Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Alcohol consumption, mortality, and cardiovascular disease


The graphs below summarize key results from a study published in April of 2018 by the highly influential journal The Lancet (). The study reported having included at least 599,912 drinkers in the analysis and having recorded 40,310 deaths and 39,018 cardiovascular disease events. The authors of the study concluded that “For all-cause mortality, we recorded a positive and curvilinear association with the level of alcohol consumption, with the minimum mortality risk around or below 100 g per week.



The study was presented as being somewhat pessimistic: one cannot drink as much as previous data suggested. Let’s see. Two drinks of a spirit (e.g., whiskey) served “neat” (i.e., with nothing added to it) will typically add up to about 84 g; or 3 oz. If the alcohol content is 40 percent, such a double drink will contain about 33 g of alcohol. So, according to this study, you can still enjoy three double drinks of spirit per week, or six single drinks – which is almost one per day. That is not so little.

This study is consistent with most studies of the effect of alcohol consumption on health, which generally show results in terms of averages within fixed ranges of consumption. For example, they will show average mortality risks for people consuming 1, 2, 3 etc. drinks per day. These studies suggest that there is a J-curve relationship between alcohol consumption and health. That is, drinking a little is better than not drinking; and drinking a lot is worse than drinking a little.

Contrary to popular belief, the positive health effects of moderate alcohol consumption have little, if anything, to do with polyphenols such as resveratrol. Resveratrol, once believed to be the fountain of youth, is found in the skin of red grapes.

It is in fact the alcohol content that has positive effects, apparently reducing the incidence of coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, stroke, dementia, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and all-cause mortality. Raynaud's phenomenon is associated with poor circulation in the extremities (e.g., toes, fingers), which in some cases can progress to gangrene.

In most studies of the effects of alcohol consumption on health, the J-curves emerge from visual inspection of the plots of averages across ranges of consumption. Rarely you find studies where nonlinear relationships are “discovered” by software tools such as WarpPLS (), with effects being adjusted accordingly.

Still, this study is indeed consistent with some past studies suggesting that the amount of alcohol intake that is optimal maybe less than most of us think ().

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Compensatory adaptation as a unifying concept: Understanding how we respond to diet and lifestyle changes

Trying to understand each body response to each diet and lifestyle change, individually, is certainly a losing battle. It is a bit like the various attempts to classify organisms that occurred prior to solid knowledge about common descent. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of common descent that makes classification of organisms a much easier and logical task.

Compensatory adaptation (CA) is a broad theoretical framework that hopefully can help us better understand responses to diet and lifestyle changes. CA is a very broad idea, and it has applications at many levels. I have discussed CA in the context of human behavior in general (Kock, 2002), and human behavior toward communication technologies (Kock, 2001; 2005; 2007). Full references and links are at the end of this post.

CA is all about time-dependent adaptation in response to stimuli facing an organism. The stimuli may be in the form of obstacles. From a general human behavior perspective, CA seems to be at the source of many success stories. A few are discussed in the Kock (2002) book; the cases of Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking are among them.

People who have to face serious obstacles sometimes develop remarkable adaptations that make them rather unique individuals. Hawking developed remarkable mental visualization abilities, which seem to be related to some of his most important cosmological discoveries. Keller could recognize an approaching person based on floor vibrations, even though she was blind and deaf. Both achieved remarkable professional success, perhaps not as much in spite but because of their disabilities.

From a diet and lifestyle perspective, CA allows us to make one key prediction. The prediction is that compensatory body responses to diet and lifestyle changes will occur, and they will be aimed at maximizing reproductive success, but with a twist – it’s reproductive success in our evolutionary past! We are stuck with those adaptations, even though we live in modern environments that differ in many respects from the environments where our ancestors lived.

Note that what CA generally tries to maximize is reproductive success, not survival success. From an evolutionary perspective, if an organism generates 30 offspring in a lifetime of 2 years, that organism is more successful in terms of spreading its genes than another that generates 5 offspring in a lifetime of 200 years. This is true as long as the offspring survive to reproductive maturity, which is why extended survival is selected for in some species.

We live longer than chimpanzees in part because our ancestors were “good fathers and mothers”, taking care of their children, who were vulnerable. If our ancestors were not as caring or their children not as vulnerable, maybe this blog would have posts on how to control blood glucose levels to live beyond the ripe old age of 50!

