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.
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.
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.
Jan 11, 2013 — 12:59 pm
Living in Chicago and not having a car, intolerance to cold is not a luxury I can afford to have. However, I do not think it confers the widely exaggerated benefits that Kruse and others have claimed. I find the claim that it might make you leaner especially hilarious considering the physiques of even traditionally living arctic people. Even I develop a less lean body during the winter.
Jan 11, 2013 — 1:12 pm
@Melissa – I used cold exposure while leaning out, but I also removed grains and did IF, so I have no idea if it helped with fat loss. My guess is that if it did, it was the least important factor. I was just walking around Seattle with a thin sweater in 35 F and felt great. That to me is the true benefit.
Jan 11, 2013 — 6:22 pm
In my experience, the following is patently untrue “…eating massive amounts of food in one shot, and then compensating by starving themselves…”. It appears Kim needed to create a caricature in order to be able to make his point. A pity.
I am currently doing a 6-18 day. I don’t starve myself or eat massive amounts of food. For me, IF is also about freedom and, indirectly, about high quality food.
Jan 11, 2013 — 7:29 pm
@Txomin – Perfectly said. Freedom and high quality food.
Jan 12, 2013 — 8:42 am
@MAS – Nice post. One question I’ve got about these – if you no longer find the cold or hunger stressful, are they really hormetic stressors for you any more? With resistance training we can play with the weight or duration of a set once we’ve adapted to a given time under a given load, to maintain a hormetic stressor. I guess we can increase the length of a fast, wear progressively less clothing, or encounter progressively colder temperatures, but absent such measures, doesn’t the hormetic stress – and related adaptation – eventually plateau? You are now “cold hardened” and “hunger resistant” but do you meaningfully increase your resilience by continuing those practices beyond the minimum necessary to maintain your current state of adaptation?
Jan 12, 2013 — 8:52 am
@Geoff – Great question. I’ve had the same thoughts.
For cold, I cycle exposure. During the winter months I use primarily outdoor walks in the colder air for varying lengths. During the warmer months, I use water (cold showers, swimming in Puget Sound).
For IF, I vary the lengths and days. When it gets too easy, then I back off. Most days my eating window is 12 hours. A few might be 10 with an occasional 8. I might dial this up for a period. These days IF is so random.
Jan 12, 2013 — 12:54 pm
One of Dr Peat’s recommendations has really helped me. I drink a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (or smooth juice, not from concentrate) with pinch of salt with breakfast. Here is the profile of one cup of orange juice:
I think its the high content of potassium, magnesium and the added salt that is very calming, and provides great support for adrenals. I find having the orange juice with coffee, I no longer get any reactions with my two cups of coffee a day. It also makes me feel very calm.
Jan 12, 2013 — 5:34 pm
@Pauline – I wished I liked OJ. I might give it another try. Thanks.
Jan 12, 2013 — 8:56 pm
Excellent post, as usual. My personal experience parallels yours.
It’s much less stressful for me to follow IF for 12 to 16 hours per day. Only eat significant protein once per day. I have to travel on long plane rides for work and don’t have to eat their crappy food. I can be in long meetings without being hungry or eating their crappy food. I don’t have to worry about the next meal.
I feel better after a cold shower, not worse. Cold exposure doesn’t reduce my body temperature. Diet and exertion seem to have a bigger effect. I can be outside in the cold or next to a roaring fire and my measured body temp doesn’t vary that much. Isn’t that how a warm-blooded mammal is supposed to function? It’s worked that way for every dog I’ve owned in warm climates and cold climates.
Resistance training has improved my joints. It’s improved my DXA bone scores significantly. I still look scrawny, but I feel better (especially joints) and no health measurements deteriorated with some improved after I introduced this protocol. Being neurotic is a characteristic not a flaw.
Scientific papers (i.e. pubmed) are mixed and many are observational studies which often have dubious math and/or experimental design.
