Stress is generally considered a double-edged sword – just enough and your immunity to catching a cold increases and you perform at peak levels both mentally and physically, but too much and the opposite happens. Stress of this nature is generally not planned, as in the end of a hectic finals week at college or a major account presentation at work. But stressing your body intentionally and pushing your limits will activate your body’s adaptive stress response pathway and provide amazing results – if you’re willing.
The adaptive stress response pathway is your body’s way to counteract the stress you put on it. Let’s say you hold your breath. A series of chemical pathways will begin to return you to an equilibrium state – in this scenario force you to start breathing again. Different types of body stress will automatically turn on different pathways in your body to provide the intended counter- adjustment back to homeostasis.
Stressing yourself voluntarily isn’t the easy thing to do at times but there are certainly practical and health benefits to doing so. If we take the example of holding our breath intentionally, your body will begin to make small physiological changes over time that will allow you to hold your breath longer – an advantage if you’re an islands free diver hunting fish for instance. The actual chemical pathway your body activates isn’t as important as the intended result, but let’s look at what some of these are for holding your breath. One chemical pathway activated will decrease your heart rate (called bradycardia). Doesn’t this seem a logical step – right! No oxygen coming in, so slow the heart down to conserve what oxygen is already resident in the bloodstream. Another pathway will constrict the blood vessels in your arms and legs (the extremities that can burn a lot of oxygen quick)(called vasoconstriction). The intended result here is obvious. When oxygen isn’t coming in, the carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream rises and a pathway turns on that allows the oxygen in the bloodstream to release easier, so a vital organ, the brain, can get oxygen – obvious result – maybe I ought to think about taking a breath. Detailing the actual chemical triggers that kicks off these chain reactions is more in the realm of medical sciences and very detailed – but suffice it to say your body knows how to activate these complex chemical reactions and pathways and does so eloquently, efficiently and, to put in terms of computers, has 100% uptime – as it is vital to survival.
Elite military personnel (Read: Rangers, Seals, etc.) practice stressing their bodies to survive combat missions. Whereas a normal person would undergo hyperthermia, a Seal has practiced how to channel the remaining body heat into their core so as to survive. They practice calming their heart rate after severe physical activity so as to steady their aim and hit their target. Taking control over normal physiological processes can save or extend your life with practice.
I was in grade school when I first stressed my body – purely out of desperation. All I remember was how difficult it was for me to get rid of hiccups once they started. I remember playing rough-house with my brothers after dinner many times and the hiccups would start. Maybe a full stomach had something to do with it. But once they started I couldn’t stop them – and the hiccups would last up to an hour – which for a young kid is eternity when all you want to do is continue playing. My mom had her own remedies to stop hiccups but they didn’t work very well for me – I tried them all: sitting still and sipping water; sucking on a lemon and sipping water; trying to get surprised and scared with someone jumping out of nowhere and yelling at me. Finally I got so mad after sitting out the play action I decided to hold my breath. They kept coming, but I kept holding my breath. It got very painful when they stopped – but I was desperate and wanted them to go away – and I won, they stopped. I didn’t realize it but what I had done was stress my body. The lack of oxygen, like the deep sea divers, had started to shut down the standard body functions in order to conserve oxygen – and one of those functions was the oxygen-consuming muscles required when you were hiccupping. Eventually over the years I’ve perfected the art of holding my breath and can now stop the hiccups with very little pain and time – something altogether different than my first experiences with this process thank goodness.
My second encounter with utilizing the body’s adaptive stress response system was when I was going through my weight lifting phase right out of college. I stressed my muscles and the body’s response was to build bigger ones so the weight I was lifting would be less stressful. One of the bibles for bodybuilders back then during my short two year phase was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘The Education of a Bodybuilder’ which stated that the ‘pump’ after working out didn’t grow the muscles; it was the ‘stress’ from the weight against the muscle. I didn’t want to believe that then, but soon realized he was right. So whether you’re overriding your standard homeostatic pathway by not breathing to stop hiccups or you’re making a muscle do more work than it should – the body has a response to these actions – an adaptive stress response.
Up to now the examples given don’t show how you might live longer by stressing your body. But let’s take the example of the resultant body stress when there is a lack of food. How does missing a meal activate the stress response pathway? What biological set of chemical reactions go on within the body to perform a regulated body process? The art of stopping hiccups, growing muscles or keeping mentally keen is by randomly testing the body’s normal homeostatic pathways – briefly. One size doesn’t fit all; each person has to know their body and judge their acceptable tolerances of stress. The beneficial results are measured over the long term and immediate ‘feel better’ results typically don’t happen. This is more of a longer term goal but results will be evident.
Skipping a meal and going hungry seems counter-intuitive to good health. Why would restricting your body of healthy vitamins, minerals and cellular energy be a good thing? Again, one size doesn’t fit all, so if you are naturally low in body fat already (i.e. Less than 10%), this isn’t an exercise that is going to realize great benefits for you and likely will be harmful. Life is a balance, so listen to your body. Very few of us Americans however are walking around with five to nine percent body fat. Probably count yourself as an eligible candidate here.
First thing to note is if you skip lunch for instance and by dinner time you’re really not hungry, then your body has enough food stores that skipping one meal will not really stress your body – just saying. In that scenario, you’d have to double down and skip two consecutive meals. The body’s stress response pathway will not be activated until you’ve burned all the available energy (glycogen) in your bloodstream first and next it starts to burn the fat in your muscles and liver. When you get to that stage a byproduct of burning fat in your liver is the production of certain molecules called ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are very good for your brain – and are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and be used as energy in the brain – and enhance mental keenness. The real benefit of activating these response pathways in your body is the learned response – sort of what athlete’s call muscle memory – but in this case it’s chemical pathway memory. The repetitive practice of fasting can bring your mind to a state you were unaware of previously and one that has surprising results. Ketone bodies are water soluble molecules that promote neurotrophic factors such as BDNF & FGF that themselves help nerve cells by enticing the growth of axons and dendrites (parts of the nerve body). There is a cascading set of chemical pathways that get triggered here and studies indicate the number of mitochondria increase in the body as well. Mitochondria are the energy factories within a living cell – you’ve heard of ATP and ADP! Alertness, higher energy potential – these are all good things huh! But training the body to activate these pathways on a random basis is the real benefit. Remember how lack of oxygen holding your breath over-rode the hiccup spasms? Keeping good chemical pathways active may divert bad chemical reactions from taking place- such as abnormal cell growth or cancer.
Anthropologically speaking, when a caveman was hungry, he became more alert and creative as to finding his next meal. The cavemen whose adaptive stress response pathway didn’t work due to genetic factors, well, they didn’t survive long and didn’t pass that defect onto future generations.
To take the caveman example a little farther, when he had to run down his meal he put himself in oxidative stress (building up more oxygen free radicals than your body has antioxidants to repair them with) and again activated the body’s adaptive stress response pathway which in this case does a few things: improves the efficiency of delivering oxygen to the muscle cells so he can run longer and faster next time; enhancing the cell’s ability to repair any oxidative damage that may have occurred to the DNA and created even more ketone bodies.
The brain is the universe’s ultimate drug store. By going outside the normal body processes on a random basis your body delivers safe drugs that enhance your mood, allows your mind to super-focus, provides more energy and improves your mental attitude – all for free without taking synthetic drugs. Everyone should try skipping a meal once in awhile, running on a hungry stomach if you like to live on the edge, or go crazy and run in the cold rain on an empty stomach – you’ll be amazed how your body compensates. The paybacks can help you live a longer and happier life.