The CA prediction related to responses aimed at maximizing reproductive success is a straightforward enough prediction. The difficult part is to understand how CA works in specific contexts (e.g., Paleolithic dieting, low carbohydrate dieting, calorie restriction), and what we can do to take advantage (or work around) CA mechanisms. For that we need a good understanding of evolution, some common sense, and also good empirical research.

One thing we can say with some degree of certainty is that CA leads to short-term and long-term responses, and that those are likely to be different from one another. The reason is that a particular diet and lifestyle change affected the reproductive success of our Paleolithic ancestors in different ways, depending on whether it was a short-term or long-term change. The same is true for CA responses at different stages of one’s life, such as adolescence and middle age; they are also different.

This is the main reason why many diets that work very well in the beginning (e.g., first months) frequently cease to work as well after a while (e.g., a year).

Also, CA leads to psychological responses, which is one of the key reasons why most diets fail. Without a change in mindset, more often than not one tends to return to old habits. Hunger is not only a physiological response; it is also a psychological response, and the psychological part can be a lot stronger than the physiological one.

It is because of CA that a one-month moderately severe calorie restriction period (e.g., 30% below basal metabolic rate) will lead to significant body fat loss, as the body produces hormonal responses to several stimuli (e.g., glycogen depletion) in a compensatory way, but still “assuming” that liberal amounts of food will soon be available. Do that for one year and the body will respond differently, “assuming” that food scarcity is no longer short-term and thus that it requires different, and possibly more drastic, responses.

Among other things, prolonged severe calorie restriction will lead to a significant decrease in metabolism, loss of libido, loss of morale, and physical as well as mental fatigue. It will make the body hold on to its fat reserves a lot more greedily, and induce a number of psychological responses to force us to devour anything in sight. In several people it will induce psychosis. The results of prolonged starvation experiments, such as the Biosphere 2 experiments, are very instructive in this respect.

It is because of CA that resistance exercise leads to muscle gain. Muscle gain is actually a body’s response to reasonable levels of anaerobic exercise. The exercise itself leads to muscle damage, and short-term muscle loss. The gain comes after the exercise, in the following hours and days (and with proper nutrition), as the body tries to repair the muscle damage. Here the body “assumes” that the level of exertion that caused it will continue in the near future.

If you increase the effort (by increasing resistance or repetitions, within a certain range) at each workout session, the body will be constantly adapting, up to a limit. If there is no increase, adaptation will stop; it will even regress if exercise ceases altogether. Do too much resistance training (e.g., multiple workout sessions everyday), and the body will react differently. Among other things, it will create deterrents in the form of pain (through inflammation), physical and mental fatigue, and even psychological aversion to resistance exercise.

CA processes have a powerful effect on one’s body, and even on one’s mind!

References:

Kock, N. (2001). Compensatory Adaptation to a Lean Medium: An Action Research Investigation of Electronic Communication in Process Improvement Groups. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 44(4), 267-285.

Kock, N. (2002). Compensatory Adaptation: Understanding How Obstacles Can Lead to Success. Infinity Publishing, Haverford, PA. (Additional link.)

Kock, N. (2005). Compensatory adaptation to media obstacles: An experimental study of process redesign dyads. Information Resources Management Journal, 18(2), 41-67.

Kock, N. (2007). Media Naturalness and Compensatory Encoding: The Burden of Electronic Media Obstacles is on Senders. Decision Support Systems, 44(1), 175-187.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Baked cod and lobster


Many years ago I lost 60 lbs (27 kg) over a period of about 2-3 years, and kept it off. Often people are surprised when I show them an old picture of myself, where I am visibly obese ().

I have always felt that one of the keys to losing a significant amount of body fat without triggering body starvation responses is to eat a diet that has a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio. The baked cod and lobster dish below, with photos before and after baking, is a good example of a meal in such a diet.





This is a fairly simple meal to prepare; simple and delicious. The cost of this dish goes down significantly if you do not include the lobster. Below is a recipe. I used it to prepare the baked cod and lobster shown on the photos above.

- Cut and spread on two sheet pans about 4 tomatoes, 1 cup of onion, 1 cup of spinach, 2 lbs of cod, and 4 lobster tails (approx. 4 oz each).

- Add some butter to the mix. I recommend more butter on the lobster than on the cod.

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

- Add seasoning to taste. I suggest using a small amount of salt, and some chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and herbs.

- Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the lobster is soft.

