Schofield’s hormetic theory of wellbeing

My first whiteboard attempt at my hormetic theory of wellbeing
I had a few things click into place in the last week or two, around how to conceptualize and manage our well-being, especially considering all the biology involved.

Without being grandiose and egotistically naming a theory after myself, I think what I have come up with has some novel concepts. I do acknowledge the inspiration from a scientific paper, which lays out the (some) diet and exercise components of the hormesis of wellbeing (see here).

So here’s a summary of the theory (or at least the bringing together of a few different ideas):

  1. Hormesis is the adaptation to a stimulus which in a bigger dose is toxic. This stress exposure is central to, and even essential for, wellbeing.
  2. Hormetic stressors come form all sorts of things; including sun exposure and our food environments (eg, fasting).
  3. Wellbeing depends on a constant ability to have neuroplasticity (rewiring of the brain). Certain biological conditions must be present for  this to occur.
  4. These conditions include high levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotropic growth factor), low insulin, increased IGF-1, and low reactive oxygen specs (ROS).
  5. Hormesis drives these conditions in a similar way across a range of different stressors – too much or too little does exactly the opposite, more or less.

It’s a cool theory I think because it offers some simplicity and parsimony when thinking about the biology of wellbeing and what drives it.

So that’s it in a nutshell and here’s a bit more detail:

What is hormesis?

Hormesis is a theoretical phenomenon of dose-response relationships in which something (as a heavy metal or ionizing radiation) that produces harmful biological effects at moderate to high doses may produce beneficial effects at low doses.

In other words, it’s the theory of general adaptation and super compensation applied across a range of stimuli. Obviously the amount of the stimulus any biological organism can take depends upon its current state (genes plus recent exposures), but also the other stimuli that organism is experiencing. The stress from the different stimuli is likely to stress that same system concurrently (important for later).

Humans need to be exposed to hormetic stimuli to maintain biological function.  With no stress, the system adapts backwards as well. If you lie in bed for weeks, or travel into space with zero gravity, your body adapts just as fast as to no stress.

Bottom line: Hormesis is adaptation to mild stress.  Stress is not just good but essential to human health and wellbeing.

Can we define wellbeing biologically?

Here’s the next important step.  The human nervous system is a complex distributed neural network. It isn’t confined to the head – its throughout your body.  Mind-brain-body=same thing.  There are around 100 billion neurons in every human. Each can synapse to up to 7000 other neurons.  Because the hardware and the software are the same thing, you must constantly rewire the system to learn anything, to experience anything and remember it, to solve problems, to experience a worthwhile life. This happens at all ages.

We call this neuroplasticity.

How does this rewiring happen? We need to produce some key biological conditions.  This is centered around production of Brain-derived Neurotropic Growth Factor (BDNF). BDNF is the protein which stimulates this rewiring.

I’m arguing that the conditions which support BDNF production are central to wellbeing.

You guessed it. Hormesis drives BNDF production.

How hormesis drives wellbeing

In the figure below, I have tried to simplify the basic logic behind a hormetic response driving neuroplasticity. What is involved (simply) to optimize the biology of rewiring is low insulin, higher insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and absence of reactive oxygen species (ROS).

What is interesting is that a range of hormetic stimuli, sometimes through different mechanisms, achieve the same biochemistry The opposite is true when we expose ourselves to too much of the same stimulus.  Once the stress response is maladaptive rather than hormetic, we produce insulin resistance, inflammation through ROS, and (sometimes) adverse levels of IGF-1 (see Figure below).

These ROS, insulin and IGF-1 do not always perfectly covary AND importantly they are also essential for humans one way or another for living.  We need insulin, we need ROS, we need flexibility in IGF-1 production. It’s just that the systeM needs to have metabolic flexibility to respond and rebuild (especially the nervous system).

Bottom line: Neuroplasticity is essential for human wellbeing and the supporting biology may be the center of the mechanism for feeling good. There is no evidence that hormesis drives this biology.


Specific hormesis

So I’ve tried to put together a start to the broader framework of understanding how various exposures to environmental stressors are highly beneficial to us in hormetic (adaptable) doses and directly drive the BDNF and neuroplasticity mechanism and therefore well-being.

These are known mechanisms in the basic research.

Exercise is a great example of hormesis in action.  This paper ” Impact of exercise on neuroplasticity-related proteins in spinal cord injured humans” showed a five-fold increase in BDNF in athletes after a 10 minute easy stint, but a decrease in BDNF after a marathon (42 km) event.

So exercise which we can easily accommodate and then adapt to drives the physiology of neuroplasticity and wellbeing. This is the hormetic response.  The stimulus (exercise) eventually becomes toxic at high and more intense doses.

So my theory is that there is a straight biological and hormetic connection to wellbeing through neuroplasticity for several (and there are likely more than I have identified here) important health and lifestyle behaviors.

