Why I Practice Hormetism

Nietzsche is often attributed with coining the following aphorism: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” (From what I’ve read, it sounds more poetic in German: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker). Logician that I aspire to be, this phrase immediately sets off a red flag. Really, “whatever” doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that’s just not quite true, Nietzsche!  What is true, however, is that Nietzsche’s aphorism makes indirect reference to something I’ve become incredibly interested in over the years, i.e., hormesis.

So what exactly is hormesis? According to Stephan Guyenet, “Hormesis is the process by which a mild or acute stressor increases resistance to other, more intense or chronic stressors.” Another way to think about it is that some stressors, in the right doses, can actually be good for us by making us more resilient to future stressors. When it comes to these types of stressors, then, the Aristotelian notion of the golden mean seems to apply; create some stress, but not too much.

The graph below provides a nice illustration of how the mechanism of hormesis works.

Although it has a fancy name, most people are familiar with hormesis. Think about exercising for example, most athletes realize that putting stress on the body through training breaks the body down and then allows it to rebuild itself in order to make it stronger. If you don’t allow for recovery though, you end up causing harm through over-training. However, not enough exercise and you also become weak and cause yourself harm.

Unfortunately, as Nassim Taleb wrote in a recent EDGE.org essay, “Hormesis lost some scientific respect, interest and practice after the 1930s partly because some people mistakenly associated it with the practice of homeopathy.” Homeopathy has very little (if any) empirical backing, while hormesis is backed by rigorous scientific evidence demonstrating its efficacy.

Hormesis is about much more than just exercise though. There are actually many different things that provide hormetic benefits. According to Todd Becker, one who realizes this and actively seeks out hormetic benefits is said to practice the philosophy of Hormetism. In other words, Hormetism is a philosophy of life which is based upon harnessing the power of hormesis in a deliberate and systematic way in order to increase strength and resilience.

In what follows, I’ll briefly share some things I’ve experimented with when it comes to practicing Hormetism.  People who are familiar with this blog know that I also practice Stoicism.  In my opinion, the two philosophies integrate smoothly with each other and I think Hormetism can be seen as a part of Stoicism.

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Exercise

I’ve already briefly touched on the hormetic benefits of exercise. Here are some further thoughts: I try to spend a lot of time doing low intensity activities, like walking and hiking and I engage in intense anaerobic activities on occasion (think sprints, HIT, or lifting heavy things). I haven’t been on a jog in years.

Intermittent Fasting

There is empirical work showing that fasting can help protect against brain diseases. Obviously, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but I also haven’t been ill once since I started fasting regularly (not even the slightest head cold). I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting for years now and have never felt better.

When I fast, I typically like to eat dinner the night before and break the fast the following evening at dinner. I’m still experimenting with working my way up to 48+ hour fasts. Alas, I must confess that I still find the idea of waking up in the morning and going back to bed that evening without a meal a daunting psychological feat, but I’m working on getting over it.

There is a fantastic piece about fasting in the latest issue of Harper’s called “Starving Your Way To Vigor”, by Steve Hendricks (I think the issue is worth picking up for this essay alone).  In the piece, Steve wrote about his experience of completing a 20 day fast.

Cold Water

As a kid I have vivid memories of that feeling I would experience after jumping into a chilly pool or lake. At first, the icy water stole my breath and then my senses turned onto a heightened overdrive.  Plunging into cold water is uncomfortable initially, sure, but within a few seconds I always felt energized by it.  It turns out, this may have been making me healthier and stronger too.

When I take a hot shower I usually feel tired and sweaty afterwards, not refreshed. However, I must admit that I rarely just jump into an ice cold shower either though. Usually I start with a warm shower and towards the end of it I’ll blast myself with cold water. When I first started doing this, I stayed in for a maybe ten seconds tops. Now I’m working my way up to a couple of minutes. The cold water at my house is very cold so I usually experience brain freeze (aka sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia) when I take cold showers.