Let us say you are hungry, so you eat about one-fourth of all of this. That is one lobster tail and about a quarter of the cod dish. The nutrition content of such a meal is shown below.



So you will be getting about 86 g of protein in this one single meal. The vitamins and mineral contents listed are mostly above 100 percent of the usually recommended intake. All of this while taking in only a little over 500 calories.

It is very difficult to get fat eating like this!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ketones and Ketosis: Physiological and pathological forms

Ketones are compounds that have a specific chemical structure. The figure below (from: Wikipedia) shows the chemical structure of various types of ketones. As you can see, all ketones share a carbonyl group; that is the “O=” part of their chemical structure. A carbonyl group is an oxygen atom double-bonded to a carbon atom.


Technically speaking, many substances can be classified as ketones. Not all of these are involved in the same metabolic processes in humans. For example, fructose is technically a ketone, but it is not one of the three main ketones produced by humans from dietary macronutrients (discussed below), and is not metabolized in the same way as are those three main ketones.

Humans, as well as most other vertebrates, produce three main ketones (also known as ketone bodies) from dietary macronutrients. These are acetone, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate. Low carbohydrate diets tend to promote glycogen depletion, which in turn leads to increased production of these ketones. Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles. Liver glycogen is used by the body to maintain blood glucose levels within a narrow range in the fasted state. Examples of diets that tend to promote glycogen depletion are the Atkins Diet and Kwaśniewski’s Optimal Diet.

A search for articles on ketosis in scientific databases usually returns a large number of articles dealing with ketosis in cows. Why? The reason is that ketosis reduces milk production, by both reducing the amount of fat and glucose available for milk synthesis. In fact, ketosis is referred to as a “disease” in cows.

In humans, most articles on ketosis refer to pathological ketosis (a.k.a. ketoacidosis), especially in the context of uncontrolled diabetes. One notable exception is an article by Williamson (2005), from which the table below was taken. The table shows ketone concentrations in the blood under various circumstances, in mmol/l.


As you can see, relatively high concentrations of ketones occur in newborn babies (neonate), in adults post-exercise, and in adults fed a high fat diet. Generally speaking, a high fat diet is a low carbohydrate diet, and a high carbohydrate diet is a low fat diet. (One occasionally sees diets that are high in both carbohydrates and fat; which seem excellent at increasing body fat and thus reducing life span. This diet is apparently popular among sumo wrestlers, where genetics and vigorous exercise usually counter the negative diet effects.)

Situations in which ketosis occurs in newborn babies (neonate), in adults post-exercise, and in adults fed a high fat diet are all examples of physiological, or benign, ketosis. Ketones are also found in low concentrations in adults fed a standard American diet.

Ketones are found in very high concentrations in adults with untreated diabetes. This is an example of pathological ketosis, even though ketones are produced as part of a protective compensatory mechanism to spare glucose for the brain and red blood cells (which need glucose to function properly). Pathological ketosis leads to serum ketone levels that can be as much as 80 times (or more) those found in physiological ketosis.

Serum ketone concentrations increase proportionally to decreases in stored glycogen and, when glycogen is low or absent, correlate strongly (and inversely) with blood glucose levels. In some individuals glycogen is practically absent due to a genetic condition that leads to hepatic glycogen synthase deficiency. This is a deficiency of the enzyme that promotes glycogen synthesis by the liver. The figure below (also from Williamson, 2005) shows the variations in glucose and ketone levels in a child with glycogen synthase deficiency.


What happened with this child? Williamson answers this question: “It is of interest that this particular child suffered no ill effects from the daily exposure to high concentrations of ketone bodies, underlining their role as normal substrates for the brain when available.”

Unlike glucose and lipoprotein-bound fats (in VLDL, for example), unused ketones cannot be converted back to substances that can be stored by the body. Thus excess ketones are eliminated in the urine; leading to their detection by various tests, e.g., Ketostix tests. This elimination of unused ketones in the urine is one of the reasons why low carbohydrate diets are believed to lead to enhanced body fat loss.

In summary, ketones are present in the blood most of the time, in most people, whether they are on a ketogenic diet or not. If they do not show up in the urine, it does not mean that they are not present in the blood; although it usually means that their concentration in the blood is not that high. Like glucose, ketones are soluble in water, and thus circulate in the blood without the need for carriers (e.g., albumin, which is needed for the transport of free fatty acids; and VLDL, needed for the transport of triglycerides). Like glucose, they are used as sources of energy by the brain and by muscle tissues.

