Hormesis. Parabiosis. My Desperate Search for the Fountain of Youth
Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18. — Mark Twain
I think I’d rather have a root canal than jump into a frigid body of water in zero-degree temperatures. I know polar bears do it all the time and they’re warm-blooded too. Just the thought of standing on an icy snowy dock anticipating the plunge has me shivering uncontrollably.
And then the retreat. So cold, the water freezes to my hair. My old skin turns red from anger and trauma. There I stand like a hairless frozen pink popsicle with a bitterly cold wind licking me silly. No thanks! I’d prefer to melt to nothing from a warm tropical breeze into the white sparkling sands of Naples, Florida.
But there are those that do take cold icy dips. Organized human polar bear plunges are often an opportunity to raise money for a favorite cause. Of course, a few weirdos apparently enjoy the pain and the camaraderie of fellow sadists. For them, a polar bear plunge is an anticipated annual reunion.
But then along comes a few curious scientific types who claim some health benefits to doing things like taking icy plunges. They’ve studied how the body responds to the stress of a cold dip or fasting or weight training, or a dozen other things that sound unpleasant if not uncomfortable. When the body responds to temporary stress, it is known as hormetic stress. Maybe the world’s sadists are on to something.
I’m certain you all remember from your health class in high school that the body responds to stress both physically and psychologically. The study of hormesis is involved in both realms. The National Library of Medicine writes, “In the fields of biology and medicine hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.” When mentally stressed, psychological hormetins are tickled when there is intense brain activity and focused attention such as meditation. Engage your brain with something challenging, or even mind-bending, and you’ll benefit the research says.
This research is discovering that temporary stress, hormetic stress, has some wonderful benefits. Perhaps not the promise of the fountain of youth found in our folklore, but benefits that suggest a healthier existence while we age. There are some interesting reasons for this.
If you can remember your first dates, that is an example of both hormesis and your cognitive health. The sweaty palms. The elevated heart rate. The emotional turmoil of insecurities. In some ways, depending on how the date went, it is analogous to a polar bear plunge. Particularly if that first attempt at a kiss was met with a cube of ice. But you kept taking that stressful plunge, and eventually, you found your ‘hot’ lips.
Stress caused by dating, intermittent fasting, or taking a polar bear plunge causes our bodies to release chemicals such as sirtuin. Sirtuin is called into action when it senses the body needs to be defended. Sirtuin is particularly useful at fighting off disease and some research suggests, the aging process itself. Unfortunately, walking is not likely to trigger the release of chemicals such as Sirtuin- it needs to be more strenuous.
So far, the experts suggest we consider short exposures to things like extreme temperatures, high-intensity interval training, intermittent fasting, and box breathing.
Juan Ponce de Leon, sitting for months rocking back and forth and eating poorly aboard a wooden sailboat captained by Christopher Columbus, was perhaps feeling his age. Like all worthy explorers, Ponce de Leon took note of native Indian rumors of a promised land that contained a fountain. Bathe in this fountain and you’ll be forever young. The promise of eternal youth and seashores of gold had him sailing and landing near modern-day St. Augustine, Florida. Neither a fountain of youth nor a mound of gold was found. But he was appreciative of the flora and named it La Florida- a place of flowers.
It was wealthy oligarchs and royalty that financed the trips of Columbus and Ponce de Leon. If so fortunate, they might make a return on their investment with newfound sources of gold and precious gems. We can then imagine the riches Juan and his backers would have made if the fountain of youth had actually been discovered. Two-way Santa Maria trips from the old world would have been booked full immediately. New ships would have quickly assembled. Little thought would have been given to the great risk taken on such a trip and the irony of having attained eternal youth only to die in a storm on the return trip.
Today, the wealthy are still in search of eternal youth. For them, their wealth, and all the benefit it brings them, has them looking for ways to remain forever young. Who can blame them? The alternative is to be made equal by our decay and simply return to dust. And that old ancient notion of ascending to another dimension some call Heaven, well… rumor has it, one can’t take anything with you. Nothin.
If you have a lot of money, you can finance research which is looking for ways to stay eternally young. And that is what our oligarchs are doing. One field that appears promising to many of them is Parabiosis.
Parabiosis is the anatomical joining of two individuals, especially artificially in physiological research.
A somewhat accidental co-joining of the bloodstreams of two mice, one old and decrepit, the other young and vital, showed the old frail mouse regaining some youthful vigor. Unfortunately, the young mouse prematurely aged. Naturally, this led to more research which continues.
One billionaire is so intrigued that he’s funding research on how plasma transfusions could keep him aboard his yacht for a century or more. Before you go and cancel your cemetery plot, the research results are not particularly promising. It appears our old cells can be stimulated to work harder, at least for a short time, but they cannot be rejuvenated.
I suspect that we’ll hear more about parabiosis in the future. One can just imagine the dystopian image of a desperate aging billionaire connected to the bloodstream of a young person. I’d watch that movie.