Stress, Testosterone and Free Will
Notes & Commentary from Andrew Huberman Interview With Robert Sapolsky.
Last week Andrew Huberman released an episode on his podcast interviewing the great Robert Sapolsky. Robert is an American neuroendocrinology researcher and author. He is currently a professor of biology, and professor of neurology and neurological sciences, and, by courtesy, neurosurgery at Stanford University. He is an award-winning scientist and has written many books amongst the majority looking at behaviour and biology, with his first being on the role of stress in disease.
Robert defines stress as a cause in a shift away from homeostasis, anything that leads to a change in the stability of biological systems. Not only that, but it is also anything that may lead to anticipation of a change in our bodily systems. Therefore, also demonstrating the psychological aspect. Stress itself is necessary for survival. Biologically it leads to the mobilisation of energy from storage into the bloodstream to make it readily available fuel for fight or flight. However, as much of his book ‘Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers’ suggests that humans are different in that, for the majority, we are no longer in a situation of life or death, and for much of our stress is small, consistent, or accumulative, leading to stress-related diseases such as heart issues and diabetes.
Performance Through health was based on the concept that much of chronic disease is related to poor health habits and the improper management of stress. I now help people create practices and routines or real-time tools to better manage their very own physiology. Therefore, you can probably see why this chat between two excellent and respected professors in the field of stress, neurology, and biology, is of significance to my attention and thus the reason for this blog. Not only that, but the information they discuss in this podcast is a solid ground of knowledge for anyone interested in health and wellbeing. Since most of my audience is in the scope of individuals, I thought creating and sharing this on social media and my website would greatly benefit.
I have had discussions already with people regarding the interview, and a neurosurgeon suggests that Sapolsky’s theories have been debunked and offered other literature to read; however, there are grounds for this discussion as a basis of knowledge because science, especially biology, often develops from cross-sectional studies and advances when we investigate more thoroughly through individual animalistic studies or randomised control trials. What I mean is that most of this discussion is looking at correlative data. Therefore, a large amount of the summarised information is still only based on a scientific hypothesis and warrant further investigation. However, to have one of the greatest minds in the area putting out his thoughts and opinions, it’s still important to take note and appreciate what he has to say.
The conversation started more around stress and then led onto the role of stress in testosterone and finally with Huberman asking Sapolsky about his belief in Free Will.
I disagree with what Sapolsky says about free will. Though he has a substance of biological evidence, I think his viewpoints are tainted by his narrow mind to look beyond the behavioural sciences. More on that at the end, anyway, here are my notes and comment for you to read. If you want to listen to the podcast itself, you can find it here.
Difference between short- and long-term stress
Short stress is often beneficial if it’s generally lower in arousal levels; however, when stress becomes chronic, there is absolutely no benefit of being consistently under pressure. There is an optimal level of arousal in any given moment, and that will depend very much on context, situation, and, I have a hypothesis, personality type.
This relationship is an inverted U relationship meaning too little stress, and a person might get bored or feel underwhelmed to do something and then with too much pressure, you’re pushing into anxiety and overstimulation making people narrow-minded, or unable to focus reducing performance.
How do excitement and fear differ in terms of the stress response?
During my online webinars on stress management, I often talk about the predator/prey relationship. When a lion chases a zebra, both animals or sympathetic dominant have the same physiological responses, except one is hunting for food and the other that is running away for survival. I describe how one is goal orientated, and the other is avoidance related. Both Huberman and Sapolsky agree that it’s most likely the release of dopamine and stimulation of different brain parts despite the same mechanical response within the body. Perhaps there is greater activity of the Amygdala in the prey. In my sessions online, I discuss Wim Hof and how he uses arousal-promoting breathwork and cold exposure to develop resilience. The way I see this is that if you turn your fears into goals, i.e. someone who doesn’t like their physiological feeling amped up and they do his breathwork that fills them with adrenalin, or expose themselves to freezing cold water for the first time whilst staying calm in mind. When consistent as in goal orientation, perhaps you can change the way the brain activates and thus how the mind reacts to your fears. Exposure treatment is often used in psychotherapy to help people with phobias. The situation or environment is broken down into small attainable sections. The patient can develop courage until they eventually take the elevator, leave their home, touch the snake, etc.
How about we start doing this with children or teenagers today to help develop the lack of resilience we are seeing.
Stress & Choice
Stress levels rise when control is removed. I.e., if there is a mild concern around an event and the power of choice is removed, then the stress levels further rise, leading to more anxiety. I related this to what’s happening today with people fearing about side effects of mRNA, etc. Is the perception that they are not in control and are being forced into having them heightened their fear, and could this lead to an increased risk of adverse reactions?
Robert Sapolsky explains this by demonstrating the results of a study in mice . In this study, they are investigating the benefits of prior exercise on ischemia in the brain. One group of mice exercises voluntarily, and the other group is forced to exercise when the other group does. Therefore, the power of choice is taken away. The second group showed significantly higher stress levels and had anxious tendencies, which led to further brain-damaged related to ischemia.
