If we want health, "get comfortable with the uncomfortable"

“Get comfortable with the uncomfortable”! Who would want to do that right? You do if you want health.

We evolved in concert with our primal environment over hundreds of thousands of years (more if we delve deeper to our cellular origins) in our effort to survive and reproduce. Our biological and physical makeup is an outgrowth of this. Our bodies minimize functions not used and grow functions that are used and needed.

Here is an example:

At the heart of our being are our cells. Within our cells (except red blood cells) are the power plant energy makers for the cell - mitochondria. They make the energy that the cell needs to carry out its role. If we were considering a muscle cell and they were not doing their job - can you say muscular fatigue?

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Here is what’s important. When the cell observes over time that it doesn’t need the same degree of energy, it reduces the number of mitochondria. (can you say sedentary?) The reduced number of mitochondria becomes problematic when there comes a time when high energy demand exists and the cell cant keep up with the demand due to reduced cellular energy from fewer mitochondria. The few mitochondria that are trying to do the job have to work very hard and produce a lot of exhaust (think of your car engine). That exhaust produces “oxidative stress” in the cell (think of you sitting in your car with it running in your garage) which if the cell can’t mitigate the oxidative stress (exaust), will damage the cell structure and DNA (the brain of the cell). (imagine how you would feel in that car garage)

Lets say the cells we are talking about belong to heart muscle. Get the picture?

So whats the point? The body adapts to the demand placed on it. Sedentary results in less biological function to support anything other than sedentary.

Next point: more is not always better!

If you take interest in your heath (which you must) and understand how your body functions (which you must) you will come to know that everything works in phases - acute, not chronic. Our biological functioning is biphasal - in tune with the light and dark timing of our environment and in turn coordinates all its functioning with it - like sleep and being awake. Our primal physical activity was intermittent periods of intense activity (like sprinting) amoungst a lot of being lazy and wandering (rest and recovery) This leads us to the subject of Hormesis.

Hormesis is an extension of Paracelsus’ statement. It implies that there are necessary doses of environmental challenges. The right “doses” provide beneficial adaption, while “overdoses” of the same challenges are harmful in the long-term. The doses that provide beneficial adaptation are said to be “hormetic” doses. So you see, the “benefit is in the dose”. To much is detrimental. For example, to much intense exercise without proper recovery is detrimental to health. Whereas an acute stressor with proper recovery results in adaptation/growth.

If we consider physical activity in the next image: A represents inactivity, B represents an appropriate acute stimulus and C represents to much physical activity or over stimulus.

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If in the next image we consider nutrition, A represents inadequate nutrition (not specifically calories), B represents adequate nutrition and C represents excessive nutrition. Nutrition includes essential proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and calories.

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There has been a good amount of recent research on how calorie reduction has bearing on aging. There is much more to this so don’t just stop eating thinking you will live forever!

Now we are going to transition. In our primal evolutionary years, we had guidance on what was effective for our existence. It was a relationship between environmental conditions and how those conditions provided for our existence (food, water, oxygen) and how we adapted to that environment. For example it is believed that our migration to near the sea and the consumption of seafood and the omega3 provided by it resulted in the growth of our species (away from our monkey relatives) including the development of the frontal lobe of the brain. You can see some background on this here, here and here.

So what’s the point. We had guardrails back then to head us in the right direction without our having to think about it. The food was natural and healthy - there were no choices. Sprinting was required - you had to chase down your meal. Recovery/rest was easy - there were no morning commutes. Sleep was simple - the sun set, we slept untll it rose - there was no artificial lighting or TV to stay up for. By the way, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and believer that sleep took away from productivity, was a type 2 diabetic.

There are no guardrails now. We have outsmarted it all in the name of comfort and convenience. The fact of the matter is that the combination of our not truly understanding how we work as an organism and so can not predict the effect of our moving away from our evolutionary habits and environment, coupled with our new drivers for existence, is taking us down an unhealthy non-hormetic path. The drivers used to be survival and reproduction. With our new found intelligence and inventions, those drivers are not as much in the forefront. The new drivers are “avoidance of discomfort” and “seeking pleasure”.

The consequence of these new drivers are our seeking comfort and avoiding discomfort! This was not an option in our primal history. Nietzsche’s axiom states, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”. This is profoundly accurate in the world of DNA, genes and epigenetic science. Organisms—human or otherwise—either adapt to challenges by becoming stronger or they die. Challenges in the right amounts are not only beneficial, but necessary. I’m sure you can think of examples in your own life where rather than do what might be good for you (but uncomfortable), you chose what is pleasurable (but not good for you) - there are no controls to keep you on the healthy path - no guardrails - only your own will and choices.

Earlier in this post the example of reduction in cellular mitochondria was given as a result of less use of that cellular function. The opposite can happen. With the correct hormetic dose, cells reproduce more mitochondria. This is called mitochondrial biogenisis. If you want to read more on mitochondrial biogenisis you could look here. This whole concept adds the potential for judgement on the why, what, and how of one’s exercise and nutrition. Why do you exercise? To burn calories? Or to improve the density of cellular mitochondria in away that avoids excessive oxidative stress and cellular damage?

So, the message is “get comfortable with the uncomfortable”! The uncomfortable may very likely be good for you, been part of your heritage and key to your health and longevity.

Don’t for a moment believe that just because you enjoy it or it brings you comfort that it is good for you! Thats not to say one can’t enjoy and have pleasure with the uncomfortable. A little physical challenge can make you feel wonderful. Think of a mountain hike on a nice clear fresh air day.