Hormesis is a bodily response to a mild, short repeated physical, chemical, biological stressor. The stressor causes a mild increase in oxidative effect in the body that then leads to a cascade of positive bodily effects that are moving one away from disease and towards health.(1) From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. We know the body is designed to conserve energy so it will change and adapt its processes to meet the demand and adapt so that the next time the same effort is not needed. The body wants to be comfortable so to say. Bottom line is, purposefully stimulating a little discomfort is a very good thing. Bringing on hormesis is a way we can slow aging and improve overall health and wellbeing!
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
One simple example is a short burst of high intensity exercise where the body is under a mild stress, then activates chemicals and systems to meet that stress and furthermore protect against further similar episodes of such stress. When weight lifting, one tears muscle fibers, chemicals are activated to make more muscle cells around that area, so when the same weight is lifted, it is not as stressful. It’s a protective and adaptive mechanism. Brilliant!
So we can actually purposefully do this to enrich our health.
Examples of things that can induce hormesis:
- High Intensity Exercise
- Ice baths or cold exposure
- Sun bathing
- Plant compounds or phytochemicals
- Learning new skills
Chemical mechanisms of hormesis.
Exercise, such as high intensity interval training, induces an increase of free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS). This then triggers antioxidants to be made, which are free radical scavengers, and DNA repair, both of which ultimately have anti aging effects. HIIT exercise signals the body to make more mitochondria. These are like the batteries of the cell, they take oxygen and food and convert it into ATP or energy. (2) There are so many benefits to regular exercise that are long lasting. Exercise optimizes autophagy, which is a self house cleaning mechanism. It can also offset aging, neurodegenerative conditions, and has anticancer effects. (3)
Hypoxia. Hypoxia is inducing a state of oxygen depravation. Some examples are holding your breath, living in a place of higher elevation where the air has less oxygen, or controlled breath exercises where you pause and hold your breath at the bottom of each exhale. Both exercise and hypoxia induce hormesis by inducing ROS which signals NRF2. NRF2 turns on factors that protect cells from ROS and inflammation which are two of the things that can cause chronic disease. NRF2 naturally declines with age so actively stimulating this can do much for how well our body functions over the age of 50. Turning on NRF2 enhances our immune system, boosts metabolism and helps us protect our cells from toxins. Hypoxia induces erythropoietin (EPO) which helps us make more oxygen carrying red blood cells. There is more evidence now that hypoxia conditioning can help neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and dementia. (4) A 2021 study using free divers, a sport where you hold your breath and dive under water for extended periods of time. They found free divers had a significantly higher ability to handle oxidative stress. They had higher nitric oxide and higher heat shock protein levels, both of which have positive effects on the cardiovascular system.(5) See the bottom of the post for a breath technique you can begin using today.
Sauna. It is well established that sauna therapy increases overall wellbeing and health. It stimulates something called heat shock proteins which triggers some but not all of the healing mechanisms. Sauna stimulates the immune system, induces cell repair and regeneration, lowers inflammation and stimulates the growth of new blood vessels. (6) Sauna use also stimulates NRF2 and has been shown to benefit depression by inducting a mild increase in IL-6, which has positive compensatory reactions.
Ice baths or cold exposure. One hormetic effect of ice bathing is increased thermogenesis, which causes the burning of brown fat. As we age our fat cells lose some ability to undergo thermogenesis. Ice baths, cryotherapy or very cold showers increase NRF2 and so they stimulate the activity and number of mitochondria in our cells, which then slows cell damage and stimulates repair. Research also states that ice baths stimulate our immune system and increase blood circulation. Some say they increase serotonin and from a Chinese Medicine perspective, move our chi, or vital energy, which helps one live longer.
Fasting. This includes both short water fasting, intermittent fasting (IF), and calorie restriction (CR) which meet the criteria of hormesis. Reducing or time limiting nutritional intake creates a mild repeated stress which induces the health benefits. University of Wisconsin scientists did a study using adult Rhesus monkeys found that reducing calories by 30% and giving 2 meals per day, 7 hours apart, improved their health and extended their lives significantly. Females usually die around 26 years, the CR monkeys lived to over 28 years. Males usually die at 35 years, the CR monkeys lived over 40 years. There was no diabetes or cardiovascular disease in the test group. (7) The reduction of daily calories and fasting intermittently induced a small stress on the cells in the body, and the cellular adaptations made them more efficient and stronger so they could handle more stress and live longer. Another study using mice showed that those who have undergone IF, developed brains that could offset more oxidation and toxins, had better metabolism and were less likely to have a stroke. They think this is due to the hormetic effect of angiogenesis, or the growth of new blood vessels. (8) Another study found that after CR and or IF feeding, the mice lived longer, had more resistance to toxins, were more protected against many forms of cancer and neurodegenerative disease. (9)
Consuming phytochemicals.and nutrients Certain phytochemicals and nutrients induce mild stress on the body in many unique ways. Each type of stress then triggers a positive response in the body that induces things like cell healing, squelching free radicals, cell repair, cell protection, immune system enhancement and the like. Why do plants induce stress in our bodies? Well plants are trying to protect themselves ultimately, so they have these mild toxins that induce this stress in their predators.
Plants and nutrients that have been shown to induce hormesis:
- Alpha lipoic acid
- Cruciferous vegetables
- EGCG from tea
- Rosmarinic acid from sage
- Chocolate flavonoids
- Note: the research for these was done on human cell lines, not humans
Learning new skills and memory. This concept can be applied to how well we engage with our life. Purposefully bringing about new challenges, creations and meeting life demands can induce stressors that can benefit us. Too much stress can be toxic, but daily engagement of mild stress helps the body and mind to become resilient and better handle stress with more ease. Studies show mild stress can improve our memory and learning capacities. Dr. Robert Rountree, an expert in antiaging, says that “these challenges can stimulate some of the same cellular pathways (of hormesis) and even generate brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuroplasticity. There’s one big caveat, though—in order for you to reap the benefits from psychological stress, you need to feel like the stressor is manageable and that you’re in control. If you feel helpless, the stressor becomes toxic.”
Ancient Breathing Technique – the Master’s Breath, by Dhyan Vimal
Sitting comfortably, engage in this active breath meditation which is calming to the mind and emotions, allowing more of your true being to emerge. By holding the breath, you are naturally stimulating a small stressor (hypoxia) that will trigger a positive response in the body and being.
- Hands resting on lap
- With your mouth closed exhale out completely, emptying the lungs and hold at the bottom of the breath, hold as long as you comfortably can.
- Release and allow the breath into the lungs without effort.
- Repeat for 7 breaths.
Hope this helps!
- Ji LL, Kang C, Zhang Y. Exercise-induced hormesis and skeletal muscle health. Free Radic Biol Med. 2016 Sep;98:113-122. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2016.02.025. Epub 2016 Feb 23. PMID: 26916558.
- Heat Stress and Hormetin-Induced Hormesis in Human Cells: Effects on Aging, Wound Healing, Angiogenesis, and Differentiation – PMC
- Mattison, J., Colman, R., Beasley, T. et al. Caloric restriction improves health and survival of rhesus monkeys. Nat Commun 8, 14063 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms14063