I’ll get to the indirect effect later in this piece.

Some factors, like psychological stress, simply drive adrenal axis responses which would be appropriate for an acute “fight or flight” short lifesaving sprint, but are entirely inappropriate and toxic applied chronically. Chronic psychological stress is known to drive reduced insulin sensitivity and increased ROS.

Others, like exercise, offers a balance. You need the stress, but too much is toxic.  Sunlight exposure is like this.  Some exposure drives Vitamin D production.  There is good evidence to show the antioxidant (ROS defeating) effects of Vitamin D, as well as the vascular effects and increased insulin sensitivity through nitrate availability, but if you go and get sunburned then you will see the opposite effect.

Food is a really interesting stimulus. I think what we want is both the hormetic effect of the occasional fast, which is known to promote a catabolic (repair) effect and reduce ROS, IGF-1 increases, and low insulin. Obviously fasting for too long might have the opposite effect through probably high cortisol production. Equally, we need the anabolic effect of eating and the nutrients supplied by food. Too much food, especially junk processed carbs, bangs up insulin and ROS. So I think the intermittent fasting people are onto something when they cycle in and out of food availability.

Metabolic flexibility is an overriding theme here too.

By that I think that when you become metabolically dysfunctional and are constantly hyperinsulinemic and have high ROS, you really have the least effective system for neuroplasticity and cognitive rewiring.

Another factor is the health of your gut microbiome.  Again, when not in its usual human supporting and symbiotic form, this is inflammatory.  It helps create insulin resistance, ROS everywhere, and general metabolic dysfunction.

You’ll see below several ideas and mechanisms I propose. If you think of more then let me know.

Actually I just thought of another – brief ice baths.  Short exposure-reduced ROS and increased insulin sensitivity.  Too long=severe stress and probably increased ROS?

Hormesis 1.002 Hormesis 2.003

Indirect effects and wellbeing

Where positive psychology fits in here is something I have been thinking carefully about.  I, along with others, have been into that field for a while now and we talk about creating social networks, being nice to others, giving your time and resources to others, and many other things. Have a look at our Sovereign NZ wellbeing index for the full meal deal.

So indeed these are important, but because many create the resources you need to buffer stress and control the exposure to the potentially toxic stimuli. Having a social network for example means you will less easily be overwhelmed by stress and more in control of your life.

A more distant indirect effect is money.  Money by itself clearly has no direct effect on your BDNF, insulin, ROS and so forth. I’m pretty sure no one has done this study, but I predict that sitting and staring at a large pile of cash has very little effect on these!

But money gives you the resources.  The time and space to create the networks, to give to others, and to control the exposures to the life stresses you want and thrive on.

Bottom line: Hormetic stress is the biological basis of wellbeing.  We see good evidence across a range of environmental stressors how this all works. This brings the “Primal” type approach right into mainstream science where it belongs.  I know the primal/paleo guys have been saying this for years, but we do need to convincingly bring the biology and the practice together which is what I’m trying to do.


This is a theory of stress, but in a controlled and balanced way.

I am critical of much of the work in public health, quite a bit of which I have done myself.  We often try to understand how a single factor (e.g., exercise) is related to wellbeing. We assume a linear model where more is better and the dose applies across the population.

Clearly, in this hormetic, model that is just rubbish.  Everyone can take a different amount of a particular stress (say exercise).  What they can take and probably adapt to (hormesis) depends on:

  • Their genes
  • Their exposure to exercise in their lifetime, weighted more heavily recently
  • The sum of all the other stressors they are currently being exposed to – obviously there’s less chance of adapting to an exercise session if you are sunburned and had a poor night’s sleep and an argument with your wife.

So what this all means is that what you need to optimize your potential at anytime is highly dynamic and different for you now than it was yesterday.  And you almost certainly won’t resemble the same profile as others around you.

Last bottom line…

Moderation and stress that you can adapt to is crucial for well-being.

How happy are New Zealanders?


How happy are you?  How well are you doing in your life?  How happy are New Zealanders, and how do they compare with other countries?

All big questions. You can find out how you compare with the average New Zealander of your age and sex here.  You can access the Sovereign New Zealand Wellbeing Index here.  You can view TVNZ’s Sunday episode aired on the topic here.

I am very proud to announce the public release of this Sovereign New Zealand Wellbeing Index. It’s the first survey point in a six-year research partnership with Sovereign .  It’s also the first time anyone has tried to understand the epidemiology of wellbeing in a large (n=10,000) population representative sample in NZ.  We will follow some of the same cohort across the six years. The basic logic is that if you want to improve the wellbeing of the population, then first you had better measure it, and generate some hypothesis forming associations.

We also used the same measures as used in the European Social Survey wellbeing module.

So this has been several months’ work for me, and even more work for my dedicated research team, as well as a team at Sovereign working on the comms side.  Thanks everyone for the enormous amount of work.

