The Hercules Protocol

Hormesis, Hydras, Healthcare.

“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar - and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.

And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?”

-Epictetus, in Discourses

Hydra in the Coal Mine

One of the beasts which Hercules had to conquer in his twelve labors was the hydra. A seven-headed serpent who grew two new heads every time an old one was chopped off. As I heard it, Hercules defeated the hydra by immediately burning the decapitated necks, one at a time. 

When mankind unlocked the power of steel and coal during the industrial revolution, they unleashed a hydra. We have been grappling with it ever since. Every time we fix a problem, our solution creates new wrinkles. It happens in nearly every domain:

Cold houses → coal mining → carbon emissions

Bacterial infection → antibiotics → super bacteria

Food spoilage → refrigerators → hole in the ozone layer

Loud car engines → leaded gasoline → cancerous exhaust

Dangerous world → cities + offices → metabolic diseases

From 1900 to 2017, the fatality rate in the coal mining industry fell by 97%. The top three work-related causes of death today are not accidents, like car crashes, explosions, or shootings. 

The Big 3

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization (ILO), the top three work-related sources of fatalities are:

  1. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 

  2. Ischemic heart disease, and 

  3. Stroke. 

I’ve been calling these the Big 3.

These also happen to be the top three causes of death, globally. But this shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. Life expectancy has soared, childhood mortality is now rare by historical standards, and far fewer people die from communicable diseases. One of the reasons that the Big 3 are now at the top is partly because former top causes of death were reduced or eliminated. 

We also live longer, which means there is more time for us to be exposed to the risk factors that contribute to the Big 3. That’s a big part of the story, but not all of it. These diseases mainly affect older people, but young people too. Stress, lack of movement, high blood sugar, high saturated fat, loneliness, lack of sleep, poor air quality, and overwork all contribute to the development of these diseases. These are some of the main Big 3 risk factors.

What do all of these risk factors have in common? They are consequences of solutions to problems we needed to fix. We insulated ourselves from the dangers of the natural world – rightly so – but the hydra created some new heads in response.

Prevention, by reducing exposure to the risk factors mentioned above, is possible. However, the tides are not necessarily in the favor of the working person. The American healthcare system spends barely anything on prevention (thanks to Ian Vanagas for the link). Doctors are incentivized to prescribe – a doctor that doesn’t prescribe anything will be fired. The healthcare system is geared toward end-of-life care.

Pareto Protocols

So, it’s likely that the medical establishment will not take the lead in solving this issue. They will create the research and tools necessary to do so but lack the incentives to implement a solution broadly. To start, tackling the Big 3 will be the task of individuals. Some influential figureheads include Peter Attia and Howard Luks, who both promote protocols aimed at longevity.

The shared and “Pareto” aspects of their protocols, in my opinion, are as follows:

  • Get enough “Zone 2” exercise. About 3 hours a week. This is defined as 60-70% of your max heart rate, which is easy to calculate (Max HR = 220 minus your age). The rule of thumb is if you start breathing through your mouth during exercise, you are likely working too hard.

  • Resistance train all of your muscle groups 1-2 times a week. Arms, shoulders, core, chest, back, legs, calves. This can be done at home fairly easily – Jerry Texiera has a good set of exercises for this.

  • Eat enough protein. About 0.7g per kg of body weight.

  • Eat with a slight caloric deficit. You can calculate yours here.

  • Get lots of sleep. Darken and cool your room, and wind down before bed.

Paradoxes

The joint report from the WHO and ILO put into perspective how safe we really are. But safety can’t be looked at from strictly an objective lens. One must also take into account how safe people feel, even if it’s somewhat irrational from the outside. Rene Amalbert, a famous French occupational safety researcher, has a good understanding of why take safety for granted:

"In fact the level of safety has the surprising property that it is never adequate and it actually generates societal demand which increases in parallel with the progress that is made."

Take commercial airlines for example. The accident rate for passenger flights is virtually zero. When you board a plane, you will magically wormhole to another airport, and you will deboard that plane. No fuss, no muss. Commercial airline operations have gotten so safe that when accidents DO happen, the accidents are incredibly weird. Disappearing flights, midair collisions, pilots going kamikaze into a cliff. These accidents are the result of an unforeseeable combination of events, which surprise everyone. The weirdness of such a tragedy makes it sensational material for the news, which generates public outrage. But it’s already an ultrasafe industry!

It’s likely that airline safety is overregulated, which is translating into increased costs for consumers. Governments are focused on eliminating bag fees and seat selection fees… But at this point, they should be focused on protecting airlines from unnecessary public demands for improved safety. Talk about a paradox!

The good news in all of this is that we, like Hercules, are steadily overcoming the hydra we found in the coal mine. But we’re armed with brains instead of brawn, and we should be proud of how far we’ve come. 

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