Why are we so soft today? Why is it that our ancestors were able to perform feats like killing bears and wooly mammoths in snow-swept grasslands? How do present-day tribesmen withstand days of ultra-cold temperatures in Northern Greenland and prolonged periods without water in scorching hot Kenyan deserts? Why is it that a century ago, children in the Swiss alps ran barefoot through ice-cold mountain streams on cold days, while now they get carpal tunnel syndrome playing video games? How did they do all this without succumbing to the chronic diseases that are so rampant today? I believe part of the answer lies in hormesis.
Hormesis is the process by which a mild or acute stressor 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.
It might sound like a foreign concept, but you're more familiar with it than you think. Exercise is a form of hormesis. It's a stress placed upon the body that increases resistance to a number of other stressors: physical exertion, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, age-related cognitive decline, neurodegenerative disease, etc.
Intermittent fasting is one of the most promising forms of hormesis. It's consistent with the variable energy intake our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably experienced. As with some other forms of hormesis, it has broad-ranging effects on health and stress resistance. Alternate-day fasting, a version in which food is available for 24 hours ad libitum and then not available for the next 24 hours, increases mean lifespan in mice under some conditions without reducing calorie intake. It increases resistance to neurodegeneration, stroke, myocardial infarction, toxins, cancer and diabetes in rodents. It increases the expression of heat shock proteins and SIRT1, both implicated in general stress resistance. Basically, it makes them tougher all-around.
Although only a few studies have been performed in humans, IF looks promising for preventing or reversing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, overweight and possibly other health problems. It can also decrease fasting insulin and increase insulin sensitivity considerably. I fast for 24 hours, once a week. No calories, only water. It's not a form of caloric restriction, because I eat like horse the day after fasting. It's just a mild stressor that toughens my body to other stressors.
I also take cold showers. Here the scientific data are more sparse, but it has a long history of use as a form of "body hardening". I do it to increase my cold resistance by firing up my non-shivering thermogenesis. It seems to be working. It certainly wakes me up in the morning! Have you ever noticed how you can get into cold water and be surprisingly comfortable once you're used to it, even though you're practically naked and water is conducting heat away from your body 20 times faster than air would? That's probably your non-shivering thermogenesis kicking in.
There are probably many other ways to induce hormesis. Do any of you have techniques to share? By the way, hormesis is one of the central tenets of homeopathy. Solid principle, incorrect application. I'd be happy to sell anyone sugar pills for 50% less than his or her local homeopath is selling them. I promise mine are equally effective...
Soft living makes a soft body. Give it some controlled stress from time to time!
Thanks to Kirill Tropin for the CC photo.