What is it that makes our bodies stronger? Gives them greater longevity? Greater resilience to disease? Greater performance?
The strange answer to this is that often something that harms us, stresses us, is what ends up making us stronger. The process is known as “hormesis” and applies to pretty much everything we can think of. Low doses of all types of stressors can make us better by stimulating us to adapt – exercise, emotional stress, radiation, natural pesticides found in plants – also known as phytonutrients and so on.
When the dose is too high it proves to do the opposite – make us weaker. So it’s about balance – but how do we know when we get the “dose of stress” just right so that we get positive results?
Today’s guest, Todd Becker, runs the popular blog GettingStronger.org dedicated solely to the topic of experiments in using hormesis to improve HRV so we may improve our lives. Todd is a scientist from Silicon Valley working in biotech, and runs his own N=1 experiments with hormesis in a wide variety of areas from improving eyesight to improving estimated longevity and general health.
In particular he’s experimented with improving his baseline and temporary Heart Rate Variability, as a proxy for longevity, with a long list of activities, from the well researched to the more experimental. In this show he talks about the outcomes, what worked, what didn’t and the usefulness of tracking heart rate variability for general health and longevity.
The show notes, biomarkers, and links to the apps, devices and labs and everything else mentioned are below. Enjoy the show and let me know what you think in the comments!
- What got Todd started on his mission to experiment with hormesis – an experiment that reversed his myopia.
- The hormesis framework, AKA the body as an adaptive system, with all the areas our health is modulated by hormesis.
- Phytonutrients as natural pesticides, or toxins, and the work of Dr. Bruce Ames.
- Can the gut microbiome also be improved via hormetic mechanisms involving probiotics?
- The need for balance of the intensity of the stimulus given to your body to provide positive benefits.
- Using lenses to stimulate growth in eye muscles, addressing myopia, sometimes in a matter of hours.
- Why Todd sees the Heart Rate Variability biomarker as more useful than the majority of markers and chose it as the end result to aim for and measure.
- A review of how heart variability works and illustrates our ability to adapt to stress.
- The inverse relationship between the heart rate and heart rate variability markers.
- The positive impact that cold showers can have on your HRV throughout the day.
- How Todd increased his baseline HRV by 10 points over several months through eliminating a variety of lifestyle habits or modulating them.
- Using fasting (also known as intermittent fasting) to increase your HRV.
- The major factors Todd found that reduced HRV including alcohol, hot tubs and exercise.
- Linking someone’s HRV to how they respond to emotional stressors and how additional stressors like alcohol can magnify emotional behaviors.
- The amazing power of vacations to increase HRV, regardless of how you feel – food for thought before you skip that vacation this year.
- Biomarkers Todd routinely tracks and finds useful to keep track of and his perspective on the value of tracking vs. anecdotal experience.
- Todd’s and Damien’s benchmark values currently for HRV when well recovered or more stressed.
Connect with Todd on Twitter to thank him for the advice in this interview.
Click Here to let him know you enjoyed the show!
Todd Becker & Getting Stronger Blog
- Getting Stronger: Todd’s blog on the topic of hormesis and his N=1 experiments.
- You can also connect with Todd on twitter @ToddBecker1 and facebook facebook.com/GettingStrongerBlog.
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV): Measures how your heart rate varies over time. Research studies link HRV to recovery status, stress and other aspects of human physiology. We have looked at HRV from a variety of perspectives in a number of episodes covering HRV.
- Average Heart Rate (commonly referred to as heart rate): A high resting heart rate can be indicative of bad health, while a lower resting heart rate can be indicative of good health and fitness. Todd discusses how average heart rate often correlated negatively with heart rate variability.
- Cold Showers: Cold showers are a form of cold therapy that can be used at home to encourage the body to adapt. Todd’s experiments revealed that his HRV improved using these.
- Intermittent Fasting / Fasting: Fasting involves fasting for several days typically, while intermittent fasting is based on a daily cycle. Standard approaches to intermittent fasting are 20 hour fasts, or 18 hour fasts.
- Avoiding Alcohol: Alcohol effects HRV negatively so avoiding it or quitting it temporarily or permanently should enable you to improve your HRV.
Other People, Resources and Books
- Dr. Bruce Ames and his work on oxidative stress and hormesis with respect to nutrition. Dr Bruce Ames’ own site has more details on his work
- Chris Kresser was mentioned in connection to his ideas and experience with the role of probiotics on the microbiome.
- Rhonda Collier’s discussion of HRV and stress was referred to as well as her HRV Sense app in partnership with Dave Asprey.
- James Gleick and his book “Chaos: Making a New Science“.
- Andrew Flatt and his discussion of using HRV to optimize training in Episode 1 of The Quantified Body.
Full Interview Transcript
[Todd Becker]: It is great, I am happy to join you.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So you have got a very interesting site, which is pretty much very dedicated to the topic of hormesis, which is called getting stronger. Could you tell me particularly what prompted you to take an interest in hormesis and this topic when you first started out?
