What is Hormesis?

June 12, 2023

You probably heard the idiom “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” long before you heard of the term “hormesis,” but the two share a common foundation: stress can be beneficial.

The saying isn’t perfect. While small doses of certain types of stress create strength and promote healing, small doses of other types of stress can create a dangerous impact on your well-being. What separates the saying from actual science is the very real difference between good stress (stress that facilitates growth) and bad stress (stress that causes deterioration).

The Definition of Hormesis

Hormesis is the process of exposing an organism to a strategic amount of stress to elicit beneficial results. Through hormesis, organisms adapt to become more resilient against future stressors.

The concept of willingly engaging in a difficult experience in hopes that the next experience will be less difficult may seem counterintuitive, but you’ve probably also heard another common term: “no pain, no gain.” For example, in the hormetic experience of strength training, muscle fibers micro-tear as they’re stressed by the action of lifting heavy weights (that’s the pain) and rebuild stronger (that’s the gain) during the following rest period.

Hormesis has been observed in plants, animals, and humans alike; it can help increase physical performance, enhance cognitive functioning, reduce inflammation and oxidative stress levels, promote tissue regeneration, improve mental well-being, and even enhance longevity. By understanding how this process works and taking advantage of its effects through hormetic experiences such as exercise or fasting regimens, we can optimize our physical and mental well-being.

How is Hormesis Achieved?

Achieving hormesis ultimately depends on the individual; what works for one person may not work for another. To get started, it is important to identify which type of stress you would like to apply – heat exposure (sauna), cryotherapy (ice baths), intermittent fasting regimens, exercise programs such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or weightlifting – based on your current fitness level and ultimate goals.

Once you have identified the type of stress that will best suit your needs, it is important to determine how much exposure is necessary for optimal results without causing harm or injury. This often requires professional insight, experimentation, and tracking progress over time before finding an effective dose that works best for you specifically.

Finally, regularity should be considered when planning out a regimen; many hormetic benefits are most pronounced when applied regularly over a long period rather than sporadically.

Hormesis in Exercise

Exercise provides a wide range of physical and mental benefits as one of the easiest and most effective hormetic experiences. Anaerobic and aerobic exercise both push the body to adapt to physical stress and respond by becoming stronger and more resilient.

In addition to the breakdown and rebuilding of muscle tissue mentioned earlier, other gains from the pain of exercise include:

  • Increased oxygen uptake: During exercise, the body’s demand for oxygen increases, leading to improved cardiovascular function and increased lung capacity.
  • Hormone release: Exercise triggers the release of hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH), which promote muscle growth and repair.
  • Improved insulin sensitivity: Regular exercise can improve insulin sensitivity, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Reduced inflammation: While acute inflammation is a normal response to exercise-induced stress, chronic inflammation can be harmful to the body. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce chronic inflammation levels.

Enhanced cognitive function: Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function by boosting blood flow to the brain and increasing neuroplasticity.

Hormesis in Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting, also referred to as IF, refers to cycles of fasting and eating. During periods of fasting, the body experiences hormesis as it is subjected to the mild stress of calorie restriction (usually accompanied by hunger), and the average body responds by triggering the following adaptive responses:

  • Improved metabolic function: During fasting, the body shifts from using glucose as its primary energy source to using ketones produced from stored fat. This can improve insulin sensitivity and promote better metabolic function.
  • Reduced inflammation: Fasting has been shown to reduce levels of inflammation in the body, which is associated with many chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Cellular repair: During fasting, the body goes into a state of autophagy – a process where damaged or dysfunctional cells are broken down and recycled for energy. This can help remove cellular waste products and promote cellular repair mechanisms in the body.
  • Increased longevity genes expression: Recent studies have suggested that fasting may activate certain genes related to longevity (such as SIRT1), leading to improved cellular repair mechanisms in the body.
  • Weight loss: Fasting can lead to weight loss by reducing caloric intake and promoting fat burn.
  • Improved brain function: Some studies suggest that intermittent fasting may improve cognitive function, memory retention and mood by increasing neurotrophic factors in the brain such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).