It has been speculated that ketosis leads to accelerated aging, through the formation of advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), a speculation that seems to be largely unfounded (see this post). It is difficult to believe that a metabolic process that is universally found in babies and adults post-exercise would have been favored by evolution if it led to accelerated aging.

References:

Williamson, D.H. (2005). Ketosis. Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition, 91-98.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The man who ate 25 eggs per day: What does this case really tell us?

Many readers of this blog have probably heard about the case of the man who ate approximately 25 eggs (20 to 30) per day for over 15 years (probably well over), was almost 90 years old (88) when the case was published in the prestigious The New England Journal of Medicine, and was in surprisingly good health ().

The case was authored by the late Dr. Fred Kern, Jr., a widely published lipid researcher after whom the Kern Lipid Conference is named (). One of Kern’s research interests was bile, a bitter-tasting fluid produced by the liver (and stored in the gallbladder) that helps with the digestion of lipids in the small intestine. He frames the man’s case in terms of a compensatory adaptation tied to bile secretion, arguing that this man was rather unique in his ability to deal with a lethal daily dose of dietary cholesterol.

Kern seemed to believe that dietary cholesterol was harmful, but that this man was somehow “immune” to it. This is ironic, because often this case is presented as evidence against the hypothesis that dietary cholesterol can be harmful. The table below shows the general nutrient content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. The numbers in this and other tables are based on data from Nutritiondata.com (), in some cases triangulated with other data. The 5.3 g of cholesterol in the table (i.e., 5,300 mg) is 1,775 percent the daily value recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences ().



As you can see, the man was on a very low carbohydrate diet with a high daily intake of fat and protein. The man is described as an: “… 88-year-old man who lived in a retirement community [and] complained only of loneliness since his wife's death. He was an articulate, well-educated elderly man, healthy except for an extremely poor memory without other specific neurologic deficits … His general health had been excellent, without notable symptoms. He had mild constipation.”

The description does not suggest inherited high longevity: “His weight had been constant at 82 to 86 kg (height, 1.87 m). He had no history (according to the patient and his personal physician of 15 years) of heart disease, stroke, or kidney disease … The patient had never smoked and never drank excessively. His father died of unknown causes at the age of 40, and his mother died at 76 … He kept a careful record, egg by egg, of the number ingested each day …”

The table below shows the fat content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. With over 14 g of omega-6 fat intake every day, this man was probably close to or in “industrial seed oils territory” (), as far as daily omega-6 fat intake is concerned. And the intake of omega-3 fats, at less than 1 g, was not nearly enough to balance it. However, here is a relevant fact – this man was not consuming any industrial seed oils. He liked his eggs soft-boiled, which is why the numbers in this post refer to boiled eggs.



This man weighed between 82 to 86 kg, which is about 180 to 190 lbs. His height was 1.87 m, or about 6 ft 1 in. Therefore his body mass index varied between approximately 23 and 25, which is in the normal range. In other words, this person was not even close to obese during the many years he consumed 25 eggs or so per day. In the comments section of a previous post, on the sharp increase in obesity since the 1980s (), several readers argued that the sharp increase in obesity was very likely caused by an increase in omega-6 fat consumption.

I am open to the idea that industrialized omega-6 fats played a role in the sharp increase in obesity observed since the 1980s. When it comes to omega-6 fat consumption in general, including that in “more natural” foods (e.g., poultry and eggs), I am more skeptical. Still, it is quite possible that a diet high in omega-6 fats in general is unhealthy primarily if it is devoid of other nutrients. This man’s overall diet might have been protective not because of what he was not eating, but because of what he was eating.

The current debates pitting one diet against another often revolve around the ability of one diet or another to eliminate or reduce the intake of a “bad thing” (e.g., cholesterol, saturated fat, carbohydrates). Perhaps the discussion should be more focused on, or at least not completely ignore, what one diet or another include as protective factors. This would help better explain “odd findings”, such as the lowest-mortality body mass index of 26 in urban populations (). It would also help better explain “surprising cases”; such as this 25-eggs-a-day man’s, vegetarian-vegan “ageless woman” Annette Larkins’s (), and the decidedly carnivore De Vany couple’s ().