[Todd Becker]: Well, it wasn’t any one thing. I just noticed certain patterns in what made me healthier and it really came from a variety of different areas. I would say probably one of the most pivotal experiences was learning that I could improve my eyesight without glasses, and that was probably almost 15 years ago, and understanding that the eye can respond to stimuli and the vision can improve, very [inaudible 00:03:18] to the way that weightlifters gain muscular strength by going into the gym and training. And then I started to think about how that is try about so many aspects of physiology from the immune system, which benefits by being tested and exposed and I think autoimmune and immune problems come from an underactive immune system or an overactive immune system.
It is not trained properly, thinking about how calluses form on the feet when you walk barefoot and how when I started doing barefoot running rather than these cushy shoes providing benefit by cushioning me and protecting me or actually weakening me and by exposing my feet and my calves and knees and really the whole musculature to the shock that it was designed to withstand actually got stronger and less prone to injury and then thinking about how bones and the skeletal system responds and it really almost requires stress when astronauts go out into space and experience weightlessness. They rapidly lose bone density and it is hard for them to regain when they return, so really just starting to think about the body as an adaptive system and think about the factors that influence that.
Then I did some reading and I think for me it was just the concept that lies really at the nexus of all of those different adaptive phenomenon.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So how long have you been playing around with this idea?
[Todd Becker]: I think if you go back to the vision improvement idea that is 15 years and even before that I think another experience that led into this low carb dieting, which I first encountered in the mid 90s, I didn’t really realize at first that ketosis is a form of hormesis but what happened is I started to think about this framework and how much you can explain with it. And of course it doesn’t explain everything and it is certainly not the only factor in health but I think it is an important one and it has been overlooked so that is why i felt that there would be an intro in a blog that really focused on that concept.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, I like the way you put it. It is a nice framework to be able to look at things and I know you have done a bunch of your own experiments, so that is what I wanted to talk about. Before that, give people an idea of how broad this is. There are a whole number of topics you have looked at and referenced, like exercise you brought up, phytonutrients in plants, like some of the things that we thought had antioxidative and protective effects actually are working on a basis of hormesis as well. You talk about sunlight, radiation – have you looked at the topic of pesticides?
[Todd Becker]: A little bit. I would say that I guess when we talk about phytonutrients these are really natural pesticides if you think about it in this biological arms race where plants want to avoid being eaten and predators want to eat them. So they develop more and more effective toxins to scare you off but predators that are able to detoxify those natural pesticides get the spoils. So it is kind of this back and forth but as far as artificial pesticides there is probably some element that we know there has been a somewhat controversial analysis of dioxin which is highly toxic and actually has some hormetic benefits at low dose. So even artificial toxins can play that role.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, you are aware of the work of Dr. Bruce Ames?
[Todd Becker]: Yes, right, I think he was instrumental there and he certainly has been critical of modern toxicology and the sort of linear, no threshold concept that everything is toxic down to the tiniest measurable dose. Even though he developed some of the institutional tests, like the Ames tests that are used to look at mutogenicity or carcinogenicity, he is critical of over-extrapolating with those tests. But just for your listeners who don’t really understand the technical concept of hormesis it is really the idea that something that is damaging or toxic at higher doses can actually be beneficial at lower doses. At first that seems like a paradox but then you realize that evolution required us to survive in the face of all kinds of stresses including toxins and UV radiation and heat and cold and if we didn’t have some method of fending off those stresses either by adapting to them and defending ourselves against them or repairing ourselves or our DNA once we have been exposed, we would perish.
So I think most organisms have some hormetic mechanisms that allow them to adapt to harsh environments and survive. The key is what is that level? What is that sort of magic dose that gives you stimulating effect as opposed to the inhibitory or detrimental effect and it can vary quite a bit. I mean, some substances like alcohol, for example, show hormetic effects at much doses than some, say, metals that are considered much more highly toxic and only showed the [inaudible 00:08:18] effect at much lower doses. And there are a couple of researchers who really have done a lot of good work to kind of document the ranges in which different stresses are hormetic.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, it is very difficult to kind of assess where it is going to be overwhelming. I guess it is not what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it is more like what doesn’t overwhelm your system makes you stronger.
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, I think the other interesting thing is if you look at the work of people like Edward [inaudible 00:08:46] that these are the guys who are really documenting all of this [inaudible 00:08:51] sort of static type of hormesis where they will expose say a worm or a plant or a microbe or an animal to toxins and they will find that dose that is causing damage or disease and that dose that is causing a benefit. But what I am also interested in here is the idea that this can be a dynamic type of range that progressively you can become more and more tolerant by gradually exposing yourself to increasing stresses. of course there is always a limit and you can only tolerate so much radiation or UV or exercise or cold and there is a limit. But i think you would be surprised at what that range might be.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: All right, so going back to your analogy of strength training because I think most people understand strength training and that you are not going to walk in and lift 100 kg the first time, but if you start at 50 kg or whatever as your level, after a couple of weeks you work up to 60 kg and after some recovery you kind of go through this process. You can eventually move up to that 100 and you can say it is very similar and you have an ability to kind of get stronger across all of these different stressors and deal with all of them. Is that the way you look at it?