Jan 13, 2013 — 2:59 pm
Great points! Was wondering if you’ve read sock-doc.com and his articles on training principles? When I happened upon him, I was into Body By Science and wanted to believe that aerobic work was utterly useless, but his explanation of the benefits of aerobic work, but only if you keep it low-intensity, is intriguing.
And regarding HIT, I think the level of stress to benefit ratio is variable. For example, my husband does great going to failure. But, perhaps because I’m female or due to my underlying hyperthyroid issues, I found that doing negatives or going to failure wiped me out and my recovery time was getting longer and longer. So I switched to stopping just before failure and it made a world of difference for me. I’ve been able to progress and recover in a reasonable amount of time. So for Peat-arians who tend toward having thyroid problems, etc., probably doing negatives or going to failure is too much for them. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong for everyone.
Jan 13, 2013 — 3:07 pm
@Angie – I have not read Soc Doc. I am a fan of hiking, which one might consider low-intensity aerobic. But I hike, because I enjoy moving outside, not for any aerobic benefits.
I agree with you on HIT. Failure is likely not necessary and certainly not always necessary. My belief now is the strength of HIT is slow movements on machines. Avoiding injury while under intensity is the key.
And I have also read how women tend to find IF much more stressful than men, so gender could also play a role in seeking hormteci stress.
Jan 14, 2013 — 1:46 am
I read an interesting comment on Robb Wolf’s latest comments on low carb versus paleo eating, saying IF tends to increase people’s caffeine addictions, as we use coffee to get through the fast. As a woman I think this is also the way I have done IF in the 16/8 window or 18/6 window. I did find it stressful – I used coffee to keep me going. It did curb my appetite but I would invariably get a racing heart, a sign my body was trying to get my glucose levels up and over-reacting to the caffeine by my adrenals kicking in to raise glucose. Interesting to observe how different men/women react to intermittent fasting. I would also get this effect later in the evening if I started my fast after supper around 7pm and didn’t eat anything before going to bed.
Jan 14, 2013 — 8:38 am
@Pauline – That makes sense. It also means one might dial down caffeine on non-IF days.
Jan 21, 2013 — 1:01 pm
This is a very timely post. I’ve recently adopted some of Ray Peat’s ideas, stepping away from a fear of moderate sugar consumption, and it lead me down a similar path regarding hormesis. Peatarian’s do not seem to consider hormesis.
Initially I tried to cut out all stress; however, after awhile I realized that the lack of exposure to certain specific stresses (i.e. elements, veggies, short fasts) ended up causing another type of stress due to a seeming lack of exposure.
For example, I think the body was designed to move, and if you don’t move it enough (just like moving too much) it can cause a certain level of chronic stress. The same likely goes for things like sun exposure and nutrition; in the most overly simplistic terms, “the dose makes the poison”
As a side-note to add my anecdote to Pauline’s comment, as soon as I started eating more sugar/starch I needed a lot less coffee.
Jan 21, 2013 — 2:28 pm
@Vanner – Thanks for the comment.
I have found no correlation between sugar/starch and coffee cravings.
May 30, 2014 — 12:56 pm
Very interesting article. I know I’m a little late here but I thought I’d give my two cents. I’m not so sure that Ray Peat is necessarily against stressors, but rather more interested in combating the stress once it has taken place. I don’t think he is suggesting everyone should live in a bubble. Stress is a reality of life and will always be there. I have always taken Peat’s advice as a means to minimize the damage one accrues from daily stress. And, as we all know, the stress will always be there, without the addition of intermittent fasting or cold water immersion.