The table below shows the vitamin content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. The vitamin K2 content provided by Nutritiondata.com was incorrect; I had to get what seems to be the right number by triangulating values taken from various publications. And here we see something interesting. This man was consuming approximately the equivalent in vitamin K2 that one would get by eating 4 ounces of foie gras () every day. Foie gras, the fatty liver of overfed geese, is the richest known animal source of vitamin K2. This man’s diet was also high in vitamin A, which is believed to act synergistically with vitamin K2 – see Chris Masterjohn’s article on Weston Price’s “activator X” ().



Kern argued that the very high intake of dietary cholesterol led to a sharp increase in bile secretion, as the body tried to “get rid” of cholesterol (which is used in the synthesis of bile). However, the increased bile secretion might have been also been due to the high fat content of this man’s diet, since one of the main functions of bile is digestion of fats. Whatever the case may be, increased bile secretion leads to increased absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and vitamins K2 and A are fat-soluble vitamins that seem to be protective against cardiovascular disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Finally, the table below shows the mineral content of the man’s daily diet of eggs. As you can see, this man consumed 550 percent the officially recommended daily intake of selenium. This intake was slightly lower than the 400 micrograms per day purported to cause selenosis in adults (). Similarly to vitamins K2 and A, selenium seems to be protective against cardiovascular disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases. This man’s diet was also rich in phosphorus, needed for healthy teeth and bones.



Not too many people live to be 88 years of age; many fewer reach that age in fairly good health. The country with the highest average life expectancy in the world at the time of this writing is Japan, with a life expectancy of about 82 years (79 for men, and 86 for women). Those who think that they need a high HDL cholesterol and a low LDL cholesterol to be in good health, and thus live long lives, may be surprised at this man’s lipid profile: “The patient's plasma lipid levels were normal: total cholesterol, 5.18 mmol per liter (200 mg per deciliter); LDL, 3.68 mmol per liter (142 mg per deciliter); and HDL, 1.17 mmol per liter (45 mg per deciliter). The ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol was 3.15.”

If we assume that this man is at least somewhat representative of the human species, and not a major exception as Kern argued, this case tells us that a diet of 25 eggs per day followed by over 15 years may actually be healthy for humans. Such diet has the following features:

- It is very high in dietary cholesterol.

- It involves a high intake of omega-6 fats from animal sources, with none coming from industrial seed oils.

- It involves a high overall intake of fats, including saturated fats.

- It is fairly high in protein, all of which from animal sources.

- It is a very low carbohydrate diet, with no sugar in it.

- It is a nutritious diet, rich in vitamins K2 and A, as well as in selenium and phosphorus.

This man ate 25 eggs per day apparently due to an obsession tied to mental problems. Repeated attempts at changing his behavior were unsuccessful. He said: “Eating these eggs ruins my life, but I can't help it.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

We share an ancestor who probably lived no more than 640 years ago


We all evolved from one single-celled organism that lived billions of years ago. I don’t see why this is so hard for some people to believe, given that all of us also developed from a single fertilized cell in just 9 months.

However, our most recent common ancestor is not that first single-celled organism, nor is it the first Homo sapiens, or even the first Cro-Magnon.

The majority of the people who read this blog probably share a common ancestor who lived no more than 640 years ago. Genealogical records often reveal interesting connections - the figure below has been cropped from a larger one from Pinterest.


You and I, whoever you are, have each two parents. Each of our parents have (or had) two parents, who themselves had two parents. And so on.

If we keep going back in time, and assume that you and I do not share a common ancestor, there will be a point where the theoretical world population would have to be impossibly large.

Assuming a new generation coming up every 20 years, and going backwards in time, we get a theoretical population chart like the one below. The theoretical population grows in an exponential, or geometric, fashion.


As we move back in time the bars go up in size. Beyond a certain point their sizes go up so fast that you have to segment the chart. Otherwise the bars on the left side of the chart disappear in comparison to the ones on the right side (as several did on the chart above). Below is the section of the chart going back to the year 1371.


The year 1371 is a little more than 640 years ago. (This post is revised from another dated a few years ago, hence the number 640.) And what is the theoretical population in that year if we assume that you and I have no common ancestors? The answer is: more than 8.5 billion people. We know that is not true.

Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic view of this phenomenon, used here primarily to make a point. For example, it is possible that a population of humans became isolated 15 thousand years ago, remained isolated to the present day, and that one of their descendants just happened to be around reading this blog today.

Perhaps the most widely cited article discussing this idea is this one by Joseph T. Chang, published in the journal Advances in Applied Probability. For a more accessible introduction to the idea, see this article by Joe Kissell.

