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Adaptive Stress

The human body is a wonderfully adaptive organism. Given the proper resources (nutrients, water, sleep, and time), it can heal itself from disease, repair injuries, and grow stronger as well as more resilient. When one follows a ketogenic diet (in which few, if any, carbohydrates are consumed), the body can manufacture the glucose necessary for intense exercise out of protein, fats, or ketone bodies. Most of us are aware that the body's main desire is to maintain homeostasis, and whether the current state of the body is good or bad, it wants to conserve resources whenever possible. In order to elicit change in the organism, the body needs a good reason to spring into action. This change usually occurs as a result of an external factor, such as when exposure to sunlight spurs the body to produce Vitamin D and causes the skin to darken. If you want to stimulate an adaptation, then the body must be periodically exposed to manageable amounts of stress.

Think of the above example. If you go out into the sun once over the course of a summer for just a few minutes, but do not go outdoors again for the rest of the season, you won't develop a suntan (and you'll likely have suboptimal levels of Vitamin D in your system). There is a balance to how much stress one should experience without going overdoing it, and some people are more physically and mentally sturdy than others. Your immune system is a microcosm of this concept. How resistant you are to illness is due to a combination of factors, both genetic and in terms of your lifestyle. One thing, however, is certain: you cannot live in a completely sterile environment. We regularly see commercials for antibacterial soaps and cleaning products that claim to "kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria." The germ theory of disease is part of the foundation on which establishment medicine (and the pharmaceutical industry) was built, but a lot of holes have been poked in Pasteur's hypothesis as of late. While I don't propose that we live in unsanitary conditions or surround ourselves with Asbestos, I believe it is important to strategically expose your immune system to pathogens. This is another form of stress, and it can be as simple as being around other people, getting fresh air, and not wearing masks in public places. Your immune system needs exposure to different pathogens, so that it can recognize them, fight them, and kill them if they try to invade your body. An unintended consequence of the draconian Covid lockdowns is that kids were forced to stay home instead of being in school, and they were no longer routinely exposed to other kids, so many ended up getting sick because their immune systems were thrown into flux. By all means we should use common sense, wash our hands, and practice responsible hygiene, but let's not think that a paper or cloth mask is going to protect us. In most cases, they do far more harm than good.

Our emotional health and mental well-being are also optimized by periodic exposure to stress. I believe this to be absolutely critical during childhood, when the brain is most malleable, and it sets the course for how we deal with life as we journey into adulthood. Overprotective, but well-intentioned parents often try to shield their children from stress or adversity in the hope of sparing them from potentially damaging trauma. This is completely understandable, but as we know, the world does not work that way. Somewhere along the way adversity will make its presence known, and how we deal with it and learn from it determines our character. Daniel Goleman talks about this in his 2006 book "Social Intelligence." Goleman discusses a study performed at the University of Wisconsin that involved about ten thousand high school seniors from the class of 1957, and they were interviewed when they were in their teens, at the age of 40, and again as they approached age 65. The researchers also studied activity in the frontal lobe of their brains, and found that those with higher activity in the right prefrontal area relative to their left more often had intense distress and recovered more slowly from emotional setbacks. According to Goleman, "But those people who had been exposed to manageable levels of stress during childhood were most likely as adults to have the better prefrontal ratio." This means that they dealt with adversity better and bounced back more quickly. My take on this is that too much low level, constant stress leads to anxiety and maladaptation, while not enough stress can lead to a false sense of security and fragility when things eventually don't go right. It appears that if we experience just the right amount of occasional emotional stress (while in a safe and nurturing environment) it is essential for building robust emotional health. The ability to bounce back quickly after a setback is a key component of life success, and it drives performance and achievement. There are strategies and exercises that one can do to improve mental toughness. Two good books that I recommend are "Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage" by Dan Crenshaw, and "Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Stress is a key component of Total Results exercise. Take a moment and really consider what it is that we are doing during the course of a workout. We are putting the body through a brief, but intensely stressful experience once or twice per week for twenty minutes or less. Exercise sessions are physically and psychologically stressful, which is why the workouts are so brief and infrequent. What we desire is a physical adaptation, i.e., to grow stronger muscles, improve cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, and protect against injury. The best way to do that is to expose the muscles, bones, and connective tissues to safe and appropriate levels of stress, and since the body needs a good reason to adapt, the intensity of effort needs to be very high. This allows us to stimulate the growth mechanism, which spurs the body to make an adaptation. Exercise, like medication, has a narrow therapeutic window, meaning that there is a fine line between too much and not enough. Not exposing the body to any stress accomplishes nothing, while too much stress (in the form of too much force or too frequent bouts of exercise) will lead at minimum to a stagnation of progress, and in the worst case scenario will lead to illness and/or injury. We want the minimum dosage of stress (the workout) necessary to achieve optimal results, and while pushing each exercise to and beyond muscular failure is no doubt stressful, it is perfectly safe if done properly under the watchful eye of an instructor.

We know that the human body is a wonderfully resilient and adaptive organism, and it can often achieve amazing things even in spite of bad habits (many professional athletes are living proof). It does, however, have its limits, and it is wise not to push things too far. This can vary from one person to the next. On the other hand, modern conveniences like delivery and food apps are great, but in many ways contemporary living has softened us mentally and physically. We all need some stress in our lives in moderation in order to help us to grow physically, psychologically, and spiritually. It is a necessary and unavoidable factor in our lives, and stressful situations are an opportunity to accomplish something great and learn exactly what we're made of. As the ancient Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus once said, "Do not be irked by difficult circumstances, but reflect on how many things have already happened to you in life in ways that you did not wish, and yet they have turned out for the best."

Posted April 15, 2022 by Matthew Romans