[Todd Becker]: Exactly. I think that the principle is the same, the details are different in each case. And you hit on I think a key principle of doing this [inaudible 00:10:13], which is gradulous. A lot of people jump in too quickly, have a negative experience, and conclude that they can’t do it. I think a classic example is exposure to cold. After initial, awful exposure people say, ‘I could never do that.’ Or fasting is another good example. Some people try to just jump in and skip meals all day and they will get ravenously hungry or have hypoglycemia and they will conclude that they are incapable of it, not realizing that if you had built up to it gradually you can adapt. So I think that is a key aspect there.
The other thing which you touched on a little bit is rest and intermittency. Weight lifters go in and they will lift heavy weights but they are essentially causing microtrauma or tears to their muscle fibers and they have to allow for the damage to be repaired. And this is true in any kind of overtraining where you are running anything. If you don’t allow that period of recovery you are not going to get the benefit. So I think gradualism and then a progressive increasing and allowing adequate rest and repair, I think these are probably the factors that people overlook and leave them to conclude that this doesn’t really work.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, that reminds me of one of my buddies at University who used to come with us to the gym once every three months and he would hit it really, really hard and he would go home and he would feel horrible for three days and be in so much pain and he wouldn’t come for another three months. You would never get anywhere of course, doing that, and he would be through a lot of pain. So that was a nice analogy. That is not the way to go about getting stronger as the theme of your blog. It is really to take it gradually, as you say, with all of these things.
So what are the mechanics behind how this works? Do we have any ideas about it or is the science very vague at the moment still?
[Todd Becker]: I think you can cluster these things into a few different categories. One is physical changes to tissue, so the example of building muscle. You stimulate – you apply physical stress and cause some damage or change and then allow the tissue to remodel. The same thing is true with bone that you apply to stress. And part of it is directly within the tissue, part of it is the nervous system, part of it is stimulation of hormones, growth hormones, but there is response. Another really interesting example is vision improvement and particularly reversing myopia.
This is a very interesting stressor where by incremental defocus and by causing a slight blur, you actually induce differential growth in the scleral tissue of the eye by stimulating neuromodulators that actually grow differentially and cause the eye to change shape. It happens very gradually over many, many cycles, but there have been experiments in chicks and chimpanzees and then most recently in humans, that fitting people with concave or convex lenses, plus or minus lenses, induce these changes in growth literally within a matter of minutes and hours.
So there are these physical stressors – calluses are another example of a physical stressor that causes growth factors to build up the tissue. So that is one type of hormesis. Then I think there are metabolic processes – for example, real shifts in nutrient balance, for example ketosis, deprivation of carbohydrate and sugar, causes a shift in expression levels of different lipases that causes a reduction in insulin and causes hormonal shifts that actually up-regulate the ability to digest fats. And again, this is a process that might happen over weeks. So there are kind of different time scales.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, just to jump in there – it can be different according to the person where they are starting from, the condition of their body and potentially even their genetics, as to how quickly your – if their ability is to adapt to them.
[Todd Becker]: Certainly – let’s take another example as the tanning of skin. Some people can readily respond by producing the melanin that allows them to tolerate UV and get a suntan and is actually protected. Others, probably some of your buddies from the northern part of the UK may have very fair skin or reddish hair and don’t have quite that same ability. Metabolically some people can induce lactates that allows them to digest milk very rapidly. Others have very low or little ability to [inaudible 00:14:41] significant genetic variation there.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, and here increasingly we have got this biosis when people have problems with their gut, which is pretty common these days. I don’t know if you know a guy called [Chris Cressor 00:14:52]?
[Todd Becker]: Sure.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: He talks now about using probiotics like kefir but in very small doses to start with, otherwise it kind of overwhelms the gut microbiome. So it seems like he is using some similar principle to hormesis there and with his patients or people who have problems. It has to start very, very small but eventually it gets to a large extent where the gut is able to digest and use it afterwards.
[Todd Becker]: And really that is a good example that sort of also follows the model of what is called oral immunotherapy. It used to be thought that people who had, for example, severe peanut allergies just that there was no hope. They had to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their life and children who were vulnerable to this just had to stay away from even the slightest dust from peanuts in the air. But then there was some really good research that showed that very gradually reintroducing an allergen like peanut under the tongue in extremely minute amounts allowed the immune system to learn to tolerate it to the point where there was no problem anymore. I think that is another good example of that gradual exposure.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That is an interesting one because that is where the immune system is overactive in response to a stressor. And then you are teaching it to just be balanced. So it is kind of a slightly different twist to it.