Actually, that’s been the coolest thing about this project. The well developed comms and advocacy angle that Sovereign has been able to bring to the partnership.  They’ve got an interest in reducing stress and increasing wellbeing straight out form a claims perspective as well as the corporate social responsibility angle

Frankly, we are very used to doing high quality research which mostly gets published in journals a few people read, and a few masters and PhD theses which even fewer (maybe even only a few!) people read.

So now, we have had a great link into releasing the report, advocating government and policy makers, getting TV and media coverage of the results and so forth.

Mostly, I’ve been blogging about nutrition, exercise, weight loss and chronic disease prevention and treatment research at the Human Potential Centre at AUT University. That’s where I am a Professor (Public Health) and the Director of this research centre.  I will do a few more blogs in the wellbeing space to augment this report release.

Wellbeing is an area we are really getting into.  We are trying to bring many of the principles of positive psychology into health. We also want to bring some of the principles of health, especially nutrition and exercise into positive psychology. Each discipline has lots to offer, but combined even more so.

These sorts of national accounts or indices of wellbeing have become popular in Europe recently and other less robust world-wide measures like the Happy Planet Index. To our knowledge, we are the first to do both mainstream health measures and wellbeing measures.

Sunday on TVNZ did a great job of presenting some of the results.  Thanks TVNZ.  See here.

You can go online and either take the entire survey and see what we measured, or just the “7-item flourishing scale”   Goto We have the norms for your age and sex, so you can compare you results with those overall and of similar kiwis in the survey.  Have a go its fun.  Take the quiz.

Results for the Sovereign Wellbeing Index (This is the exec summary – get the full report here)

This report presents key findings from the Sovereign Wellbeing Index about the wellbeing of New Zealand adults in late 2012. The survey is the first national representation of how New Zealanders are faring on a personal and social level. The Sovereign Wellbeing Index provides a much needed look into how New Zealanders are coping within the economic conditions.

Wellbeing around New Zealand

Using flourishing as a measure of wellbeing there were small but consistent effects of gender, age and income. Older, female and wealthier New Zealanders on average showed higher flourishing scores. Similar findings were found across all other measures of wellbeing giving some confidence in the convergence of measures.

  • There were only small differences in average flourishing scores between ethnic groups (NZ European slightly higher than Asian) and regions across New Zealand.
  • Social position was a powerful indicator of wellbeing. Those higher on the social ladder reported much higher wellbeing.
  • The five Winning Ways to Wellbeing were all strongly associated with higher wellbeing. People who socially connected with others (Connect), gave time and resources to others (Give), were able to appreciate and take notice of things around them (Take notice), were learning new things in their life (Keep learning), and were physically active (Be Active) experienced higher levels of wellbeing.

Super Wellbeing

We looked at the 25% of the population with the highest wellbeing scores and examined what factors defined this group from the rest of the population. This underpins the idea that psychological wealth and resources can be identified and public policy and action, and personal resources utilised to improve these determinants.

  1. Similar findings to wellbeing in general were identified. Females were 1.4 times more likely to be in the super wellbeing group than males. More older, higher income, and higher social position New Zealanders were in the super wellbeing group.
  2. Connecting, Giving, Taking notice, Keeping learning, and Being active were all strongly associated with super wellbeing.
  3. Other health measures were also strongly associated with super wellbeing. These included better overall general health, non-smokers, exercisers and those with healthier diets and weights were all more likely to experience super wellbeing.

International comparisons

When compared with 22 European countries using the same population measures, New Zealand consistently ranks near the bottom of the ranking in both Personal and Social Wellbeing. New Zealand is well behind the Scandinavian countries that lead these measures.

New Zealand ranks 17th in Personal Wellbeing. Personal Wellbeing is made up of the measures of Emotional Wellbeing (rank 16th), Satisfying Life (rank 16th), Vitality (rank 16th), Resilience and Self- esteem (rank 19th), and Positive Functioning (rank 23rd).

New Zealanders did however rank above the mean for happiness, absence of negative feelings and enjoyment of life. However, we were still well below the top ranked countries.

New Zealand ranks 22nd in Social Wellbeing. Social Wellbeing is made up of the dimensions of Supportive Relations (rank 21st), Felt lonely (rank 20th), Meet socially (rank 21st), Trust and Belonging (rank 23rd), People in local area help one another (rank 21st), Treated with respect (rank 22nd), Feel close to people in local area (rank 23rd), and most people can be trusted (rank 11th).

Further exploration of our worst-ranked Social Wellbeing indicator ‘Feeling close to people in local area’ showed considerable variation across the country with the major cities scoring worst with Auckland at the top. Regional areas fared somewhat better. Younger people and NZ European New Zealanders scored lowest.


