Hormesis: Short-Term Stress for Long-Term Strength

Stress has very negative connotations in the modern nomenclature. If you are following along, stress, whether it be physiologically or psychologically induced, increases risk for cardiovascular issues, chronic pain, and is one of the primary factors in anxiety and depression. But the human body is the most advanced and adaptable organism ever developed; given precise amounts of the right types of stress and provided the right environment, it responds to stress with progression. Hormetic mechanisms allow our bodies to use stressors as the impetus for positive adaptations. If you want to get bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, smarter, or more resilient, you better understand the real-world implications of hormesis. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” right?

Before it was plastered atop every Paleo and biohacking website, hormesis was actually a toxicology term used to explain why organisms have a biphasic (bell curve) response to varying amounts of exposure to input. Essentially, small doses of exposure to certain substances or conditions may stimulate positive adaptation, moderate doses may inhibit adaptation, and large doses may kill. German pharmacologist Hugo Schulz originally coined the term in 1888 when he observed how yeast may grow, be inhibited, or simply die when exposed to certain toxins based upon the dosage. Essentially: the dose makes the poison.

The human body is composed of trillions of cells all working together to maintain the entire organism. Body temperature, body fluid composition, blood sugar, gas concentrations, blood pressure, etc. are all homeostatic mechanisms being constantly manipulated by a chorus of receptors, control centers, and effectors for the conservation of the status quo; working their physiologic sorcery to keep you looking, feeling, and functioning exactly like you are…ideally, in perpetuity. You may want to lose weight, but your body will employ every hormonal weapon at its disposal to keep the scale at the same point. Stimulating change necessitates introducing a stressor far beyond the norm, but pushing too far (without allowing for recovery) results in destruction. So how do you induce stress, the good kind, and at levels that you can actually recover from? Despite the overly “sciency”- sounding term, it’s no more complex than the basic principles we all learned in Mr. Chavez’s 6th grade health class.

Exercise

Intense exercise induces oxidative stress, powerful hormonal responses, inflammation, and (as I found out the hard way) may make your trusted medical professional convinced your liver is failing. But that chaos that exercise causes is the trigger necessary to build a denser, stronger, and more efficient human machine. Research suggests that exercise-induced hormesis may promote mitochondrial biosynthesis to prevent aging-related lean tissue degradation, upregulate antioxidant defense, help protect against muscular-related injuries, and assist healthy aging. But remember: the dose is the poison. A little bit of pushing your physical boundaries promotes positive physical adaptation, but too much exercise without adequate recovery can actually be worse for your long-term health than no exercise at all.

Fasting

Until recently, most of the research regarding the benefits of intermittent fasting were in animal models, but there is a growing body of randomized controlled human clinical trials suggesting that abstaining from nutritional input for extended stretches may emancipate your inner Khal Drogo. If you aren’t familiar with the research of Valter Longo and Jason Fung, you are missing out on some of health science’s most significant recent findings. Intermittently keeping that family-sized bag of Sour Patch Kids at bay for 16, 20, or even 60 hours at a time has been shown to switch on a number of different hormetic mechanisms associated with increased lifespan, including autophagy, activating the “longevity gene” (FOXO3), inhibiting mTOR (a signaling pathway implicated in numerous pathological conditions), and you may even set a deadlift PR in the process. Furthermore, fasting often results in short-term metabolic spikes as long as you aren’t regularly pushing yourself away from the dinner table for more than 3 days at a time.

Exposure to extreme temperature variations

While those marketing claims suggesting that a few minutes in a freezing cryogenic chamber can cure chronic disease, increase energy levels, and boost metabolism are tenuous at best, there is some legit scientific reason that (brief) exposure to intense changes in temperature can trigger real physiological change. The reason your physical therapist suggests that you alternate applying heat and cold to muscular injuries is that your body produces cold-shock proteins and heat-shock proteins in response to temperature variations. This concept also applies to full-body exposure. A refreshing cold shower after a workout can help your body repair itself from inflammation-related damage and support proper immune response, and there is evidence that a dip in the sauna may induce autophagy and slow down cellular aging. But don’t take it too far; we’re not all Wim Hof. Running in the Himalayas in shorts in the dead of winter is a really effective way to get frostbite, not induce a positive hormetic response.

In the words of Tim Ferriss (sort of): Success in life can be measured by the number of uncomfortable things you are willing to do. Those who enjoy the greatest growth are often those who become the most comfortable with being uncomfortable. Embrace the suck, at least temporarily, and get on the hormetic train to gains by exercising, freezing, and (not) eating your way to a better body and a stronger resolve.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders.