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The Origins of Integra Tea (Part 3) - It's all about the physics, Baby! - Hysteresis

Last time we talked about the 3 physics laws at work behind aging and many illnesses. Today we take a look at the second on our list, hysteresis

Hysteresis is a physics principle that says that for (virtually) all systems and substances you cannot predict future behavior without knowing information about the past. In short, systems and materials have memory and what they do in the future is affected by what has happened to them in the past.

You don’t have to understand the physics to intuitively get this idea. We know this to be true from lots of real life experiences. For example, if you have ever stretched a rubber band a few times, you know that after a few stretches, it never goes back to its original shape and with each stretch it gets easier and easier to stretch it a bit further, until it breaks. That process is hysteresis.

Hysteresis is at work in our bodies as well. Anyone who has ever badly twisted his or her ankle knows this is true. From that point onward it is easier and easier to sprain your ankle. Your ankle “remembers” being injured and consequently is more prone to future injury.

This principle is at work in our bodies in more subtle ways as well. It governs how individual cells respond to a wide variety of stimuli, how our immune systems respond to disease (hint: that’s why immunizations work!) and how are nuero-endocrine system regulates (or fails to regulate) a host of body functions.

As an illustration, let’s look a bit more closely at obesity. Hysteresis at work in a variety of ways in an obese person but the most obvious is perhaps the effect it has on metabolism. This is the cause of the infamous yo-yo effect when people diet. Often people trying to lose weight will go on a diet.. Assuming the metabolism continues to operate at the same level then reducing calorie intake forces the body to convert fat to energy to maintain the same metabolic activity and the person consequently loses weight.

But, the human body also responds to reduced caloric intake by slowing the metabolism. The dieter is now in a race with their metabolism. At first they lose weight at a certain rate. Then the metabolism slows and the rate of weight loss slows. The person responds by eating even less. The metabolism slows further. Finally, the dieter ends their diet, either because they reached their goal or they just gave up. Now what happens? Far too often, they put the weight right back on again. But it is largely not the dieter’s fault.

As they begin to eat a less restrictive diet their metabolism responds by speeding up as well. But, because of hysteresis, the metabolism system remembers the slower rate and so while it does increase, it does not return to the same rate as before the diet began. Just like that rubber band we talked about, it doesn’t quite bounce back to the previous level. So now, at a caloric intake level that previously did not cause weight gain, the person gains weight. That is one example of hysteresis at work.

This systemic memory is at work in every system in our body. Every time something happens to our body that knocks it out of optimal operation our body remembers and never returns naturally to the optimal state. Over time these small inefficiencies build up, accelerating aging and making us more prone to illness and injury.

Entropy: Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. In the world of physics we talk about the entropy in the context of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This law, stated formally, is: In any cyclic process the entropy will increase or remain the same. The great writer Chinua Achebe said it much more succinctly, “Things fall apart.”

As so often happens in physics, we make fancy, complex mathematical constructs to prove something everybody already knows. Any one who has over had the experience of cleaning their house only to have it look a mess a few hours later know what I mean. The physics of this are pretty cool and have to do with the probability theory and quantum mechanics. But basically it’s much more probable for something to be disorganized than organized.

Our bodies are pretty organized. We have built into our system a complex of feedback mechanisms that work to create and maintain a delicate balance. But this delicate balance is in defiance of nature, which want to be in a state of disorder.

Let’s take diabetes as an example. Our blood sugar levels are maintained by a complex system of feedback loops involving the stomach, pancreas, liver and muscles. Greatly simplified, it works as follows. Your stomach processes food into glucose and the glucose is absorbed into your blood stream. Your pancreas reacts to the presence of glucose by releasing insulin. Insulin is needed by your muscles in order for them to absorb the glucose and produce energy (Remember that oxidation process we talked about earlier?) If the muscles do not have access to as much energy as they need they send a signal to the liver. Your liver stores glucose and releases it on demand from your muscles. The pancreas detects the additional glucose released by the liver and produces more insulin.

That balanced state exists in a finite range of glucose and insulin levels. But if something happens to upset that balance. There are an infinite number of unbalanced states. Nature prefers a state of entropy and since there are an infinite number of unbalanced states, nature prefers to be in an unbalanced state. So once you get out of balance it is very difficult to reestablish a state of balance.

It is just like what would happen in your house if you just let things go. The odds of your house returning to a state of order by itself are infinitely small. The reason your house is not (hopefully) a disaster zone is intervention from an external system, you! The same applies to your body. Once its delicate system of feedback loops gets out of whack it usually requires an outside intervention to put it back in balance.

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