Hormetic Stress: How Poison Can Become Your Elixir

It comes in many forms. From the usual work deadline to intense workouts (like the Murph Challenge).

Is stress the evil villain making you fat and stupid, or a powerful mechanism behind becoming a resilient human?

Have you heard “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? As much as I’ve always hated the pop phrase, there’s a grain of truth to it.

As I explained in my articles on building personal resilience and HRV training, human biology easily reacts, adapts, and rebuilds stronger from low doses of stress.

But how can this be when health professionals declare stress-induced inflammation the root of disease?

The harm or benefits of stress depend on the dose.

Hormesis is the concept behind “the dose makes the poison”.

Today I’ll cover the different types of stress and how you can strategically use hormetic eustressors for greater energy, to live longer, and be more focused.

What is the Hormetic Stress Effect?

Stress is a perceived threat. Your biology doesn’t differentiate between physical, mental or emotional stress. Each activates the sympathetic fight-or-flight hormonal response. Positive and negative stress both throw your body off balance. With adequate recovery and time, your health baseline increases.

Short-term stress can actually be healthy. It becomes problematic when it doesn’t subside. Science differentiates between the two:

  • Eustress: a burst of acute stress that is beneficial.
  • Distress: long-term chronic stress that degenerates the body

The threshold between eustress and distress varies between people, age, and lifestyle choices. The healthier your lifestyle, the more stress you can tolerate before it becomes destructive. Only given ample opportunity to recover does your body rebuild stronger.

I classify hormetic stressors into two categories: lifestyle, and nutritional.

Lifestyle Hormetic Stressors

I prefer lifestyle practice over supplements, exotic superfoods, and pharmaceuticals. Practices are more readily available, requiring little (if any) special gear. Hormetic compounds, on the other hand, may not have a place in the human diet, at least according to Dr. Saladino [Amazon].

Here are the top lifestyle and environment hormetic stressors that I enjoy in moderate amounts:

Cold Shower Hormesis

If you’ve taken a cold shower or ice bath, you can attest to the clear-headed, mood elevating results of spending a few minutes in cold water. I never look forward to it flipping the knob to cold, but make exposure to extreme temperatures a daily practice.

As I wrote about in my guide to making cold showers painless, these showers activate an anti-aging pathway called cold shock proteins (CSPs). Part of the focus and energy comes from activating the sympathetic response and noradrenaline production. Intense cold teaches the body to quickly and effectively raise your core temperature.

Sauna Hormesis

Sauna use grew on me. When I started I could barely last five minutes in a traditional sauna. With practice I worked up to 30 minutes while I meditated, stretched, and relaxed. Hot saunas activate other longevity proteins called heat shock proteins (HSPs). Like cold exposure, extreme heat teaches the body to cool down most efficiently.

You reap the benefits of hot and cold exposure every session. But better yet, your body’s learning carries over to everyday life. Through frequent sauna and ice baths use I train myself to handle New York City’s winter days shirtless (and sometimes barefoot).

Saunaing doesn’t have to break the bank nor be a major inconvenience. I wrote a guide on how to build your own near-infrared sauna for ~$150.

Breathing Hormesis

Changing the rate and depth of your breathing causes physiological changes. Hold your breath and eventually panic hits. That feeling comes from the accumulation of CO2 in your bloodstream, not lack of oxygen. Practices like Wim Hof Method and “inner fire” tummo condition you to tolerate CO2.

What once felt like a near-death experience suddenly becomes more comfortable. The body reacts to each session by recalibrating your sensitivity to CO2. Aside from increasing your exercise endurance and stamina, becoming accustomed to this micro stressor carries over to real-world decision making in uncomfortable situations.

Radiation Hormesis

Don’t seek out radiation for this form of hormesis. The classic form of radiation is a form of dense energy with enough power to break DNA. In small doses, this can upregulate the body’s natural defense pathways.

Since ionizing (X-rays, plane flights) and non-ionizing (Wifi, cell phones, wireless devices) radiation surrounds us, you’re already getting enough. Protect against EMFs during the critical rest & repair sleeping hours, and don’t worry about occasional daytime exposures.

Exercise Hormesis

Exercise itself is catabolic. Your body mobilizes stress hormones to break down body tissues for energy. Strength training causes microtears in muscle. Each minute of exercise further taxes your body. But magic happens afterward.

Exercise stimulates anabolic response. Assuming sufficient recovery, your body overcompensates in response to this growth signal. Your fitness, strength, and athleticism baseline all increase. The key to a positive hormetic effect is to limit the dose of workout stress.

Fasting Hormesis

Going without food puts the body into a fight-or-flight stress state. It mobilizes energy to your muscles, and sensory organs to help you track down your proverbial next meal. Fasting alters the activity of certain nutrient-sensing pathways and processes like mTOR, sirtuins, AMPK, autophagy, and NAD. Essential health pathways that atrophy with consistent feeding.

Fasting occasionally and for short periods add enough stress to prompt change, without destroying the body.

Nutritional Hormetic Stressors

Plant Phytochemical (Xenohormetic) Compounds

Plants feel stress too. Drought, pests, lack of sunlight, and anything that interferes with their ability to thrive. Plants produce special chemicals when they’re stressed out. Called xenohormetics, these phytochemicals protect them against stressors (including consumption by predators).

Color is a distinct indicator of xenohormetics-rich plants. Especially plants colored yellow, red, orange, or blue. While your liver detoxifies most of these compounds, what survives absorption is a micro-stressor, and you rebound stronger.

Common xenohormetics include:

Plant phytochemicals inspire many of today’s monochemical drugs which undergo only a slight modification from the natural compound.

Pharmaceuticals

These last two are more novel and recent discoveries of man-made hormetics. The body recognizes pharmaceutical drugs as foreign. In small, occasional doses, it responds by upregulating defense systems. Metformin, a drug derived from the French lilac plant, is one such example. While it isn’t ideal as a longevity compound (choose these natural Metformin alternatives instead), it chemically induces hormesis.

Metformin inhibits normal mitochondrial function. As a result of the mitochondria becoming less effective, the body later responds by producing more.

Alcohol

Alcohol enthusiasts are the first to highlight the benefits of red wine. A classic example of the dose making the poison. One beneficial chemical in red wine is Resveratrol. Tiny doses of alcohol—less than one drink—may improve health.

I personally believe that most of the effect comes from the setting (socializing is the single most correlated predictor of healthspan). Potential benefits go out the window as alcohol intake increases.

How to Add Eustress into Your Life

Hormesis is the parabolic effect where a little “poison” is body-strengthening eustress. Healthy lifestyle practices and foods (and lack thereof) cause the body to adapt and become more resilient.

Not all stress is bad. Dose makes the poison.

To utilize hormesis, you must learn to differentiate distress and eustress. Too much “good stress” quickly becomes overtaxing “bad stress” as the dose continues past the threshold.

Some of my favorite hormetic eustressors I practice regularly:

  • Sunlight
  • O2 Deprivation
  • Challenging myself
  • Cold therapy & saunas
  • Fasting
  • Exercise

Top performers discover their stress limit and adjust their lifestyles accordingly. This list is by no means comprehensive, but a starting point to transform your relationship with stress. What’s your favorite hormetic eustressor?

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