Peat-atarians and Fear of Hormetic Stress

Last year my interest in nutrition lead me to look into the ideas of Dr. Ray Peat. I outlined what I learned in the post The Peat-atarian Diet For Those Of Us With Average IQs. There is a lot I like about the diet and I can see where some individuals, especially overweight females with thyroid issues, could really benefit from the diet.

However, there is one area where I believe they are dead wrong. In their obsession with reducing all forms of stress, they go too far. From my readings and more importantly, my personal experience, lack of stress builds fragility. The key is finding ways to episodically, not chronically, expose your body to safe stressors. This teaches your body resilience. This is called hormesis.

Hormesis

Although it was Art De Vany that first taught me about hormesis, my go to source on hormesis is the site Getting Stronger. Their tagline is Train yourself to thrive on stress. Their side box description reads:

Getting Stronger is a blog about the philosophy of Hormetism, based on the application of progressive, intermittent stress to overcome challenges and grow stronger physically, mentally and emotionally.

A simple example of hormesis would be lifting a heavy weight. The body responds to this stress by creating stronger muscles. Exposure to the stress of sun radiation can trigger the body to develop a protective tan. Exposing our bodies to hormetic stress is beneficial as it teaches our body how to respond successfully to future unknown stressors.

Peat-atarians have developed a brilliant approach for addressing the problem of too many PUFAs in modern society, but have failed to see that the same modern world has made us too soft. By living in perfectly controlled temperatures and never missing a meal, we’ve made ourselves less resilient. Hormetic stress teaches us how to positively respond to chronic stress.

Photo by Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

My Experience with Hormesis

Now before the followers of Peat dumps a bunch a links to medical studies in the comments, let me remind them I that I am not a PubMed Warrior. I’ve seen enough nutritional debates to know that there are brilliant people on both sides of every argument. Studies can only, at best, measure what they deem as important and quantifiable. And as far as I can tell those metrics do not exist for stress. And more importantly our response to that stress.

How we respond to stress is more important than stress itself. Using hormesis trains our body to respond to stress better. And by the way, fearing hormetic stress is a stressful response to the anticipation of a stressor. Instead of pouring through PubMed looking for evidence to back up my opinion, I will tell you about my experiences with hormesis.

# 1 Intermittent Fasting

Peat-atarians are against fasting. I am strongly in favor of Intermittent Fasting (IF). Instead of diving into yet another discussion of the benefits of fasting, I’ll keep this focused on stress. Before discovering IF, I was a slave to hunger. Every 3 or so waking hours, I had to eat. IF taught me how to be patient with food. I learned how to cook, because I could now chose to eat later rather than immediately. By taking control of my hunger, I was able to prepare my own foods, which meant my intake of PUFA, wheat and soy plummeted. These are the same toxins that Peat-atarians agree are the most stressful to the body.

Andrew Kim, who Peat fans love, posted a confusing anti-Intermittent Fasting opinion. (post was removed from blog)

Briefly, the so-called intermittent fasting does not provide any additional benefit to what complete fasting does . . . it is a poor man’s derivative of it.  People who are drawn to it I think should train their bodies to eat moderately (i.e., small meals) rather than resorting to eating massive amounts of food in one shot, and then compensating by starving themselves for 16-24 hours and repeating the process day after day (though a complete fast can fix eating disorders like this).

Fasting, to me, is the ultimate reset button.

Let me try and follow the logic here. Fasting is the ultimate reset. IF does not provide additional benefit. If something were already the ultimate, I wouldn’t expect additional benefit. That doesn’t seem logically possible. Even though Andrew is a smart guy, his labeling of IF as “starving themselves for 16-24 hours and repeating the process day after day” is an extreme view. Brad Pilon, who has probably done more research on IF than anyone, says 1-2 fasts approaching 24 hours a week are perfectly healthy and beneficial.

Andrew states he thinks people should train their bodies to eat multiple small meals. So did Dr. Barry Sears, which was a principle of his Zone Diet. It worked awesome in the beginning, but eventually I found myself constantly hungry throughout the day (see My Experience With the Zone Diet). Being hungry lead me to make poor food choices.

I do agree that everyday long fasts are unnecessary. Fasts should be spontaneous and random. To sum up, practicing IF has reduced my stress levels by making hunger a comfortable feeling and giving me the patience to pursue cooking. And cooking has opened up a world of social connections that I did not have prior to IF. IF has reduced my stress levels.

#2 Cold Temperature Exposure

Peat fan Danny Roddy loves to write lines condescending to Paleo. In his guest post The Peat Whisperer Whispers Paleo on 180DegreeHealth, he lists a few Paleo characteristics that will lead to “The Race to Torpor”. The Wikipedia defines torpor as:

…a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal, usually by a reduced body temperature and rate of metabolism.

One of the items on Danny’s list, besides IF, was cold thermogenesis.

Needless to say, I am a fan of cold temperature exposure. I began cold exposure over 4 years ago. My body temperature is still the same and my metabolism has increased. Teaching my body how to deal with the hormetic stress of cold temperatures has been a great benefit to me. After living in the perfect weather of San Diego for 7 years, I arrived in Seattle very soft to cold temperatures. Being cold was highly stressful to me. I hated the feeling of being cold. Because I can’t control the stressor (the weather), my only recourse was to change my response to the stressor.

Today I can walk outside without a jacket in low temperatures with no problem. At the end of a workout, I can take a cold shower with no problem. My body is resilient across a wide range of temperatures. If my apartment loses heat or my car breaks down in a cold environment, I won’t panic. Always being in a perfect temperature may be less stressful in the immediate term, but it doesn’t prepare you for the greater stress when you are forced to step outside that comfort zone. Cold Temperature Exposure has provided me the confidence that I can be comfortable across a wide range of temperatures. That confidence has spilled over to other areas in my life, which has reduced my stress levels.