These fasting cycles, and others, may require build-up or training, personalized medical insight, and experimentation to achieve net gain instead of net loss.

Additionally, many health-sensitive groups should avoid fasting altogether. Including:

  • Minors under the age of 18
  • Women who are trying to become pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • People with a history of eating disorders.
  • People taking food-dependent medications.
  • People with type 1 diabetes who take insulin.

Hormesis in Heat Exposure

Controlled heat exposure through practices such as sauna use, hot yoga, or exercise in hot environments is a hormetic experience because mild doses of heat stress can trigger thermoregulatory responses in the body that lead to improved health and resilience.

Heat exposure stimulates the following responses:

  • Production of heat shock proteins (HSPs): HSPs help protect cells from damage and improve cellular repair mechanisms. They play an important role in maintaining protein homeostasis and preventing protein misfolding – a process that can lead to several diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
  • Improved cardiovascular function: Body temperature rises during heat exposure, causing blood vessels to dilate or widen. This dilation allows for increased blood flow, creating a decrease in blood pressure as the heart does not need to work as hard to pump blood through the body.
  • Promotes relaxation: Heat exposure can stimulate the release of endorphins – hormones that help relieve pain and ease stress.
  • Increased longevity – While more research is needed on this topic, studies have suggested that regular heat exposure may lead to increased longevity due to the activation of certain genes related to cellular repair mechanisms such as FOXO3a. FOXO3a is a gene associated with longevity and has been shown to play a role in repairing damaged DNA strands.
  • HSPs: Like heat therapy, cold therapy also produces HSPs, which have anti-inflammatory properties and help protect cells from damage.

Heat exposure naturally leads to dehydration and overexposure can lead to skin burns and serious health risks. Stay hydrated, wear clothing appropriate for the activity, wear sunscreen if heat exposure takes place outdoors, and remove yourself from the environment immediately if the heat becomes overwhelming.

Many health-sensitive people will have greater risks with heat exposure and should avoid the practice without personalized medical input. Including:

  • People with heart disease
  • People with high blood pressure

People over the age of 65

Hormesis in Cryotherapy (Cold Exposure)

Cold exposure (also known as cold therapy or cryotherapy) involves exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures for therapeutic purposes. Cold showers, ice baths, winter swimming, cooling chambers, your partner’s cold feet on your back at night right as you were about to fall asleep, and ice packs are all popular forms of cryotherapy. A simple cold shower is one of the most accessible hormetic experiences available and doesn’t require experience or built-up tolerance to get started.

Cold temperatures activate several hormetic responses in the body, including:

  • Reducing inflammation and swelling: Cold temperatures cause blood vessels in the body to narrow. This response helps reduce blood flow which can then reduce inflammation and swelling, enhance athletic recovery, and ease pain.
  • Burn calories: Cold therapy has also been shown to activate brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of fat that generates heat by burning calories. This activation of BAT can increase energy expenditure and may be beneficial for weight loss.

Cold exposure poses a risk to many health-sensitive groups, including:

  • People with cold allergies, aka cold urticaria, who develop hives after cold exposure.
  • People with Raynaud’s Disease
  • Women who are pregnant
  • People with neuropathy

People with heart conditions

The Risks of Overdoing It

For most people, hormetic experiences promise growth, resilience, and better well-being. Hormesis, however, depends entirely on a moderate dose of good stress that is proportional to a person’s unique experience and adaptation level. Train for a marathon before you get to the starting line, try time-restricted eating before trying OMAD, and observe your body’s reactions to rising temperatures before you pass out in the sauna.

Your best life is lived on the other side of your comfort zone. Consistently and strategically pushing that boundary will make your comfort zone expand to fit exciting new experiences, achieve meaningful goals, and enhance your overall well-being.


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