Extreme wellness: What can you tolerate?

Professor Marc Cohen will speak at Spirit Festival, which runs April 20 till 22. Photo supplied

Mandy Nolan

Professor Marc Cohen has long been on a mission to bring attention to worldwide wellness. At this year’s Spirit Festival (April 20 till 22), this Professor of Heath Sciences at RMIT will be running sessions on extreme wellness. So what does that mean exactly?

‘It is different for every person,’ says Cohen, ‘but when I talk about “extreme wellness” it is about what you can do consciously to affect all your cells. It’s how you talk to your cells.’

‘To talk to your cells you need to use glucose, carbon dioxide, oxygen, temperature, and water.

‘Most of our cells in our body have enough glucose, enough oxygen, and they are rarely stressed.

‘If I make an analogy, it’s like you have a fridge with heaps of food coming into your house and the back of your fridge gets clogged up with stuff you never eat.

‘Your cells are like that. No-one is starving any more so their food stores get choked up. You have mouldy food in the cells. Intermittent fasting is one way of stressing cells to clear them out. Feasting and fasting.’

When he is talking about this, Cohen isn’t necessarily talking about long periods of fasting, just prolonging those periods where we have a ‘food’ break – such as between dinner and breakfast.

‘We all fast every day,’ says Cohen. ‘That’s why we have breakfast – we break our fast.

‘But if we do that consciously, think about the last thing you eat and the first time you eat and extend that period, we give the body a chance to process and digest.

‘If you have a midnight snack and an early breakfast you don’t give your liver a break from processing things.’

Professor Cohen believes we need to get back in touch with hunger. ‘The feast is in the first bite,’ he laughs.

‘My mum always said that hunger is the best cook.

‘When you eat you really appreciate it… Your cells get a chance to rest and process things properly.’

So how does temperature work?

‘With all things I look for a comfort place of homeostasis,’ says Cohen.

Bliss point

‘It’s the bliss point, where you don’t have to do anything in the body to change it.

‘You have a tolerance point either side of that…[for example] Too much or too little glucose, temperature too high or too low.

‘It’s good to test your air-conditioning and heating system internally. If you make yourself cold, you force yourself to create heat. It burns white fat. You don’t burn fat when you exercise; usually it will be glucose and muscle.

‘So if you are cooling yourself down, set the thermostat in the house a bit lower. Going from hot to cold is really effective. It has so many benefits.

‘Hot and cold showers open the blood vessels and turn on the cooling systems.

‘Your heart is pounding when you go to cold – it contracts all your blood vessels. You have 100,000 kilometres of blood vessels lined by smooth muscle that you can’t consciously relax and contract, but you can use temperature to force them to open and close.

‘It’s a powerful thing to do for your health, because one of the biggest causes of death is vascular disease and stroke.

‘We don’t really exercise our vascular system.

‘Saunas are also useful, with the recommendation that people move between warmth and coldness. Unfortunately, unlike the Finns, we don’t have snow, so we have to make do with plunge pools and ice baths.

Adapting to cold

‘People in the West have an aversion to the cold. Adapting to the cold is one of the basic physiological functions of all life forms. The cells get lazy and that means some cells that shouldn’t be alive stay alive.

‘They are pre-cancerous and they are so comfortable that they hang around and develop cancer. If you stress them, those cells can’t tolerate it. You give yourself a cellular workout when you do hot and cold, feasting and fasting.

‘The mitochondria start talking directly to your mind from inside your cells. It’s a mindfulness practice; you just have to stay there a little bit longer!’

The same process can be done with controlled breathing, says Cohen. ‘If you hyperventilate, take 40 big breaths in and out, you get dizzy because you blow away your carbon dioxide. I have been doing a tour with Wim Hof (the extreme Dutch athlete also known as the Iceman and an advocate for icebaths).

‘You breathe until you are a bit dysphoric, maybe dizzy and tingly, and then you breathe as little as you can. Then you hold your breath.’

Alternating between high carbon dioxide and low oxygen, then high oxygen and low carbon dioxide, also stresses the body and exposes it to the internal stress that Cohen believes we need for extreme wellness.

Professor Cohen believes that stress is a good thing for human health.

Not stress from the modern world that contributes to overload, such as social media, or demands on attention. But environmental stressors.

In his upcoming session, he asks those wanting to embark on extreme wellness to ask themselves a simple question: ‘What can you tolerate?’

Professor Marc Cohen will be presenting at the Spirit Festival (April 20 till 22). Visit for more info.

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