#3 Negative (Eccentric) Weight Training

When it comes to exercise, I almost agree 100% with Dr. Peat. Like myself he has a low opinion of cardio and endurance type exercises. He sees the stress at the cellular level, whereas I am most concerned about the pounding of the joints, increased risk of injury and its general ineffectiveness. We also agree on the importance of rest and recovery. However, I completely disagree with him on eccentric weight training. He is against it – too much stress – whereas I am strongly in favor of it.

They key that many lifters miss when they engage in negative training is that their recovery demands are now greater. This means you need to spend more time resting and engage in fewer workouts. Negative weight training allows the person trying to build strength to do it more efficiently. Fewer workouts are needed to build the strength, provided they allow extra time for rest.

Ellington Darden Ph.D., who has trained thousands of clients and written several books, including The New High Intensity Training, has used negative lifts to help ectomorphs gain muscle. Us ectomorphs (tall, lanky) generally have the least muscular potential. Using eccentric training, we can more efficiently develop strength in fewer workouts. As far as stress goes, have you ever been around a lanky lifter at the gym? We tend to be the most neurotic. Trust me when I say that making muscular gains reduces our stress levels. Negative lifting is an effective tool to bring us closer to our potential.

What about the muscular stress? The first time I engaged in some of Darden’s exercises that focused on the negative portion of the lift, I needed a full 10 days before heading back to the gym. Within weeks, my body was ready to return in 7 days. So although negative lifts are indeed stressful, the body learns and adapts to that stress more efficiently over time, provided it receives sufficient recovery time.

Last Words

This post is getting long, so I’ll end it here. I do want to say that I like a lot of what the Peat-atarians are doing, but when it comes to stress, I think they are asking the wrong question. To me the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate stress, but to train ourselves to become more resilient in the face of stress. I cover my thoughts more in detail in the post Healthy vs Resilient.

Healthy vs Resilient

This post is a follow-up to Loosening the Paleo Collar, where I try and determine what aspects of the Paleo diet were responsible for the benefits I experienced. Instead of following an ever increasing stricter interpretation to achieve more results, I took the opposite approach and started removing behaviors to see where the true benefit resided. Besides having a curiosity on these matters, I had another motivation and that is the topic of this post.

Peanuts Are Unhealthy, Right?

In early 2009, I watched Art De Vany’s Evolutionary Fitness Seminar. I was very new to the Paleo diet. I wanted to learn more, so I took notes and started thinking about ways I could make changes in my diet and behavior. At one point in the lecture De Vany mentions how we shouldn’t eat peanuts, because they contain a carcinogenic toxin know as aflatoxin. This wasn’t a problem for me. I loved almond butter just as much as peanut butter, so I formed a new food rule and avoided peanuts for almost 2 years.

Then at a Thai restaurant I had a dish made with a peanut sauce. My mouth turned instantly numb. I had trouble speaking, almost like I had been injected with Novocaine. This had never happened to me before. I stopped eating for a moment and instead of panicking, I calmly told myself that I was going to be OK. I slowly finished eating my meal and by the time I left the restaurant the numbness was gone and I was fine. Since that incident, I purposely expose myself to peanuts 2-3 times a year without getting any side effects. Dealing with a numb mouth is one thing, what if I had gone 5 or 10 years without peanuts and then had a far worse exposure?

That incident got me thinking.

The Resiliency Axis

It is not enough that we pursue a path of becoming more healthy. If we aren’t developing resiliency, then we could just be building up a new form of fragility. When we become fully committed to a diet, be it Paleo or whatever, we construct a bubble between us and what we see as toxic. This is a safe environment for losing weight and getting healthy, but we are still in a bubble in a toxic world.

Intermittent Fasting is about building resiliency over eating schedules and being comfortable with the state of hunger. Weight training and cold weather exposure are other strategies used for increasing resiliency. Why not dietary hormesis?

Maybe this post won’t make sense to those that don’t follow a strict diet, but I am aware of a lot people in the Paleo and WAPF (Weston A Price Foundation) groups that get exponentially more neurotic about elements of their diet that have the least impact. Everything must be grass-fed, organic and free range to them. I’m not kidding when I say that I know people that spend hours every week investigating the practices of local farms. While I am glad that someone is keeping tabs on what Local Farmer X is feeding to his heirloom chickens, I don’t see these people as having greater health outcomes than me. In fact, I see the opposite.

Obsessing about what is unhealthy is unhealthy. It makes you less resilient. It is important to discover what your dietary enemies are, but unless you have a life threatening allergy, running from them 100% of the time may not be the most healthy response. During my trip to Ohio, some gluten exposure gave me a severe headache and stomach pains. What if I had exposed myself to trace amounts of gluten on the days leading up to my trip? Would I have felt better and enjoyed my trip more? Sure it isn’t healthy, but my resiliency would likely have been greater.

Healthy vs Resilient Axis

Another one of my amazing graphics. ;)

RED is the path I see many in the PALEO/WAPF groups following. In their obsession with becoming more healthy, they lose resiliency. The GREEN path is the alternative. Once you’ve become healthy and realize that any additional incremental benefit introduce greater fragility then shift focus to resiliency.

Pick Your Poisons

We live in a toxic world. Constructing walls of super clean eating is excellent way to get healthy, but once you’ve healed, the next step might be to focus on increasing your resiliency to that toxic world by carefully picking your poisons in small doses. It has been over two years since I posted on what I eat and what I don’t eat. In my next post, I will revisit this topic with a bias towards resiliency.