Estimates vary based on the portion of the population considered. There are also assumptions that have to be made based on migration and mating patterns, as well as the time for each generation to emerge and the stability of that number over time.

Still, most people alive today share a common ancestor who lived a lot more recently than they think. In most cases that common ancestor probably lived less than 640 years ago.

And who was that common ancestor? That person was probably a man who, due to a high perceived social status, had many consorts, who gave birth to many children. Someone like Genghis Khan.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Could the low testosterone problem be a mirage?


Low testosterone (a.k.a. “low T”) is caused by worn out glands no longer able to secrete enough T, right? At least this seems to be the most prevalent theory today, a theory that reminds me a lot of the “tired pancreas” theory () of diabetes. I should note that this low T problem, as it is currently presented, is one that affects almost exclusively men, particularly middle-aged men, not women. This is so even though T plays an important role in women’s health.

There are many studies that show associations between T levels and all kinds of diseases in men. But here is a problem with hormones: often several hormones vary together and in a highly correlated fashion. If you rely on statistics to reach conclusions, you must use techniques that allow you to rule out confounders; otherwise you may easily reach wrong conclusions. Examples are multivariate techniques that are sensitive to Simpson’s paradox and nonlinear algorithms; both of which are employed, by the way, by modern software tools such as WarpPLS (). Unfortunately, these are rarely, if ever, used in health-related studies.

Many low T cases may actually be caused by something other than tired T-secretion glands, perhaps a hormone (or set of hormones) that suppress T production; a T “antagonist”. What would be a good candidate? The figure below shows two graphs. It is from a study by Starks and colleagues, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2008 (). The study itself is not directly related to the main point that this post tries to make, but the figure is.



Look at the two graphs carefully. The one on the left is of blood cortisol levels. The one on the right is of blood testosterone levels. Ignore the variation within each graph. Just compare the two graphs and you will see one interesting thing – cortisol and testosterone levels are inversely related. This is a general pattern in connection with stress-induced cortisol elevations, repeating itself over and over again, whether the source of stress is mental (e.g., negative thoughts) or physical (e.g., intense exercise).

And the relationship between cortisol and testosterone is strong. Roughly speaking, an increase in cortisol levels, from about 20 to 40 μg/dl, appears to bring testosterone levels down from about 8 to 5 ηg/ml. A level of 8 ηg/ml (the same as 800 ηg/dl) is what is normally found in young men living in urban environments. A level of 5 ηg/ml is what is normally found in older men living in urban environments.

So, testosterone levels are practically brought down to almost half of what they were before by that variation in cortisol.

Chronic stress can easily bring your cortisol levels up to 40 μg/dl and keep them there. More serious pathological conditions, such as Cushing’s disease, can lead to sustained cortisol levels that are twice as high. There are many other things that can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. For instance, sustained calorie restriction raises cortisol levels, with a corresponding reduction in testosterone levels. As the authors of a study () of markers of semistarvation in healthy lean men note, grimly:

“…testosterone (T) approached castrate levels …”

The study highlights a few important phenomena that occur under stress conditions: (a) cortisol levels go up, and testosterone levels go down, in a highly correlated fashion (as mentioned earlier); and (b) it is very difficult to suppress cortisol levels without addressing the source of the stress. Even with testosterone administration, cortisol levels tend to be elevated.

Isn't possible that cortisol levels go up because testosterone levels go down - reverse causality? Possible, but unlikely. Evidence that testosterone administration may reduce cortisol levels, when it is found, tends to be rather weak or inconclusive. A good example is a study by Rubinow and colleagues (). Not only were their findings based on bivariate (or unadjusted) correlations, but also on a chance probability threshold that is twice the level usually employed in statistical analyses; the level usually employed is 5 percent.

Let us now briefly shift our attention to dieting. Dieting is the main source of calorie restriction in modern urban societies; an unnatural one, I should say, because it involves going hungry in the presence of food. Different people have different responses to dieting. Some responses are more extreme, others more mild. One main factor is how much body fat you want to lose (weight loss, as a main target, is a mistake); another is how low you expect body fat to get. Many men dream about six-pack abs, which usually require single-digit body fat percentages.

The type of transformation involving going from obese to lean is not “cost-free”, as your body doesn’t know that you are dieting. The body “sees” starvation, and responds accordingly.