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, well we are talking about allergies and autoimmune disease and I think it is very relevant to point out this recent book that I got very excited about called An Epidemic of Absence by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, and he really updated the hygiene hypothesis, which a lot of people are familiar with which basically holds that allergy and autoimmune disease that has become prevalent in the western world ever since we have instituted a lot of hygiene measures and cleanliness and since people have moved off of farms and paradoxically we have conquered infection, but allergy and autoimmune have gone up. And the idea is that somehow we are not getting exposed to allergens.
But what Manoff does in his book is how is this in terms of the what is called the old friends hypothesis and the idea is that we co-evolved with [inaudible 00:17:07] organisms in our gut, parasites that we lived with basically for evolutionary reasons to outsource some of the functions of our immune systems to those organisms. And that sort of took some of the work away that our own immune systems have to do. But now that we have pretty much banished them through better hygiene we don’t have parasites anymore, our diets have changed so that the microbiome in our guts – we wash ourselves and we don’t have the benefit of the service that they were providing.
So all we are left with is an undertrained immune system with the sort of reserve or the emergency system, the IGV system that just goes crazy whenever it has the slightest insult, and so the idea is let’s reintroduce some of the old friends. But what is particularly interesting in the book is he goes through one autoimmune or allergy disorder after another and shows that there is sort of a critical period in infancy or childhood where if you don’t get that exposure you are prone to these autoimmune disorders.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So that is the idea of balance again. It keeps going back to this balance and this is why I wanted you to come on and talk about this, because you have actually tried to identify balance for hormesis using heart rate variability. In my own experience, I have had back injuries and I have had various things where you want to get stronger, you want to recover, and you understand that this concept of hormesis can help you, as you pointed out with your eyesight, right?
But if you push it too far you potentially go backwards rather than forwards. It is the same as like my friend from the university who is going to the gym and pushing it too far and is actually going backwards instead of forwards. And in my training over the years, experimenting with different things, I have often done that as well and figured out that I needed more recovery and I didn’t have this balance.
I have eventually come back to trust numbers. So I thought it was interesting that you were using heart rate variability to look at a little bit and understand if the hormetic effect was having a positive impact or not.
[Todd Becker]: Sure. Now, I know you are a big biomarker guy and you like numbers and I am a little bit more cautious about that. I would certainly like there to be a magic number that I could follow. I have done a little bit of experimentation with a glucose meter, which kind of helped me understand how I responded to diet and exercise in terms of glucose. And I found it a little bit useful but also potentially misleading. I have friends who are sort of in the quantified self movement who measure just about everything and kind of I think go overboard with it But one thing I have seen is that it is very hard to take a single number in isolation because there are always exceptions or what you might be looking at is not a cause but a consequence, so it is difficult.
I stumbled on heart rate variability and what i like about it is it is not just some random measurement of some intermediate metabolite in your body which may reflect oxidation or inflammation but who is to say what the right level is. In the case of heart rate variability you are actually measuring something very close to real function and what I found before finding HRV is to try as much as possible to look at functional measures of strength or performance.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Sure, could you give an example?
[Todd Becker]: So the vision is pretty easy, right? You can read a Snellen chart and see when you lift weights and you know how much weight you are lifting. So when you run you can use speed, right? These are very objective things but what I like about HRV, so what do you do in terms of just overall metabolic health? Is there something that sums it up?
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Why don’t you just take a step back there and clarify? When you were talking about the running and the speed and if it is improving then when you are doing is having a good, positive hormetic effect, right? But if it is going backwards, if you are taking longer times, then you know that you are going backwards – just to clarify for the audience.
[Todd Becker]: Exactly, and there is no question. If you are overtraining and you are running slower, then okay.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, if you are lifting less weight, which happened to me with many of my experiments back in the days, I would be basically lifting less and you are like, ‘Okay, something is not going right here.’
[Todd Becker]: Right, so if you would like to find something like that for just overall metabolic health, that is a harder one. Maybe you feel good but subjective feelings may not be the whole thing. So what I like about HRV, heart rate variability, is I think it is sometimes not fully understood, what it is. What it is essentially is the variation in the heart beat. You can have a low heart rate but if the heart rate is getting exactly once per second that has got no variability, right?
So why is variability a good thing? And apparently it is. Apparently people who are very fit have a higher heart rate variability, which means there is more variation. Sometimes their heart will be 1.05 seconds and then 0.9 and then 1.03 and then 0.85 and then you look at the standard deviation of that or some transformation of that and the more variation beat to beat there is the better it is. But you would think, why is that good? Because we know of arrhythmias as being signs of pathology and certainly at some level they are.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Could you just – what is an arrhythmia?
[Todd Becker]: An arrhythmia would be not having an exactly precise regular beat, having some irregularity to it. And there is different deviations from the regular. So the question is why is it good to have this variability and I was kind of searching for this but I read this book, an older book by James Gleek, called Chaos. It was written in the 80s that in chaos really describes what are called non-linear systems which underlie a lot of what is going on in biology or in the brain and in society.
