In this week’s blog, I’m diving into a concept called hormesis, which teaches us that small doses of acute stress can actually be beneficial to our bodies. Yes, you heard that right: This week’s blog is all about the benefits of putting your body under stress.
It’s back-to-school season, mandates are in place, but there’s still no absolute guarantee, so many of us are thinking about how to fortify our bodies for fall and winter. You may be taking steps to boost your immune system, working on healing your gut with microbiome-friendly foods, and you’re doing your best to reduce stress, which can sabotage your health more than almost any other lifestyle factor.
But what if I told you there was actually a positive type of stress — one that can actually make your body stronger in the long run?
But not just any stress, the right types of stress…
What is hormesis?
When you read the word “stress,” it most likely conjures up images of long workdays, endless to-do lists, hours stuck in traffic, and the anxieties we all have about juggling our health, finances, family and relationships. There’s no arguing with the fact that chronic, sustained stress is bad for your health. Stress can be connected to almost every major health condition in the world — including heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal disorders, and autoimmune diseases.
Chronic stress can sabotage your body and according to some estimates, it’s at least partly responsible for more than 75 percent of all doctor’s visits. The fact is stress is all around us and unavoidable as human beings (especially, given the events of the last year). But like many things in life, stress doesn’t have just one definition and effect; instead, it can play many roles in our life. Stress simply isn’t a fixed entity.
There can be positive stress, negative stress, and different amounts of stress that we experience for different durations, which have unique effects on our body and minds.
And here’s where hormesis comes in — pardon me, as I get a little science jargony for a moment: According to a 2019 definition in the The Science of Hormesis in Health and Longevity, “Hormesis is defined by toxicologists to describe a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent with a low-dose stimulation showing beneficial effects and a high-dose stimulation showing inhibitory or toxic effects.”
Translation: In other words, something might be harmful to us at high doses — for example, chronic sustained stress — but actually beneficial to our health in low, acute doses — such as in the case of small bursts of stress.
Why is hormesis important to your physical health?
When it comes to your physical health, hormesis is an interesting concept to explore. Essentially, the concept of hormesis says that putting your body under targeted bursts of stress can make it stronger overall. Why? Because it forces your cells to adapt and grow stronger. It’s sort of like when you learn a new skill that really challenges you; at first, you might feel tired, frustrated, stressed, or like there’s so much you don’t know. But eventually, you end up more confident in your abilities and more able to tackle challenges in the future.
Exercise is probably the best example of hormesis in action. Have you ever wondered why you have more energy when you’re exercising regularly? Or why breaking down muscle is the way you build more muscle? That’s because exercise puts your body under acute stress, your cells adapt to that stress so they can handle similar stress in the future. In a study published in Nature, hormesis is also described as “an adaptive response of biological systems to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges.”
Essentially, hormesis is the body’s version of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
It’s all about creating more resilience to stress and training your body to be more adaptable. In the case of exercise, working out causes the body to create inflammation and mild oxidative stress, which according to a study exploring the connections between hormesis, exercise, and aging, “can result in favorable adaptations that protect the body against more severe stresses and disorders derived from physical stress or other etiological origins.” The practical result of this is better health over the years. In fact, one study showed that people that exercise vigorously delay significant increases in disability as they age by approximately 15 years compared to non-exercisers.
How do you use hormesis to boost your health?
Now that you know about hormesis, you’re probably wondering how you can use this concept to boost your health and resilience. Well, the good news is that the science community has been really interested in hormesis as of late, and the research in recent years has exploded. Scientists have discovered quite a few different ways to put your body under healthy stress.
5 Ways to Build Hormetic and Immuno-Resilience
1. Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is a lifestyle practice where you restrict your food intake to only a certain number of hours each day. We do this naturally already; we stop eating after dinner and “break” our fast with breakfast the next day. With intermittent fasting, you simply become more intentional about that daily “fasting window” and extend it further. For example, you might stop eating at 6 p.m. and not eat breakfast until 8 a.m. which makes your fasting window 14 hours long. Intermittent fasting is a type of hormetic stress because it puts your body’s cells into a protective, or “fasted” state, which challenges them to adapt.
As the authors explain in one article about the beneficial effects of mild stress, this type of dietary restriction “can prevent or lessen the severity of cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease, autoimmune disease, allergy, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.” Pretty cool, isn’t it? According to the fasting experts, the human body was designed to withstand periods of fasting; and by exercising our body’s ability to do just that, it makes us healthier. If you want to learn more about fasting, check out my friend Will Cole’s new book, Intuitive Fasting.
Homeopathy is an alternative healing system that involves exposing the body to extremely low amounts of potential toxins, which helps you build up resistance. This is called the Arndt-Schulz “law,” which says that “all poisons are stimulatory in low doses” and goes right along with the concept of hormesis. If the concept of hormesis is interesting to you, finding a homeopathic doctor might be an avenue worth exploring. I’ve seen it be a great tool for many patients, especially ones that are particularly sensitive to either medications or supplements in standard doses!
3. Cold exposure
Diving into a freezing lake or taking a cold shower might not sound like the most relaxing wellness practice, but it’s one of the best ways to build hormetic resistance. By shocking your body with cold, you jumpstart many of the cellular mechanisms that repair and protect the body. For example, research shows that cold exposure can increase immunity and cause your body to release antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules. It’s also great for your metabolism, encouraging the burning of brown fat, which has been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
You’ve probably heard of breathwork in the context of relaxing the body and encouraging a state of calm. But you can also use breathwork to increase hormetic resistance. In Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage, he explains that by practicing different breathwork techniques — some of which involve holding your breath — you can increase your body’s tolerance to carbon dioxide, the metabolic waste of respiration. He also explains that most people “overbreathe” and that it ends up decreasing how efficiently your body uses oxygen. By putting your body under short bursts of oxygen restriction, you can improve its ability to transfer oxygen to the muscles and organs in the long-term.
5. Support Phase I & II Liver Detox
If you want to make your body more resilient to big threats like diseases and toxins, then supporting liver detox is key. Liver detox is a great example of placing a temporary challenge or stressor on the body that will make you healthier in the long run. Liver detoxification exists in two stages — phase 1, where the liver converts a toxin into a reactive intermediate (aka “reactive oxygen species”), which has the potential to actually be more toxic to us than the toxin itself. During phase 2, the liver will attach a molecule to that reactive intermediate, such as a sulfur-containing compound, which makes the substance water-soluble so that the body can then excrete it with the bile or in the urine. Both phases are necessary for healthy detoxification. Luckily, my HAPPY GUT RESET: 7-Day Detox is designed to target both phases of detoxification to fortify your overall health. Now, my phase 1 and phase 2 supplements are available for purchase on their very own — The HAPPY GUT® Detox Duo — so you can support every phase of detoxification.
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Like many things in life, the concept of stress isn’t as simple as it appears at first glance. I hope that in today’s blog you learned at least one way to positively challenge your body for a healthier, stronger YOU over time.