On the Potential Benefits of Physiologic Stressors – Cold Exposure

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book Stress and Adaptation in Physiology. This chapter is about stressors and adaptive responses, and this specific excerpt is about the timing and duration of exposure to stressors. These parameters often make the difference between a poison and a medication.

Timing and Duration

The capacity to adapt and cope with higher levels of a physiologic or psychologic stressor is dependent on the intensity and duration of the previous exposure to that stressor. Let me exemplify this within the context of cold temperature stress.

As I mentioned earlier, it may not be wise for your first exposure to cold stress to jump straight into an ice cold river and remain in the water for 20 minutes; chances are that you may develop hypothermia. A better alternative may be to start at home in the safety of your bathroom, with mixed/alternating showers (warm + cold water, intermittently for a couple of minutes) or by taking brief cold showers. As you develop tolerance to a certain dose of cold, as you adapt (habituate) to it, you could increase the time you remain under the cold shower (thus, modifying the dose). Then, you could gradually shift to taking cold baths, and eventually ice baths.

When you get used to a certain dose of a certain stressor, when you develop tolerance, the curve of positive adaptation flattens out. To keep leveraging the positive adaptive effects, you may have to titrate the dose, frequency, and/or duration of exposure to the stressor.

In this case, when you ‘graduate’ to taking ice-baths, the next iteration would be to increase the duration of exposure. When you reach the level of getting perturbed only by very long-ice baths (that is, when you become very tolerant, resistant, and adapted to cold), one possible, subsequent strategy would be the use of a re-sensitization period.

Withdrawing from cold exposure for a while (weeks to months) may reset your tolerance and you could start the entire process all over again, with a lower dose, frequency and duration of exposure. This way, you could engage in a never ending cycle of exposure, constantly reaping the possible, somewhat controversial and debatable, benefits of this practice.

I exemplified using cold exposure because I think that it makes for a pertinent explanation of conditioning, tolerance buildup, and adaptation to perturbing agents. Nonetheless, you could replace cold stress with any other stressor or perturbing agent, including but not limited to: heat stress, fasting, intermittent fasting, ketosis, caloric restriction, hypergravity, supplementation, use of pharmaceuticals, plant phytochemicals, allergens, environmental toxins, deliberate cognitive stress, etc.

Maintaining an increased sensitivity to a stressor with the purpose of continuously reaping potential benefits is the result of constantly changing/altering the strategy: increasing/decreasing the dose, frequency and the duration of exposure.

Conclusion

If this seems interesting to you and you want to keep reading, the book is on reduced priced for a limited time.

A take home message that I’m trying to convey through this post is to have you move away from dichotomous thinking – this (food, substance, chemical, exercise, etc) is either toxic or good.

Reality is much more nuanced; and toggling of parameters, such as duration and timing of exposure, to a certain physiologic stimulus can make a biological system respond in a variety of ways, some more adaptive, others less adaptive (maladaptive).


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