Monday, April 16, 2012

Hormonal reductionism is as myopic as biochemical reductionism

Biochemistry-based arguments can be very misleading. Yet, biochemistry can be extremely useful in the elucidation of diet and lifestyle effects that are suggested by well-designed studies of humans. If you start with a biochemistry-based argument though, and ignore actual studies of humans, you can easily convince someone that glycogen-depleting exercise (e.g., weight training) is unhealthy, because many health markers change for the worse after that type of exercise. But it is the damage caused by glycogen-depleting exercise that leads to health improvements, via short- and long-term compensatory adaptations ().

Biochemistry is very helpful in terms of providing “pieces for the puzzle”, but biochemical reductionism is a problem. Analogous to biochemical reductionism, and perhaps one example of it, is hormonal reductionism – trying to argue that all diet and lifestyle effects are mediated by a single hormone. A less extreme position, but still myopic, is to argue that all diet and lifestyle effects are mostly mediated by a single hormone.

One of my own “favorite” hormones is adiponectin, which I have been discussing for years in this blog (). Increased serum adiponectin has been found to be significantly associated with: decreased body fat (particularly decreased visceral fat), decreased risk of developing diabetes type 2, and decreased blood pressure. Adiponectin appears to also have anti-inflammatory and athero-protective properties.

As a side note, typically women have higher levels of serum adiponectin than men, particularly young women. Culturally we have a tendency to see young women as “delicate” and “vulnerable”. Guess what? Young women are the closest we get to “indestructible” in the human species. And there is an evolutionary reason for that, which is that fertile women have been in our evolutionary past, and still are, the bottleneck of any population. A population of 100 individuals, where 99 are men and 1 is a woman, will quickly disappear. If it is 99 women and 1 fertile man, the population will grow; but there will also be some problems due to inbreeding. Even if the guy is ugly the population will grow; without competition, he will look very cute.

Jung and colleagues measured various hormone levels in 78 obese people who had visited obesity clinics at five university hospitals (Ajou, Ulsan, Catholic, Hanyang and Yonsei) in Korea (). Those folks restricted their caloric intake to 500 calories less than their usual intake, and exercised, for 12 weeks. Below are the measured changes in tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α, now called only TNF), interleukin-6 (IL-6), resistin, leptin, adiponectin, and interleukin-10 (IL-10).

We see from the table above that the hormonal changes were all significant (all at the P equal to or lower than 0.001 level except one, at the P lower than 0.05 level), and all indicative of health improvements. The serum concentrations of all hormones decreased, with two exceptions – adiponectin and interleukin-10, which increased. Interleukin-10 is an anti-inflammatory hormone produced by white blood cells. The most significant increase of the two was by far in adiponectin (P = .001, versus P = .041 for interleukin-10).

Now, should we try to find a way of producing synthetic adiponectin then? My guess is that doing that will not lead to very positive results in human trials; because, as you can see from the table, hormones vary in concert. At the moment, the only way to “supplement” adiponectin is to lose body fat, and that leads to concurrent changes in many other hormones (e.g., TNF decreases).

Trying to manipulate one single hormone, or build an entire health-improvement approach based on its effects, is myopic. But that is what often happens. Leptin is a relatively recent example.

One reason why biochemistry is so complex, with so many convoluted processes, is that evolution is a tinkerer that is “blind” to complexity. Traits appear at random in populations and spread if they increase reproductive success; even if they decrease survival success, by the way ().

Evolution is not an engineer, and is not even our “friend” (). To optimize our health, we need to “hack” evolution.