In the late 1800s, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.’ It is a phrase often used to explain the resilience of people who have endured hardships. It turns out that it certainly contains more than a grain of truth.
My interest in this subject arose from undergoing a course called Air 427 in 1998, whilst serving as an officer in the British Armed Forces. The course was ten days of rigorous combat survival and resistance to interrogation training, which involved walking hundreds of kilometres over ten days, with very little sleep due to sleeping rough in freezing conditions, and the only food over the entire ten days was a chicken between four people – and it was alive when we got it. To ramp up the pressure, the final five days was an ‘escape and evasion’ phase, where we were to evade a Hunter Force that was equipped with helicopters, vehicles and dog teams.
At the end of the ten days we underwent interrogation training, which consisted of alternating bouts of highly uncomfortable stress positions (blindfolded while exposed to very loud ‘white noise’), with interrogations of increasing intensity. Once the course was over, the first thing that struck me was that I had a new-found appreciation for things that I took for granted – as well as the obvious such as food, shelter and warmth, there were lots of little things that I appreciated much more, such as a toothbrush, clean underwear and toilet paper!
It wasn’t until a few weeks and months later that I noticed something more long lasting – my view of what was stressful had completely changed and my resilience was greatly enhanced. I realised that this phenomenon was very well explained by knowledge from my first Masters Degree in Sports Science – that of training adaptation. Exposing the body to training stresses, such as sprinting or lifting heavy weights, induces changes in gene expression which result in a an adaptive response – and the body ultimately becoming bigger, faster, stronger. This knowledge led to me reframing potential stress in my life as something that would make me stronger.
When I left the Armed Forces and became more of an academic I looked deeper into the research in this area, and that is when I uncovered a topic that has real relevance to many areas of our life – that of hormesis.
Hormesis is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect results from low doses of a stressor or toxin which, in higher doses, is harmful or even lethal. We can harness this biological phenomenon in a systematic and deliberate way to improve many aspects of our health and move us beyond resilience to being what I call ‘stress adapted’.
If you choose to adapt the hormetic lifestyle, you will likely be changing how you eat, what supplements you take, how you exercise and your view of stress to enhance production of protective genes and enzymes that will protect you against disease and increase your lifespan.
This is not the lifestyle equivalent of a fad diet, but the application of years of research into areas as adverse as gene expression, exercise adaptation, dietary polyphenols, ageing, resilience, toxicology, radiation, immunotherapy and special forces training – all under the same fascinating umbrella called ‘hormesis’.
Article by OH! Magazine's Body Brain Performance Expert Paul Taylor.