Eventually, I’d like to work my way up to taking an ice cold swim like the guy in the video below.

Alcohol

Most of us (particularly those of us who like wine) are familiar with the empirical work showing that a glass of wine (or two for men) a day is good for our health.  Alcohol is a poison though, so how can this be?  Can you say h-o-r-m-e-s-i-s?  I personally think that this advice should be amended to say that a glass of wine or two is beneficial to have on some days. I also suspect that there are hormetic benefits from beer and spirits too, but this is just speculation and this belief of mine is grounded more in hope than evidence, since I enjoy a good bourbon and beer now and then too.

Sunlight

Catching some sun is not only healthy, but it makes me feel better.  However, getting fried in the sun is not good for you.  In Colorado, where I live, it’s very easy to over do it.

Tobacco

Smoking one cigar or cigarette every 72 days may be better for you than not smoking at all.  Sounds strange, right?  This one is really a moot point for me though.  I don’t particularly enjoy smoking cigars and probably wouldn’t do so even if there were health benefits.  Non-smokers who live in big cities probably (and inadvertently) inhale enough second-hand smoke to get the hormetic benefits without even trying.

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Anyway, with all due respect to Nietzsche, I’d like to correct his aphorism: Whatever doesn’t Some things that don’t kill me make me stronger.” And that, in short, is why I practice Hormetism.

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6 Comments on “Why I Practice Hormetism”

  1. Two thoughts:

    1) There is a common theme to this stuff in that the positive adaptation occurs in response to acute exposure while prolonged exposure results in excess damage.  That is the idea behind all the variations on high intensity training, interval training, etc.  Likewise, high level athletes frequently use ice baths to jump start the recovery process, but sitting in an ice bath for hours won’t facilitate recovery.  It will depress immune function.  Nietzsche’s quote might be better phrased: “Whatever does not unduly damage me makes me stronger.”

    2) I find that there is a meta-concept analogous to the first point.  We can only cognitively handle so many stressors at any given time before reaching overload.  That is…at least until some of these behaviors become habitual and unconscious.  I have recently been becoming more aware of these trade-offs in my own experience…how frivolously choosing to adopt some new habit will lead to slippage in other areas of my life where willpower has been sapped away.  

    By analogy to physical training, we are really balancing two goals at any given time with regard to overall executive capacity: 

    a) optimally allocating existing capacity to facilitate performance in pursuit of short term ends
    b) selectively/acutely overloading overall executive capacity in order to produce long term adaptation

    • Greg Linster says:

      Interesting thoughts.

      1)  Fasting seems to be the exception here.  Depending on how we are looking at things though, I think intermittent fasting could still be classified as an acute stress.

      2)  I’m not sure that the amount of willpower we have is fixed.  In other words, I think we can improve it.  However, I think there are limits to it.  In my personal experience, finding the right balance with most of the stressors mentioned in this essay is more difficult than just using brute willpower though. 

      • 1) Yeah, I’m not sure exactly how to think about fasting.  Yet to experiment with that one myself.

        2) I don’t mean to say that willpower is fixed in the long-term, just in the short term. Long term willpower is increased via intelligent selective overload.  If you are a competitive athlete you wouldn’t frivolously decide, “Hey maybe I’ll add some max effort deadlifts to my routine 2x/week.”  Obviously that is going to detract from your capacity somewhere else if you are already running at peak (already selectively overloaded).  

        I think the same is true for willpower.  I have much more luck when I take these things on as “projects”.  In other words, when I know I have a certain amount of attention/willpower that I can allocate, and can commit that attention to sustained iterative improvement.  

        If that new commitment causes periodic acute demands of (arbitrary number) 110% of current willpower capacity, then presumably long term “meta-capacity” is increasing as well.  

  2. David Lang says:

    Surely you read Hitchens’ piece on this…

     http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/01/hitchens-201201

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