Immediately, it seemed that this was a psychological aspect, and it seemed the discussion was around choice and perception. Which now, I find it a little misleading or a jump to a conclusion. Sapolsky failed to mention that the mice were forced to exercise through physical touch by prodding with a stick or electrical shocks. No wonder these mice had higher cortisol level hormones and were anxious or even had further health issues. They went through exercise torture, which would make even a human want to cry and keel over.
Are Stress Management Tools Beneficial?
Offering stress management tools to mild to moderate cases of stress will be significant; however, it’s got to be something that will work for the individual. If they are forced to do something that doesn’t resonate with them, they will feel increased stress. Not ideal, and something that needs to be considered case by case.
Also, we must be careful who we offer stress management tools to; for example, in burnout, those who feel they lack resources and are already suffering from psychological issues related to fatigue. Additional practices will make the individual feel like they are doing more, have less time, fewer resources, and further exacerbate their burnout. Therefore prevention is so much better than cure in such situations. Again, this wasn’t something discussed but is something I have become aware of. On the podcast, there was mention that stress management tools for someone with significant traumas or life-threatening situations will cause further issues as contextually it doesn’t fit the therapy they require.
The 80/20 rule applies to stress management. Putting wellness first and doing a small amount of 20 minutes per day is enough to wield 80% results. But you must figure out what works for you.
Higher testosterone levels do not equal more aggression.
Testosterone does not cause aggression; it enhances competitiveness, but only where the person wants higher social status. I.e., a boxer might become more aggressive because that is necessary to become higher in order of fighters. On the other hand, a Buddhist monk may compete to give more random acts of kindness since that’s something aligned to their value hierarchy.
Personality is another area we must think about here. According to Huberman, there are many receptors in the amygdala that bind with testosterone. Therefore, when looking at a high neurotic person, will higher levels increase their anxiety and sensitivity to negative emotion, and therefore, will we see more reactive aggression from fear? Or, in someone who is highly disagreeable, will we see further combative charge? Food for thought.
Competition is a great way to boost testosterone.
Putting yourself amongst competition itself is one of the best ways to increase testosterone, but It’s not necessarily physical competition, and it doesn’t need to be you competing. The psychological relationship you have with an event can heighten testosterone, albeit only for a short period, unless persistent and consistently winning. For example, in a few weeks is the AFL grand final in Perth. Those supporting the team who wins in the finals will have greater testosterone levels following the game than before and more remarkable relative change compared to the opposite team players and fans.
How we interpret our performance impacts testosterone and not the performance itself. Let’s say you’re a natural powerlifter who competes with the expectation of breaking all three personal bests on your lifts. If you win the competition but don’t make your PB’s there’s a chance your testosterone may not change or could go down. Expectation, Perception, and Interpretation play a significant role, meaning they are prefrontal cortex-based changes and something that may separate us from other animals.
However, because we live within multiple dominance hierarchies, we tell ourselves a story to make ourselves feel better. I.e. the powerlifter can come up with an excuse and say that their eating didn’t go to plan the day before, or they slept poorly to justify their performance. That said, we tend to choose to focus on the hierarchies we are more dominant in and spend time in those for longer because it’s better for our health and wellbeing.
That’s why the internet and social media can lead to many people feel bad about their lives because they are judging themselves against an almost infinite number of hierarchical orders of which the most dominant in the field gets the most exposure. Thus, creating completely abnormal self-judgment and critique.
Hormone replacement therapy is far more complex than I realised
HRT timing is crucial but very complex. For example, Oestrogen given soon after menopause at similar levels physiological to the persons norm can be protective against Alzheimer’s and heart disease; however, leaving it too late can have the opposite effect. That means one would need to know their Oestrogen levels before going through menopause and then keep them at a stable level following. However, there’s more to it than that, I.e. natural/synthetic/type/progesterone levels etc. these all need to be considered, and therefore this is not advice that should be taken directly.
Sperm Count & Fertility
Sperm count is generally dropping, and there’s a direct correlation to many environmental factors. However, there it is not known whether this is directly causal. To reduce fertility rates, there is no idea which ecological factors are casual to lower sperm count. There is often discussion around Oestrogen in water, exposure to plastics and mobile phones and laptops etc., however, the literature is not that clear around any of those yet.
I found it most interesting that testosterone has no relationship to aggression and much enhances the individual’s personality in a manner of competition according to their own value hierarchy. I was surprised they didn’t mention the work by Marc Solms and his team at the University of Cape Town. They have done many studies on the effects of delivering 0.5 mg of testosterone to females and shown increases in areas related to social dominance, such as sense of agency, optimistic affective forecasting  and peripersonal space . However, I feel this might be where Sapolsky’s personal beliefs lead him astray on things such as free will. His basis of biology is the foundation of life. However, you need to remember that humans have evolved psychologically and spiritually and that belief’s themselves may have more of a role at the foundation of behaviour. That said, he is writing a book on free will, and he will obviously be stating more than what he said on the Huberman podcast, which is that humans literally have no free choice. A bizarre thing to say for a being of such high levels of consciousness.