Hormesis, when a little bit of stress is good…


The human body is incredible. It is designed to continuously adapt to and thrive in a largely unpredictable environment. Welcome to the powerful concept of eustress – or hormesis: the physiological phenomenon whereby the body derives long-term benefits and strength from short, potent episodes of challenge or stress.

Hormesis is a term that has evolved from toxicology. Scientists were surprised to learn that very small amounts of toxic exposure or ingestion actually support health. And, that most toxins have a biphasic impact on the body, where very small exposures actually support and boost antioxidant function. It is the higher levels and/or unremitting frequency of exposure that promotes disease because it overwhelms our ability to respond.

Whether it’s fasting, calorie deprivation, exercise, very low grade toxic exposure, or episodic stress – these are things that benefit us because they stimulate our appropriate response. If we don’t use our capabilities, we tend to lose them. But regular, manageable challenge builds strength and resiliency! The hormetic “zone” of activity varies by individual and expands as we build strength. Here are some potent options:

Exercise. We engage in aggressive physical activity – which is really a form of controlled, limited damage to the body – on purpose, to stimulate a protective and restorative mechanism that actually helps us to build more resilient health. We exercise. We do damage to our muscles. We secrete stress hormones. There’s some wear and tear, but that impetus stimulates healing mechanisms. It stimulates antioxidant pathways. It stimulates healing and fortification and the actual build-up of muscle tissue. In this way, the challenge on the body is rewarded with a stimulated healing and pro-resiliency response.

Fasting and caloric restriction. A number of both animal and human studies prove the perhaps illogically positive effects of these practices. Short term, dietary deprivation actually stimulates vitality-promoting mechanisms in the body. Hormetic challenges such as extended overnight fasting or the Fast Mimicking Diet can activate stronger anti-inflammatory defenses, improve mitochondrial function, and stimulate innate immunity. They also promote a lean body type, provoke autophagy to eliminate older/damaged cells, and improve blood glucose handling.

Hormetic nutrition. Diverse, copious intake of phytonutrient-rich vegetables and fruits, with components like berberine, luteolin and quercetin actually benefit us via hormetic effects. Many phytonutrients we think of as exogenous “antioxidants” are actually pro-oxidant in effect and stimulate our own endogenous capability in response. These compounds are essentially teaching our bodies how to defend themselves and be more resilient in the face of larger challenges. Some “adaptogenic” herbs also provide their long-acknowledged benefits via hormesis.

Temperature manipulation. We are all familiar with the healing effects of a fever – creating a less hospitable environment for pathogens and recruiting immune power. Enter the hormetic effects of sauna and heat shock therapy. Think of them as artificial, short term fevers. At the opposite extreme, whole body cryotherapy and cold plunges can induce hormesis to lower inflammation, stimulate circulation, and increase metabolism. Cold exposure has also been shown to increase endogenous antioxidant production and boost immunity against cancer.

Additional “out-of-the-box” hormesis promoters. Looking further afield, practices such as Wim Hof breathing, induced hypoxia, and hyperventilation are gaining more popularity (and scientific curiosity and scrutiny) as people look for novel ways to stimulate the body’s defenses.

Bottom Line: Hormetic stress consists of intermittent, low level exposure to small amounts of challenge that promote health by stimulating the body’s resiliency. So much of the strength and vitality and resiliency in the human body must be stimulated by the ongoing demand for it.

But balance is key! We need to promote eustress and hormesis while avoiding excessive (for their unique body), prolonged stress. Appropriate exercise is hormetic, while excessive exercise may be destructive. Intermittent fasting can be helpful in some circumstances (typically not with hypoglycemia or hypocortisolemia), while long-term calorie deprivation induces catabolism and can cause malnourishment and hypothyroid function. 20 minutes in the sun can boost vitamin D and stimulate the skin’s defense mechanisms, while a bad sunburn can flood the body with oxidative stress and promote carcinogenesis.

We should to live in such a way that the body is indeed adequately and consistently but episodically challenged. We are so well set up to not only survive but to thrive with a little infectious challenge, a little toxic challenge, a little stress challenge, a little oxidation challenge, a little nutrient deficiency challenge, a little relationship or work challenge.


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