Your body is a little bit like a computer. It does exactly what you “tell” it to do, but often not what you want it to do. In other words, it responds in relatively predictable ways to various diet and lifestyle changes, but not in the way that most of us want. This is what I call compensatory adaptation at work (). Our body often doesn’t respond in the way we expect either, because we don’t actually know how it adapts; this is especially true for long-term adaptations.

What initially feels like a burst of energy soon turns into something a bit more unpleasant. At first the unpleasantness takes the form of psychological phenomena, which were probably the “cheapest” for our bodies to employ in our evolutionary past. Feeling irritated is not as “expensive” a response as feeling physically weak, seriously distracted, nauseated etc. if you live in an environment where you don’t have the option of going to the grocery store to find fuel, and where there are many beings around that can easily kill you.

Soon the responses take the form of more nasty body sensations. Nearly all of those who go from obese to lean will experience some form of nasty response over time. The responses may be amplified by nutrient deficiencies. Obesity would have probably only been rarely, if ever, experienced by our Paleolithic ancestors. They would have never gotten obese in the first place. Going from obese to lean is as much a Neolithic novelty as becoming obese in the first place, although much less common.

And it seems that those who have a tendency toward mental disorders (e.g., generalized anxiety, manic-depression), even if at a subclinical level under non-dieting conditions, are the ones that suffer the most when calorie restriction is sustained over long periods of time. Most reports of serious starvation experiments (e.g., Roy Walford’s Biosphere 2 experiment) suggest the surfacing of mental disorders and even some cases of psychosis.

Emily Deans has a nice post () on starvation and mental health.

But you may ask: What if my low T problem is caused by aging; you just said that older males tend to have lower T? To which I would reply: Isn’t possible that the lower T levels normally associated with aging are in many cases a byproduct of higher stress hormone levels? Take a look at the figure below, from a study of age-related cortisol secretion by Zhao and colleagues ().



As you can see in the figure, cortisol levels tend to go up with age. And, interestingly, the range of variation seems very close to that in the earlier figure in this post, although I may be making a mistake in the conversion from nmol/l to ηg/ml. As cortisol levels go up, T levels should go down in response. There are outliers. Note the male outlier at the middle-bottom part, in his early seventies. He is represented by a filled circle, which refers to a disease-free male.

Dr. Arthur De Vany claims to have high T levels in his 70s. It is possible that he is like that outlier. If you check out De Vany’s writings, you’ll see his emphasis on leading a peaceful, stress-free, life (). If money, status, material things, health issues etc. are very important for you when you are young (most of us, a trend that seems to be increasing), chances are they are going to be a major source of stress as you age.

Think about individual property accumulation, as it is practiced in modern urban environments, and how unnatural and potentially stressful it is. Many people subconsciously view their property (e.g., a nice car, a bunch of shares in a publicly-traded company) as their extended phenotype. If that property is damaged or loses value, the subconscious mental state evoked is somewhat like that in response to a piece of their body being removed. This is potentially very stressful; a stress source that doesn’t go away easily. What we have here is very different from the types of stress that our Paleolithic ancestors faced.

So, what will happen if you take testosterone supplementation to solve your low T problem? If your problem is due to high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones (including some yet to be discovered), induced by stress, and your low T treatment is long-term, your body will adapt in a compensatory way. It will “sense” that T is now high, together with high levels of stress.

Whatever form long-term compensatory adaptation may take in this scenario, somehow the combination of high T and high stress doesn’t conjure up a very nice image. What comes to mind is a borderline insane person, possibly with good body composition, and with a lot of self-confidence – someone like the protagonist of the film American Psycho.

Again, will the high T levels, obtained through supplementation, suppress cortisol? It doesn’t seem to work that way, at least not in the long term. In fact, stress hormones seem to affect other hormones a lot more than other hormones affect them. The reason is probably that stress responses were very important in our evolutionary past, which would make any mechanism that could override them nonadaptive.

Today, stress hormones, while necessary for a number of metabolic processes (e.g., in intense exercise), often work against us. For example, serious conflict in our modern world is often solved via extensive writing (through legal avenues). Violence is regulated and/or institutionalized – e.g., military, law enforcement, some combat sports. Without these, society would break down, and many of us would join the afterlife sooner and more violently than we would like (see Pinker’s take on this topic: ).

Sir, the solution to your low T problem may actually be found elsewhere, namely in stress reduction. But careful, you run the risk of becoming a nice guy.