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Hormesis: Why Stress Makes us Stronger!
Ever heard “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? The idea is that something that is bad for you in big doses may actually be good for you in small doses! Said otherwise, a short, intermittent burst of something that your body perceives as a stressor, can actually trigger processes that improve your overall health, slow ageing and make you more resilient to future stress!
This concept is known as hormesis. The simplest example typically used to explain this concept is exercise. When we train, there are micro-tears in our muscle fibres. Your muscles are literally torn, inflamed, sore and damaged! However, when you recover, they build back bigger and stronger! Or think about plunging into an ice bath: stay too long and you’ll suffer hypothermia, but stay in for a few minutes and you’re revving up your mitochondria for longevity!
Hormesis is one of the biggest topics in longevity research right now. So, let’s look at why stress, which we’ve long learnt is terrible for you and should be minimised, could actually be good for you. Turns out, it’s all about the type of stress and the dose of that stress!
What is Hormesis?
First of all, distinguish between acute stress (short, once-off stress) and chronic stress (ongoing, continuous stress from workload, poor relationships, poor sleep or financial stress). The latter wreaks havoc on your health.
Hormetic stressors, however, are controlled, acute stressors that trigger a healthy response that is adaptive in nature, i.e. it allows you to come back stronger next time you face that stressor. But it’s more than just acute versus chronic because the dose is also important. Think of something like oxygen: it sustains life at the right amounts but increases too much and it becomes noxious!
In real life, hormesis is what things like intermittent fasting, cold exposure, heat exposure and exercise all have in common. A prolonged dose of any of these is disadvantageous (intermittent fast too long and you starve as an example!). But in short bursts, you’re knocked out of your comfort zone of balance (homeostasis), and you activate signalling pathways that promote stress resilience, cellular and DNA repair, reduced inflammation, improved detoxification and improved blood sugar regulation. In fact, research in 2020 states that lacking acute stressors prevents your body’s ability to slow ageing.
How does Hormesis Actually Work?
An interesting thing that’s become known as a hormetic stressor is eating plants! Plants contain, amongst other similar properties, phytochemicals. They have these as their natural defence mechanism. So, you can imagine that something that is designed to protect the plant might not be healthy for humans. This is one of the premises that the popular Carnivore diet is built on. However, for most people, at the relatively small doses that plants are ingested by humans (even when you eat a lot of plants), the phytochemicals are not toxic but rather induce a mild cellular stress response. Hormesis.
The process that is activated in your body from eating plants is fascinatingly similar to what you will see when you climb into an ice bath or perform a HIIT session! Why is this so? The answer seems to come down to oxidative stress. Simply put, oxidative stress is a bad thing that happens to our bodies when our mitochondria (powerhouses of our cells) can’t cope with the bad things we throw at them (pollution, poor sleep and diet etc).
Hormesis generates a burst of low-level oxidative stress which encourages more copies of our mitochondria to be made in the presence of some oxidative stress. By stimulating the production of more mitochondria, you improve your health! The best part: by triggering a little oxidative stress now, hormetic stressors can help you neutralise more oxidative stress later!
Top Ways to Strategically Stress your Body
Now that we know that a little what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger stress could be beneficial to your health, let’s look at where you’ll get the most bang for your buck!
1. Hot and Cold Exposure
Simply taking a hot bath at the end of the day or standing outside in the cold will give you some benefits, but your best results will come from activities like hot yoga, steam rooms, infrared saunas, cold plunges and ice baths. Anything that makes you uncomfortably hot or cold. Aptly named, these boost your expression of “heat shock” proteins and “cold shock” proteins, which strengthen the immune system and promote longevity. They do this by protecting your cells and triggering full-body repair!
2. Challenging Workouts
As mentioned, exercise is a stressor that allows your muscle fibres to build back denser and thicker, which is great for fat loss and looking leaner. However, you also release anti-inflammatory compounds during exercise.
Exercise has a very strong effect on your mitochondria (which is how we basically derive energy), and it teaches your muscles to be better at dealing with stress, how to increase your energy levels and to slow down ageing. Who knew your current exercise regime was already incorporating a hormetic stressor into your life! You want to make sure that you include some form of HIIT or strength training into your regime though if those are currently lacking.
3. Eat Plants!
Including sturdy, bitter kinds of plants in your diet (think rosemary for example) seems to have an excellent hormetic effect. A couple of drops of Angostura bitters in your next drink or water also go a long way! Basically, plants that are phytonutrient-rich will activate a healthy hormetic stress response (this is specifically known as xenohormesis).
Favourites to trigger a hormetic effect include broccoli sprouts, turmeric (curcumin), resveratrol from berries, allicin from garlic, quercetin in a variety of fruits and vegetables and green tea. Top tip: look for bright colours!
4. Intermittent Fasting
Your body thinks it is being deprived of nutrients and therefore goes into a perceived state of stress. Don’t worry, it’s not putting you in starvation mode and thereby “holding onto fat”, but instead it inhibits a cellular process called mTOR, which triggers a spring-cleaning of your cells (called autophagy). It doesn’t have to be intense, with even a 16-hour fast showing benefits.
5. Play a Brain Game!
When we learn a new language or a new skill or even engage in challenging mental work or we’re multitasking at work, we consider this a hormetic stressor. Ever felt like you were straining your brain? It’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it can stimulate something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which basically means brain health! However, when you start to feel like you can’t manage the stress or you’re losing control, the stressor becomes toxic, and you no longer reap any benefits. It’s all about the dose!
6. Sun Exposure
For within reason, sunlight in the right dose makes your cells stronger and protect against cancer. The awareness around how important Vitamin D is has skyrocketed in the last couple of years and while too much sun is certainly harmful, a lack of sun is actually associated with more cancers than skin cancer itself!
Vitamin D regulates more than a thousand reactions across your body, so include some sunshine “stress” for optimal health.
7. Facing Adversity
We certainly don’t realise it when we’re going through a tough time, but when we face something challenging, it gives us the opportunity to learn that we have the ability to get through it to the other side and deal with the challenges that life throws at us. In fact, next time, we deal with it better, stronger and with more insight. It’s what RESILIENCE means: to be stronger and cope better when presented with a problem. You are quite literally building pathways in your brain that determine how you view a problem or similar challenge the next time! Kelly Clarkson was on to something!
A Word of Caution
Just like anything in life, too much of a good thing is no good thing! With any of these stressors, it’s possible to overdo it. The dose becomes too high, and it becomes “toxic”. So don’t push your fasting beyond what is healthy for you specifically and don’t engage in HIIT until you throw up! All people have different levels of stress that are manageable, and we should take care to stay within those limits when engaging in them for the purpose of coming back stronger and building resilience!
Also, don’t believe everything you hear. Hormesis has been used as a scapegoat in petroleum, chemical, nuclear and pesticide industries to explain that their products aren’t harmful and that a little exposure actually makes people stronger. It’s not true and some toxins are even more lethal in smaller doses, strangely enough! Things as simple as alcohol or gluten also stress your body but there is no appropriate dose to impart a benefit, so choose your stressors wisely!
Make Good Stress Your Friend
Acute stress can be a good thing. Build resilience and it’ll build your physical and mental strength, something which today is definitely more important than ever!
- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.