There are a lot of effects that aren’t just additive but interact with each other in very complex ways. So he had this insight, which is basically non-linear processes are necessary for homeostasis, the ability to handle a stress or a deviation, and come back into control. If you have a linear system and you give it a slight nudge, you cause some [inaudible 00:23:27] to it and it tends to go off course and stay off course. In non-linear systems they have all these interactive components and if you give it a nudge it tends to return to a center, what they call an attractor in mathematical terms. In biological terms, if you have a fever your body acts to cool yourself. If your blood pH drifts there is something that pulls it back. If you eat a big meal and your blood glucose gets too high, the insulin turns on and brings it back within range. So there are these feedback systems that tend to bring you back to center.
So what is interesting is that you have got these two systems which work in cooperation – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system. And the parasympathetic system is generally the one that kind of calms you down and gives you this resilience where sympathetic is the fight or flight which you need to energize yourself but if it goes too strong it can cause stress, high cortisol and eventually the parasympathetic system has to bring you back down to normal after you have met the stressor, some type of event that you have to deal with. Now, if you are adaptive you can switch between these two systems readily and the key one is the parasympathetic one because the sympathetic one tends to drive, just very strongly and calming down and bring – changing your ability to go at full strength and then slower and adapt to the day is really an adaptive strength. If you look at people who are older and have Parkinson’s and walk very stiff or rigid and you measure their gait or their heart rate it is very regular, very stiff. It doesn’t deviate. If you surprise them, shock them, ask them to suddenly run or something, they have great difficulty shifting into that higher gear and people who are stressed out likewise have great difficulty turning down the stress and shifting. So it is a sign of health to be able to shift gears quickly and be adaptive. And essentially that is what HRV is measuring.
If your heart rate naturally can sort of move around to these different frequencies then it can quickly tune into the faster one or the slower one and it can move quickly. If it is locked into a steady beat it is just harder for it to change and I think this manifests itself in a lot of ways.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So you see it as a measure of your ability to adapt to stressors, which is actually similar to some of the other discussions we have had. I don’t know if you have tried this but if you looked at your HRV when you are lying down versus standing up. So in our first episode Andrew Flatt was talking about how standing up is a slight stressor. So you can see how it impacts the HRV and you have a slightly different score and you are basically applying a very, very slight stressor to yourself just by standing.
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, and people even look at how quickly can your HRV when you stand or sit come back to equilibrium. That is sort of a secondary measure and athletes who can run and then sit down and bring their heart rate down quickly are typically the ones who are fit. But if you look at disease states, cardiovascular problems, cancer, infections, these show up very quickly in reduced HRV and it is kind of almost a leading indicator of a problem so it is has even been introduced diagnostically and i think it is pretty powerful. And I find that is useful because we are all individuals as a tool for self-discovery. You can find out what tends to drive your HRV up or down and I learned a lot of things that I was very surprised about myself.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, and like you I have been fascinated by this measure and if you read around it is really applicable to so many useful things as well. I have seen people applying it to willpower and there are studies on willpower and of course we all want more willpower. There are a whole range of uses for this but what have you specifically applied it to and found that was most interesting?
[Todd Becker]: Well, I tried a lot of things relating to exercise and found some of the normal things that athletes find which is that when you work out very intensely it drives the HRV down and it takes a while to come back up. And when it is back up you are rested and ready to go, and that is what everybody knows. But then I just tried different foods and definitely noticed a big effect except the one thing I did notice is that I practice intermittent fasting which means that I eat one or two meals in a part of the day, typically dinner or lunch and dinner, and fast a lot of the rest of the day. And I found that well into the fast my HRV would tend to go up and then after a meal it would go down. So that was kind of interesting.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Did you notice an increase in your base line? If we talk about the daily – the specific time you are doing the experiment versus changes which tend to be longer-term?
[Todd Becker]: Oh yes, I definitely have noticed that. So let me get to that after and I will tell you a few specific ones and then I will get into the baseline. So that was a big one and the other really big one which really surprised me is cold showers. So i thought I am going to get in the cold shower and see what happens and I am sure what will happen is my heart rate will go up, which typically means my HRV will go down because it is not precise, but they tend to be inversely correlated, right?
, I am somewhat adapted to the cold showers and I have been doing that for several years. I get in the shower and actually measure it while I am in the shower and my heart rate goes down and my HRV goes up. And I get out of the shower and it has gone up by ten points. And that is kind of the average, it goes up by ten points literally within 3 to 5 minutes and it stays high the whole day, which also corresponds to my subjective feeling that cold showers are a real mood elevator for me, unlike caffeine or sugar or whatever, which is just kind of a quick thing and then it fades. I do that and then I am good for the whole day and it is consistent and it is a big effect. So that was a big positive effect. So fasting and cold showers are kind of the two things that really drive it up.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So the cold there is a cold exposure, basically, so it is a minor cold – ?