In terms of Hormesis, I think it is an extremely fascinating yet confusing topic. The problem I have with the paleo/ancestral health spheres is that they seem to think hormesis is a general concept that can be applied to any stressor. I don’t believe this is the case. For example, I feel some stressors are positive and can incur benefits (exercise is the clearest example of this) while others have no benefit and only consequence (sleep deprivation). I personally have found no benefit to intermittent fasting, and have only experienced loss of muscle mass, performance, and irritability when trying it out. Going for long periods of time without eating is a major stressor, and I feel the vast majority of people who do well with IF are those who are relatively inactive. It is a very difficult thing to do with an active lifestyle and I have seen few people who exercise intensely get away with IF. IF just doesn’t make much sense to me from a health POV. The only advantage I can see for IF is if it somehow fits more conveniently into their daily schedule.
Another great example of the specificity of hormesis would be sleep. I hear next to no one experimenting with purposefully missing nights of sleep to somehow “get stronger.” Why is this? I think it’s because most people recognize that sleep deprivation is extremely rough on the body. Most people feel awful when they sleep very little – just as most people feel fairly moody when they go for long periods of time without eating. Now, I do understand that the body will, over time, adapt to these conditions. There are plenty of people who get “used to” not sleeping or eating regularly but I think they are merely running on their adrenal hormones most of the time. Is this a useful adaptation? It may be depending on the context but my gut tells me that constantly being in a state of fight or flight is not all that beneficial.
Lastly, I think it’s also important to talk about the proposed benefits of things like hormesis. It’s very clear to me that when people exercise, their bodies are literally becoming stronger. What about IF? I don’t believe it’s so clear. Yes, over time you will be able to go longer periods without eating but does that mean you are “stronger” than someone who eats more regularly? For example, I am someone who is very physically active. I swim, hike, do gymnastics, sprint, etc etc. I do not do IF but I have good performance, sleep well, and have very good mobility and strength. Is the person who can go for half the day without eating, but does nothing but sit at a computer all day longer “stronger” than me? I certainly don’t think so.
My point isn’t to dissuade people from trying IF. If people are happy doing it, I think they should continue to do so. I just want to point out that there is a somewhat of a romanticized image of hormesis travelling throughout the paleosphere that may not reflect reality.
As I mentioned before, I am an avid exerciser. Peat’s suggestions have helped me manage that physical stress very effectively. Since implementing some of his advice, I have seen far greater recovery than I have in the past and even seem to bounce back relatively easily from a miserable night’s sleep. I believe I am experiencing exactly what you recommend in your final paragraph – becoming more resilient to stress – and I feel that I am doing it in a way that affords me exposure to the smallest amount consequence. I approach it like this: My goal is to avoid as much stress as possible so that when a stressful event actually occurs (and it always does) I will have enough energy to deal with it. I keep my body well nourished and full of energy so it can deal with whatever life throws my way. Creating a stressful state for yourself by purposefully avoiding food seems to be a strange strategy in learning to combat the stressors of life. It’s almost as if people are placing themselves in a disadvantageous position to deal with stress. Also, as weird as this sounds I feel like I have become much more resilient to cold temperatures as well. I have the auto-immune condition “raynauds phenomenon” and it has virtually disappeared since eating Ray Peat style.
Thanks Michael. Would love to hear a response on this.
May 30, 2014 — 5:59 pm
@Jonathan – This post was written almost 1 1/2 years ago. Back then I was more focused on quantification and measurement and so that is how I tried to view Peat’s ideas on stress. But stress is something that isn’t easily quantifiable. We are all different.
I’m less concerned now with making sure I get enough hormetic stress and more concerned about being honest about the role stress plays in my life. IOW, address stress first and hormesis second. When I wrote this post, I had it backwards.
May 30, 2014 — 7:35 pm
Thanks for the reply Michael. I figured your stance may have changed given that you seem to be evolving your views over time (a very good thing in my opinion.) I agree that stress is very difficult to quantify, and general prescriptions for the masses never turn out great, since so many people react so differently to everything. That being said, I still believe performance and overall well being are probably the greatest indicators of whether or not someone is going in the right direction. Self-experimentation and trusting your instincts have worked far better for me than rigidly following anyone’s plan.
Thanks again, Michael. Looking forward to reading more of the content on this site.