New Zealanders make choices everyday about their wellbeing. These are both personal choices as well as democratic choices about public policy and action at local and national levels. It is our vision that this index can help frame both personal choices and public policy and action in New Zealand. If it isn’t wellbeing for ourselves and others we are ultimately striving for, then what is it?

The Sovereign Wellbeing Index will continue to monitor the wellbeing of New Zealanders over the next four years. We plan to follow-up some of the participants in this nationally representative cohort to see how their wellbeing changes with time as well as continue to run this national index and benchmark indicators against European countries.

Be the best you can be


(pic: the entrance to AUT Millenium where I work)

I’ve wanted to start a blog for quite some time now. The trick is to get the technical skills together well enough to actually know how to run one and do it regularly. Well, I’m just about there.

What will I blog about?

I am really interested in the science of how we can be the best we can be. This crosses disciplines such as biology, medicine, pubic health, and productivity management. The cornerstones are nutrition, exercise, sleep, neuroscience, psychology and well-being. I’ll be covering these topics under the broad heading of the Science of Human Potential (the name of this blog).

I’ve been interested in human health and performance for my whole career. I started in psychology then into sport and exercise psychology, then into public health especially physical activity then obesity.

There have been some twists and turns along the way which might help to give a view of why I do what I do and where it can go.

About me

Sport and exercise has always been a massive part of my life. From an early age I played rugby union, learned to sail and race, and eventually ended up in the high school rowing squad. Rowing at my high school had no room for anything but high performance. So I was introduced to this at age 13. From there we won national championships most years. The combination of the sheer physicality of the sport and the team work and individual excellence required both mentally and physically really defined my teenage years and who I could become as an adult.

Being fit and involved in some sort of high performance activity has been part of my life since then.

I finished bachelors, Honors, and doctoral degrees in psychology at the University of Auckland by 1994. At the same time I had got into triathlon as a sport. I ended up racing semi-professionally. That’s code for “was never quite fast enough to earn a decent living, so had to supplement prize money income by working“. In the end I raced professionally in several world championships in long course triathlon, ironman and duathlon. That was great fun, and the skills and work ethic I have learned from triathlon are important to me.

The extra benefits from the high performance sport world, especially triathlo,n include:

  • I met my wife Louise because of triathlon. She ended up also as a professional triathlete, a better athlete than me. We’ve been married since 1995 and have three boys – Sam, Jackson and Daniel. Louise also started Vitality Works, a workplace health company acquired by Sanitarium in 2012. Vitality Works has allowed both of us to benefit from a huge amount of professional and personal development in health and well-being.
  • I figured out early that a high performance life is just as much work as a low performance life, so you may as well take the high performance life. It just requires a bit more work up front, but frankly you avoid work later and you get more choices.
  • I have the skills to stay fit and enjoy maximizing my biology for my own personal peak performance.
  • I still get to compete at a reasonable level in triathlon and running. This is cool because the age group triathlon and running groups are really fun, and you get to hang out with people of a similar performance, health, and happiness mindset.

My academic career began with part-time teaching in the Psychology Department at The University of Auckland during my PhD tenure. I moved to Australia (Central Queensland University in Rockhampton) and worked in the School of Psychology there for nearly 10 years. Most of our spare time then was dedicated to triathlon training and racing with Louise. I wasn’t going fast or far in the academic world at that point. Enter Kerry Mummery.

Kerry Mummery is now the Dean of Physical Education at the University of Alberta. He really mentored and started me on the journey to becoming a decent academic. We worked on several physical activity and health projects together. The most notable was 10,000 Steps. This started as a whole community project and morphed into a nationwide program which is still running successfully today.

This was the entrance into public health proper for me. I started at AUT in 2003 after the birth of Jackson our second son. Back in Auckland and into a new country with plenty to do. That’s when things really took off. I had the good fortune to have several great staff members and PhD students under my guidance. Almost all of these are still with me.

The highlights in the last decade are:

  • Working with dozens of talented doctoral and masters thesis students
  • Being highly successful in obtaining research grants and funding. This is the life of an academic and you live and die by this success. We are up over $20 million in funding.
  • A solid and respectable publication record. Ditto above. Important for gauging success. But by itself is unlikely to put much of a dent in the universe.
  • Being involved in Vitality Works. This has put a dent in the universe and allowed me to develop more formally into peak performance, well being and neuroscience.
  • Being the youngest full professor around for a while. That wore off as I aged!
  • Moving our work beyond physical activity into obesity, well-being, productivity, and nutrition/weight loss. Most recently the work we are starting in metabolic efficiency and weight is likely to put the biggest dent in the world.
  • Starting the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition and eventually morphing that into the Human Potential Centre at the new Millennium Campus.

So that’s where I’m at. Where I want to go now, and with this blog, is to explore the science behind what helps us “be the best we can be.” It’s an emerging and multidisciplinary science. Let’s go!