The word “stress” evokes negative emotions. We are reminded constantly to “reduce stress” in our lives to improve our well-being. But did you know there is such a thing as “good stress”? Hormesis is the word for this type of stress, which is the body’s adaptive response to stressors. Hormesis or “hormetic stress” refers to the way some challenges are able to strengthen our resilience and well-being. Hormetic stressors often result in positive adaptations when managed appropriately.
Let’s explore the intriguing world of hormetic stressors, by looking at the most important examples. We will discuss how to balance “too much” and “just right”. We will also look at how adding hormetic stress to your life can help you grow stronger and potentially live longer.
What is Hormesis?
Hormesis is a concept borrowed from toxicology and pharmacology, where it refers to how a substance or stressor, typically harmful in large amounts, can have beneficial effects when applied in small, controlled doses. Similarly, there are hormetic stressors in what we experience in everyday life. They are the proverbial ‘spice’ that can enhance our health.
The Hormetic Effect: Strengthening Resilience
Hormetic stressors elicit mild discomfort or challenge, forcing us to adapt and grow. By repeatedly exposing ourselves to controlled doses of stress, we enhance our resilience. The hormetic effect is all about the body and mind’s capacity to adapt, making us more robust in the face of future stressors. While this can be true for physical health and mental health, the focus today is the physical benefits.
Hormetic Stressors to Make You Stronger:
Hormetic Stressor #1: Physical Exercise
Pushing your body slightly beyond its comfort zone during workouts can promote physical fitness and resilience. We all know that exercise builds stamina and strength when done regularly. That’s hormesis at work.
And it’s not just weight-lifting, exercise in general induces changes in gene expression through a combination of mechanical stress, energy depletion, signaling pathways and the activation of transcription factors (proteins that help turn specific genes “on” or “off” by binding to nearby DNA). This happens through antioxidant release, detoxification, DNA repair and cellular protection. After a workout, anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants are activated to repair damaged tissues. As a result, your central nervous system is better prepared for the next stressor. What does this mean? It boils down to the fact our body adapts over time due to the stress of exercise, leading to greater strength, endurance and overall physical performance.
Hormetic Stressor #2: Intermittent Fasting:
Brief periods of fasting or calorie restriction can promote metabolic health and longevity. There’s a lot to be said about Intermittent fasting that deserves its own post. Suffice it to say the key benefit of intermittent fasting can be attributed to the hormetic response to calorie restriction. Fasting can help you not only lose weight, it can lead to what is known as autophagy. Autophagy is like a clean-up process inside your cells, sort of like recycling. It is the the clearing away of old, damaged cells to make way for newer healthier ones.
Intermittent fasting has other positive impacts on health. It can lead to improved insulin sensitivity, hormone regulation, enhanced cellular repair, reduction of chronic inflammation, better cardiovascular health (lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol profiles), neurological benefits, and longevity (reduced disease).
Hormetic Stressor #3: Sunlight
A tan is evidence of your body’s hormetic response to sun exposure. Sun exposure can have several positive effects on health due to the body’s ability to produce vitamin D (Vitamin D synthesis). One amazing effect of appropriate sun exposure is how prepares your skin cells to defend against skin cancer. But sunlight exposure can do much more, such as improve mood and mental health, bone health, immune system function, sleep regulation, cardiovascular health and skin conditions.
It’s important to note that while sunlight exposure offers these health benefits, excessive or unprotected sun exposure can lead to harmful effects, such as sunburn, premature skin aging, and an increased risk of skin cancer. Therefore, it’s essential to strike a balance between obtaining the benefits of sun exposure and protecting your skin from its harmful effects.
To safely benefit from sun exposure and vitamin D production (appropriate amount of “hormetic stress”), it is recommended to spend time outdoors in the sun during non-peak hours, use sunscreen or UV protection clothing to shield your skin from UV radiation. (Consult with a healthcare professional or dermatologist for personalized advice on sun exposure based on your skin type, location, and other individual factors.)
Hormetic Stressor #4: Hot and Cold Therapies:
Exposing yourself to extreme heat or cold activates certain proteins that can boost your health. These proteins help protect the body by lowering inflammation, protecting it from cellular damage, increasing antioxidants, and creating improvement in the immune system. There is even evidence these proteins have anti-tumor effects. Heat or cold therapies can confer growth in new brain cells which leads to improvements in attention span and focus. It may also provide other performance benefits such as better endurance.
Some good examples of heat exposure are traditional or infrared sauna, hot yoga or a steam room. For cold therapy you can take a cold shower, ice bath or even cryotherapy. For either of these hormetic stressors, it is important to expose yourself gradually to allow your body to adapt and avoid adverse reactions due to overexposure.
Final Thoughts on Hormesis and “Hormetic Stress”
While chronic stress accelerates biological aging, hormetic stress can improve aging because it activates protective mechanisms in the body. Hormetic stressors are also catalysts for physical growth and improvement, offering a pathway to enhanced resilience and adaptability. Understanding and actively incorporating controlled stress (hormesis) into our lives can lead to positive transformations, making us healthier and better equipped to handle more significant stressors. When introducing hormetic stressors, be sure to do it gradually and progressively to allow adequate time for adaptation.
Embrace hormetic stressors! They hold the potential to turn discomfort into growth, improved health and slower aging.