[Todd Becker]: Yes, cold exposure. So I get in a pretty cold shower and I am in there for several minutes. I used to, when I started that, I would shiver quite a bit. But that only lasts a little bit.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So, that’s a pretty cold shower?
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, and I do ocean swimming and things like that which is really fun. But then I found some negatives and of course I found that if I worked out really intensely, I could drive my HRV down really low, which worried me. But it would come back as hot tubs that are really hot that would also drive it down. The other thing that would really drive it down was alcohol. Usually it would be maybe two or three drinks and one drink didn’t have much effect but two or three drinks would really drive it down.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Is this like for a few hours, say for the rest of the day?
[Todd Becker]: A few hours or the evening. And then I thought about this and this was really interesting. I thought, wow. The cold showers surprised me because I thought that was definitely going to get my heart rate up and it didn’t. And alcohol, that will make me relax so my heart rate will slow and my HRV will go up, right? No. My heart rate goes up and basically the body is trying to deal with the alcohol. It is a depressant so it is trying to fight that and you are impairing yourself and I think this was a real insight because what is HRV? It is your resilience, your ability to take on the next stress and you may think that if you have had a few beers that you can handle things but actually you handle them a lot more poorly. Driving, of course, is an example but your judgement goes way down.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, that is very interesting. You see a lot of fights with alcohol, for example. And that is because people are not able to adapt to them and they are overreacting and not able to deal with emotional stressors around them.
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, the adjustment goes way off. So basically these things that are kind of relaxing can impair HRV and then things that are stimulating, the cold shower or fasting, which also tends to sharpen your focus and help the HRV. Then the other effect is – these are the immediate effects.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So just going back to the heat exposure, I do saunas, infrared saunas, and I have been doing that daily for the heat shock protein benefits, amongst others. I don’t know if you have done that and unfortunately I am going to have to track the HRV specifically around that and I am going to have to start doing that to see what happens. Do you think that would be similar to the hot bath?
[Todd Becker]: I think so, but here is the other half of the story because these are the immediate effects, right? The things that you notice within hours or minutes, but then you have got to look at the compensatory effect of what happens later. So for example exercise obviously impairs your fitness temporarily but you wouldn’t do it if – one of the reasons you do it is to become stronger and get fitter. So you do it and then the next day your HRV is actually a little bit higher. It may take two days or whatever the recovery period is so there is almost this ratcheting effect where you temporarily drive it down and then it kind of comes back up to an even higher level and I think that is pretty interesting. So the question is which things work that way and which things are just direct? So the cold showers brings the HRV up and then I don’t see a fading of that. Exercise I see it going down and then it comes up stronger and I think hot tubs and saunas are a little that way where it drives it down, but I think it actually can improve.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Do you think this could be in relation to the way your body perceives the intensity of the stressor? Maybe heat is a larger stressor than cold so your cold shower just happens that it is at the right balance?
[Todd Becker]: It may be and also heat on some level relaxing and another level is a stressor, so it may be the degree. And it is similar with alcohol. Moderate alcohol didn’t have the same effect as –
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, so if you had like a tiny sip of alcohol potentially your HRV could have risen a little bit?
[Todd Becker]: A little bit more. So let’s go to the baseline question. So I have actually increased my baseline HRV over a couple of months significantly and there is a lot of noise and fluctuation if you look at my graft but what I did is I am careful not to overtrain and I noticed that can really set me back. Then with alcohol I have realized that one or two drinks, I feel the buzz. It is social, it is fine. And I really cut myself off there and I drink less. And that has really helped the HRV come up quite a bit. So I am just kind of paying attention to the things that really set me back and that is probably the main change and then it has come up about ten points.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, so I mean it is important to point out also that as you age it gets lower, so that is another reason you kind of want the baseline to be going up rather than going down. As you said earlier it is an indicator of general health but as age also so you could say biological aging. So I have noticed with intermittent fasting that is the one where I have been looking at it the most and I have done – I did one month on intermittent fasting and then two weeks off and then back to intermittent fasting again. and I am about ten points higher pretty much every day. It takes a little bit, a little while to climb back up to where it was if I stop intermittent fasting. But after about a week it tends to be about ten points higher than when I am not intermittent fasting, so that is about three months of data so far. But for me it seems – and I feel, of course – I mean, a lot of people talk about the benefits of intermittent fasting but I feel much better and much more energy throughout the day and so on.
[Todd Becker]: One thing I did that really drove it up and of course you can’t do this all the time, I took a vacation. And it went way up. Obviously, that was useful.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, that is a really important point you bring out here because especially you are from the US and very well known for having not taken any holiday or you have your standard two weeks, I believe, in the US?
