Hormesis: The Good Stress
Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Or was it Conan the Barbarian? Either way, there is certainly some truth to the statement. One such way actually involves stress. Now, with good reason, we are constantly warned about the dangers of stress, both physical and psychological. Stress has been shown to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. However, the intent of this post is not to warn you about the dangers of stress – you are probably already well aware of them. Rather, we’d like to focus on a very particular kind of stress – a good stress – called hormesis.
Whereas the chronic stress from our jobs, lack of sleep, bills, antagonistic relationships, poor diet, etc. will break you down, certain low-level stressors can actually make you physically stronger, boost your immune system, improve your mood, and more. Some of these hormetic stressors are probably already very familiar to you, including such staples as exercise, sunlight, fasting, exposure to extreme heat or cold, and even certain foods. The key to hormetic stress is that it needs to come in small(er) amounts. For example, plunging into arctic water for a long period of time will ultimately probably kill you. But a cold bath or shower can actually stimulate your immune system, making you healthier. Similarly, exposure to extreme heat for a prolonged period can lead to dehydration and other issues, whereas a 20 minute sauna session can produce loads of beneficial effects, physical and mental. For a more detailed and scientific analysis of this, check out Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s article, Hyperthermic Conditioning’s Role In Increasing Endurance, Muscle Mass, and Neurogenesis.
Another very familiar example of hormetic stress is exercise, in particular strength training. A challenging weights workout increases levels of oxidative stress and inflammation in your body. Done in the right amount, ie not over-training, this provides a relatively low and manageable dose of muscle injury. Your body responds to this microtrauma by building new muscle fibres as well as repairing the slightly-damaged ones. Regular exercise improves your body’s ability to rebuild, making you stronger and healthier. But the key to this is not overdoing it, and ensuring proper rest and recovery between workouts. If recovery isn’t adequate, the hormetic stress becomes chronic stress and the body can’t cope with the damage. This is why so many people who insist on training super-hard too frequently often wind up feeling ‘broken.’
Fasting, especially intermittent fasting, is another hormetic stressor. Skipping meals provokes a great hormetic stress response. Additionally, fasting triggers autophagy, a process in which cells clean themselves up, getting rid of damaged or junk cells that could potentially become cancerous. Again, though, this needs to be approached correctly, as calorie deprivation combined with gruelling exercise, sleep deprivation or other chronic stress can do more harm than good. So once again, don’t over do it! Notice a trend? Dr. Jason Fung is one of the world’s foremost experts on fasting. You can check out interviews with him here and here. Even better, buy his book, The Complete Guide to Fasting. We’ve read it, and highly recommend it.
Certain foods also promote hormesis. You’ve almost certainly heard about foods rich in antioxidants. Well, antioxidants are actually hormetic stressors, which is why they are so good for you. Colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as bitter foods, tend to be high in antioxidants, so having a good amount of these types of foods in your diet can be very beneficial. Check out this article on antioxidants for more info. Some of the most popular “superfoods” – blueberries, dark chocolate, turmeric, red wine, green tea, broccoli – contain hormetic compounds that activate adaptive stress response pathways, improving our health. But of course, moderation is still key. You certainly don’t want to go on an ‘all chocolate and wine’ diet, no matter how appealing that may sound.
Believe it or not, sunlight is even a hormetic stressor. Getting regular, small amounts of sun exposure can help reduce skin cancer and improve vitamin D levels. But again, overdoing it can have the opposite effect, so don’t get sunburnt!
In conclusion, it’s critical to note the difference between chronic stress and hormetic stress. In almost all instances, too much of a good thing can have the opposite of the desired effect. Too often we push ourselves too hard – the ‘just do it!’ and ‘no pain, no gain!’ mentality. Conversely, not having enough hormetic stressors does not enable us to develop as we should. Here at Backs Etc., we believe that balance is the key to health, fitness, and happiness, so do challenge yourself, but do it wisely.