When one of my sons was 13, he approached me in the kitchen one morning and said, “Dad, why is my face twitching?” “Are you taking vitamin D?” I asked. “Yes.” “How much?” “One squirt.” “One squirt!?! How much did I tell you to take?” “One drop.” “Are a squirt and a drop the same thing?” “No, but I figured if one drop of this stuff did so many good things for me, a squirt would do even better.” After a few days without vitamin D, the twitching in his face went away, and he had learned his first lesson in the Goldilocks effect.
If you have been with me very long, you will recall that I talk about the Goldilocks effect a lot, although not always by labeling it this way. Many women, alarmed by the disastrously-misinterpreted Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), fear hormone replacement therapy. The media and most doctors have convinced them that hormone replacement causes breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. But the WHI did not study hormone replacement. It studied two drugs, which are not hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers made in the human body. There is no woman I have ever known whose body makes medroxyprogesterone acetate or horse urine estrogens. Instead, they all make estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone.
With that said, a woman who does not make enough of these hormones, particularly testosterone, is at elevated risk of heart attack, breast cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and osteoporosis, among other things. On the other hand, there are also undesirable consequences of having too much of any of these hormones. “Just right” describes the amount of hormones that optimally support health and longevity.
More recently, the Goldilocks effect has been given an actual label in the medical literature: Hormesis. This is the principle that, up to a certain amount of something produces a favorable result in the body. Beyond that amount—which depends on many interdependent variables, and therefore differs from person to person—yields no additional benefit and can actually be harmful.
For example, massive amounts of magnesium given IV can stop you from breathing. Massive amounts taken orally will keep you on the toilet all day, but are otherwise harmless. A shortage of magnesium leads to charley horses, insomnia, anxiety, restless legs, headaches, heart rhythm abnormalities, osteoporosis, pregnancy complications, high blood pressure, and much more. Getting just the right amount of magnesium for your needs is essential. Unfortunately, due to modern farming techniques, our food supply does not provide enough magnesium no matter how much spinach we eat, so we need to supplement magnesium in order to meet our bodies’ needs.
If the concept I am describing here sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because a similar concept has been widely demonstrated in other aspects of life. It’s called the Law of Diminishing Returns. In a nutshell, it means that a certain amount of investment (time, effort, money) yields a certain return, but double that amount yields less than double the return. In other words, beyond a certain investment, your additional investment would yield better returns elsewhere.
But the principle of hormesis goes one step beyond the Law of Diminishing Returns. This is because we see that, in human physiology, too much of a good thing can actually be harmful rather than simply becoming less helpful.
Stay tuned for more posts about how applying the principle of hormesis can help you live your healthiest life.
Always looking out for your health,
Ray Andrew, MD