[Todd Becker]: Right.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: But of course, many people work in corporate and if they are not taking their holidays at all. You see a big increase in HRV like that and that is a really big sign that you are probably really overdoing it and you need to emphasize more some time out. I don’t know if you thought of it that way, when you saw those numbers, maybe I should do this more often?
[Todd Becker]: Sure, I tend to lead a life that even though it is busy I don’t feel stressed out and I really feel in balance. So I wasn’t feeling overworked but of course maybe I was fooling myself.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: I mean, this is the beauty of trying to quantify stuff because I will give you an example. My dad, he is a workaholic and he always has been. And so he doesn’t – when he goes on holiday he falls asleep. And my impression is that he is highly strung. So he is working and I feel the same way when I am working and I have often had the case where I am working hard and then I will take a holiday and I will get sick when I am on holiday. And it is kind of like your body is just trying to manage the day to day and why you are stressed is just dealing with it. But as soon as it has an opportunity to let go. It would be like okay, you can recover now and I can be a bit sick.
[Todd Becker]: Isn’t that true? That is a common effect, you finish your exams and you come home and you get a flip, right? But my vacations tend to be somewhat active with cycling, body surfing, running, and so I wasn’t just sitting on the couch all day either but I was really enjoying myself and that was the key.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, some great insights there. Have you found any other areas with HRV as being useful besides these we have already spoken about?
[Todd Becker]: There is Dave Asprey who has written something and he has a little company and an app he has created to use HRV to detect food sensitivities.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yes, they are actually using heart rate. We actually had Rhonda Collier on the last episode. She is the CEO of Sweetwater, who is behind that app.
[Todd Becker]: Exactly.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: That one is based on pulse rate but she does some very interesting stuff on the stress side, splitting out the frequencies. And I haven’t played around with the app a lot on the stress side, but I think you have to get into it quite a bit to find some benefits. She certainly has over time, but she has been using it for a very long time.
So coming back to the whole hormesis side, I don’t know if there are any other biomarkers besides HRV? You have mentioned the difficulties of trying to assess, basically saying how much oxidative stress do you need versus not? It is very hard to say what is going to be beneficial versus what is going to be overwhelming for your body, which is why you are looking at the endpoint, the end result?
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, the functional endpoint and what really matters in terms of performance.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: So obviously you brought up some others which are more specific to whatever you are doing, how fast you are running and so on. Is there anything else you have come across that you have found useful for looking at hormesis and how to balance it?
[Todd Becker]: Not in terms of quantitative measures. I think in this discussion we have really focused a lot on the physical side of hormesis but I think it applies quite well also to psychology and to sort of the spiritual side of health because really what is stress? There are physical stresses but what we are really talking about is your reaction to events, right? And so how you handle stress I think is very important to health and there is this concept out there that we are overstressed, that modern life causes not just physical but psychological ailments because of too much stress.
I think what they are talking about there is chronic, repetitive, daily stress that we are not handling well but I think the underappreciated side of stress is that we need it and particularly we need it at certain frequency and certain natural contexts and we need intense stress. Our body, we evolved to be able to handle it and if we protect yourself from psychological stress we actually become more vulnerable to it. I think that exposing yourself to intense physical exercise actually makes you more psychologically resilient but I think it is also important to confront fears, anxieties, and push yourself to higher levels and also to become comfortable with discomfort just in general. In fact, it is even sort of a psychological benefit to things like cold showers and that you are throwing yourself into what you perceive to be an intensely uncontrollable, disagreeable situation and you are pushing through it and you develop more resilience to it.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, because you talked about this on your blog and I started doing the cold showers, as I mentioned to you. And you say that you are tensing your muscles and you are psychologically preparing yourself for it and it is quite a horrible shock when you start but later on you start really noticing it. I mean, I found this after a few weeks or something and I guess that is what you found over time. Do you still find that you react a little bit to the shock of the cold?
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, and it is less and less. And there is this theory called the component process theory of emotion that Solomon and others sort of pioneered and Solomon was looking at – he was trying to explain addiction and also thrill seeking and he said these are really sort of the opposite sides of the point. A thrill seeker is somebody who does skydiving and the first time they do it they are confronted with this intense, paralyzing fear. It is uncomfortable. But when they land there is this euphoric afterglow that tends to last for a lot of the day. But the more they do it the event itself becomes less and less uncomfortable and the afterglow effect becomes stronger and stronger so it becomes pleasurable.
Cold showers, it is a little bit like that. Exercise can be like that. And you said it is the flip side of addiction. In addiction people pursue a direct pleasure, whether it is alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling – whatever it is, it gets their dopamine going right away. But then when they stop it there is this down or withdrawal. So this is the reverse to where the more they do it they become tolerant to the pleasure and it is less fun but the down becomes greater, so they get into this addictive cycle because they just need to do the addictive activity just to get back to normal.
