ideas for unconventional applications of hormesis, I would love to hear them.

Finally, let’s remember that high doses of toxic substances can impair your health or even kill you. High doses of stress are likewise unhealthy. Therefore, may I present one last list of bad ways to stress out:

  • Over-training (And also, potentially, endurance exercise). Not allowing your body to recover from exercise is a recipe for disaster. Endurance activities like running marathons (or jogging long-distances) might also be harmful (Art De Vany thinks so). I speculate that endurance activities may be safe so long as they are using fat oxidation for energy (See endurance athlete Mark Twight’s write-up on fat). This would necessarily require a lower intensity for most all of us who don’t train to exercise for hours on end — an effort probably no more intense than walking or leisurely riding a bike.
  • Stressing about work, money, family, relationships, career, or the meaning of life. We’ve all done this. However, can you imagine our evolutionary ancestors experiencing existential angst? I can’t. Food availability, yes. Finding shelter, sure. Avoiding predators, certainly. I’m no expert on meditation or any other specific methods for stress reduction. When I get stressed out about life for too long, I just try and step back and see the big picture and/or let go. It helps.
  • Cut back on the caffeine. This is a tough one for me. I drink a good bit of coffee on a daily basis. Caffeine might have hormetic benefits — but I doubt they occur if you’re a chronic user like me.

Anything I missed? If so, please let me know.

Parting thoughts: introduce some “stress” to your life and improve your health. A cold shower followed-up by a 24-hour fast is an easy way to get started. Finish off the fast with some hill sprints. Practice hormesis. If you can consciously control the stressors in your life, you just might live longer.