So exposing yourself to hormetic stress is kind of the opposite of addiction and what I find is that it makes you more resilient to just daily stressors, arguments and things that come up at work and it increases what I call my background level of pleasure. I mean, I am just basically always happy and things don’t throw me off or blow me out and I think it is because by forcing yourself to expose to these intense stresses, you develop this resilience. It is something that has kind of gone away from the kind of lives that people, pioneers who lived away from civilization, had to face these natural stressors – the weather, hardship, lack of food, moving around. And the fact that we are more protective and that we live in an environment that is so regulated from stress I think we failed to develop this resilience. And so by engaging in some of these activities I think you get an enormous psychological benefit in addition to the purely physical.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, so that is a great overview. Basically the way you are using hormesis is if you can do this in lots of different aspects of your life then they are all kind of tied into your organism and HRV is like an endpoint measure which is global, so it is useful because it is like if my HRV is higher today I am going to be more resilient to emotional stress. No matter what it is if I have to be motivated to do something or take on a new challenging task like if I got higher HRV some days then it is probably going to be an easier day to start something new.
I have been looking at that a bit because I have heard about this, but I don’t know if you have – when you notice that your HRV is high if you find it easier to start more challenging tasks or take on conflicts or these kind of more mental challenges and I don’t know if you have noticed anything about that?
[Todd Becker]: Definitely, and I think that is the case.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Great, so what you are doing in terms of your routine and where you use biomarkers or you don’t, you have already talked a little bit about where you have seen them be useful or not, but on a week-to-week basis what kind of things are you tracking in your life?
[Todd Becker]: Quantitative things?
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, whether it be HRV – what is kind of your routine for using any type of data about your health?
[Todd Becker]: I would love for there to be an app that really gave me information that I found useful and used all the time. And I understand companies like Apple are kind of moving into that space. And there are a lot of devices out there. So I am always interested in them but I just haven’t been convinced in their utility. And I am also a little bit hesitant to become too tied to tracking. I want to be much more tuned to my actual experience and try to find ways to use that as much as possible. I am a bit of an advocate also of simple finds, like relying as little as possible on external things, whether they be glasses or supplements or devices so that I can be fully present.
But if I can find a few things to track and if they are pretty robust I will go for them. So HRV is probably – I mean, I was experimenting with a glucose monitor and that was helping a little bit but I didn’t find it necessarily reliable. So the HRV is maybe the closest I have found so far, although I don’t know if I am at a level where I fully trust it yet. So I don’t know if there is any you find particularly useful?
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, I track a lot of stuff and I kind of bring new ones in and then throw them out as they become inconvenient. Also one of the biggest challenges I think right now is the convenience. If we had a watch or some device which tracked everything accurately in the background it would be really easy to have interesting data. But on the HRV I use the averages, seven-day rolling averages, because it does go up a little bit and down. There is a little bit of variance in it and also just in the way you are measuring it you can introduce little differences based on emotional stress and other aspects so you have to watch out a little bit for that. So I find that I am really watching more closely the seven-day rolling average.
[Todd Becker]: I tend to agree. I think the weekly average is just about right and that seems to correspond to something that I see as a real shift.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Yeah, and I feel remarkably different when I am ten points higher on that average, so that is what I am trying to do, get it as high as possible. So just out of interest, I don’t know if you are lying down or you are standing up, what HRV score are you?
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, so I do it sitting and I am using the RMSSD, the natural log times 20, so on that scale I am typically in the range of in the morning 70 to 80. And on really good days I have actually hit 90, which doesn’t happen very often. And on sort of off days I might be in the 60s. But I would say kind of typically bouncing around between 70 and 80.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Right, you are a bit better than me. don’t get up to the 90s. My high is at the 80s. I am normally between 70 and 80 when I am intermittent fasting. Otherwise I can be between 60 and 75, maybe a little bit lower at 60 to 70 and it will go as low as the 50s on bad days. But I am actually dealing with some health issues so I think that is responsible for that mess.
[Todd Becker]: Certainly. I wouldn’t consider myself an athlete, I would just sort of consider myself generally fit for being 58 years old. So to me as long as it is sort of in that range I am happy and as an indicator that it is sort of a warning sign if it were to plunge, I start to look into it.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: When mine plunges I take the day off. I have had some really crazy crashes and sometimes I don’t know what is going on and you have got a virus or something. I got a crazy flu virus from my nephew just recently and it took me out for a week. But I knew about it the day it was hitting because of the HRV. Even if I felt not so bad in the morning, the HRV showed it beforehand.
[Todd Becker]: Yeah, I think you’re right – fatigue, infection, and it picks those things up right away. And intoxication.
[Damien Blenkinsopp]: Alcoholic intoxication. Well Todd, thank you so much for your insights today about hormesis, which is really very a broad and interesting framework to look at all sorts of things we could be doing to improve our bodies in terms of performance and so on, and your experience with HRV has been very interesting to hear.
[Todd Becker]: Well, I have enjoyed talking to you. Thanks for the opportunity.