Hormesis: The Little 'Good Stress' Keeps You Young

Not to put too fine a point on it but, every moment we are alive, we are aging. And some of us are doing it better than others. When you know someone who looks and feels especially well for their age, with vitality to spare, it’s only natural to wonder, hmmm, what’s their secret? Granted, genetics do play a role, but it’s by no means the whole story. In fact, much more of how well you age is under your control, with genetics thought to be responsible for just 25% of your health. What that means is that incorporating healthy behaviors now is an excellent way help slow your aging roll over time, boost longevity and sidestep many of the problems that can take the life out of your lifespan. How to start upgrading your ‘healthspan’? One of the simplest and most effective ways is to harness the health-boosting power of hormesis. What’s it all about and how to reap the benefits for years to come? Here’s my in-a-nutshell guide to aging better by cultivating a few hormesis-triggering habits:

Hormesis helps make you stronger and more resilient.

So what is hormesis? It’s a biological phenomenon in which low-level exposure to small stressors and toxins actually creates an adaptive, beneficial physiological response. It’s a controlled way of pushing your body just a bit beyond its comfort zone, cueing it to recover and repair. These little stresses, or short periods of adversity, stimulate the body’s longevity gene pathways as well, without causing harm. By adopting hormesis-triggering habits, and in effect, pushing you out of your normal comfort zone (aka, homeostasis) you activate and encourage your body to make the most of it’s off-hours by using the time (mostly while you sleep) to go about the business of detoxifying, renewing, and repairing cellular damage (via autophagy). And that just makes you stronger and more resilient during the waking hours, and leads to better health now and down the road.  

Lean into ‘good’ stress.

Though we tend to think of stress – and its adverse impact on health – as something to be avoided at all costs, stress itself is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, often, stress can be a very good, resilience-building thing. The stress that has such negative effects on our health is chronic stress—the type of stress that is unremitting and constant.  Whether chronic stress takes the form of, for instance, repeatedly eating an inflammatory food or continually facing an upsetting situation, it is taxing on our bodies. If it continues long enough, it can lead to a range of serious health problems.

Acute stress, however, is actually good for our bodies, minds, and spirits, as long as it’s in proportion to what we can handle. For example, when you challenge your body to hike up a mountain, that is stressful—but it can also be profoundly satisfying.  Your muscles welcome the exertion, while your whole body revels in the chance to move.  When you reach the top, you feel a profound sense of accomplishment and release. And when you wake up the next day, your muscles will have grown stronger from being stressed by the climb and then repaired during sleep.

Make a game of hormesis.

What’s cool about plugging into the power of hormesis is that it helps you think about self-maintenance in a new, more playful way. By intentionally adding in more small, light stresses to your day, you’re taking a more proactive approach to wellness – making more of a game of it – while also nurturing the longevity genes that will help your body age better. All it takes is a little pain for, cumulatively, a lot of gain.

Start your hormesis engines.

When it comes to kicking hormesis into gear, there are a few simple ways to do it. Simply by varying your approach to temperature, food and/or physical activity, you can take advantage. Here’s where to start:

  • Get chilly with it: When done in measured doses, exposure to out-of-your-comfort zone temperatures is an easy way to stimulate hormesis, you know, those moments of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” For example, try swimming or showering in cool water, then dipping into a hot tub or sauna (preferably infrared)– and heading back to a cold shower for a chilly finish. The temperature swings between cold and hot will lightly stress your cells and encourage autophagy, the body’s cleaning system that improves cellular function and repair. You can also do it simply by ending each shower with a 30-second cold blast or, on late fall and winter mornings, dressing lightly and stepping outside into the cold for a few minutes to briefly challenge your body– and trigger hormesis.
  • Get tanked: Taking the idea of cold a bit further, cryotherapy is one of many treatments that fall under the heading “cold thermogenesis” -- any treatment that involves the use of extremely cold temperatures for short periods of time. It’s usually done in a special chamber or booth for 2- 4 minutes. This blast of Artic temperatures induces a hormetic response, stimulates your longevity gene pathways, increases the production of mitochondria, and helps with inflammation. Pro athletes routinely use this method, and cryotherapy spas are widely available. But if tanks aren’t your thing, ice baths can be just as effective, and some experts say that ice-cold baths actually yield more benefit. NOTE: Before you embark on your own DIY cold therapy program or step into a cryotherapy chamber, keep in mind, people with conditions like diabetes, heart issues and/or high blood pressure (controlled or not) should be especially careful and first get the all-clear from a medical professional.
  • Up your physical stress game: Trade time spent zoning out on the treadmill for a routine packed with short bursts of serious effort. And by serious effort, we mean working and breathing so hard that you can’t chat while doing it, be it biking, swimming, rowing or power-walking up a hill (or whatever activity you choose) – for brief periods of time. Working out in a way that alternates between microbursts and recovery is called high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – a deceptively simple format you can apply to pretty much any type of exercise. If you’re new to HIIT, try doing three microburst rounds following this pattern, as part of your normal workout routine. Add more high-intensity intervals over time, as you become more comfortable with the practice. Try following this basic format:

  1. Ramp up for 1 minute.
  2. Go hard for 1 minute.
  3. Drop back down to a comfortable pace for 3 minutes.
  4. Repeat.

  • Put the fork away once a day: In other words,  make two meals a day rather than three your default. And for most people the easiest meal to skip is breakfast, but if you’d rather pass on dinner, that works too. The point is, just eat less overall, so also keep an eye on portion size. Doing so every day means less work for the body, less processing, less energy devoted to digesting and sorting, which leaves more energy for other things, like repairing and rebuilding. You can also try time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting. Both approaches create those “mild stresses” on the body that makes you stronger, and delivers the beneficial hormetic effects you’re looking for. The important thing is to consume the bulk of your food closer a bit later in the day (instead of first thing) and not very close to bedtime (finishing food for the day 3-4 hours before lights out is a good rule of thumb).
  • Eat stressed-out, organic plants: Yup, you heard that right, plants get stressed too, and for you, that actually means, dig in! What stresses out plants? Toxins, weather, the constant threat of bugs and animals ready to eat them – plants have plenty of stressors to deal with. So, as a defense, they produce certain protective compounds, which, when we eat them delivers health protective benefits or ‘xenohormesis’ to us as well. Among the compound-rich, plants to pile onto your plate: broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, all of which contain inflammation-taming, toxin-neutralizing sulforaphane. Also, wherever possible, buy organic or fresh farmers’ market produce for maximum xenohormesis benefit.
  • Smarter sun exposure: As in no burning please! Sunlight triggers hormesis, but keep in mind, too much of this good thing can do a number on your skin so proceed with care. In small, measured doses sunshine helps strengthen cells and offers protective effects against cancer. To take advantage without doing damage, try my tips on how to do sun exposure responsibly.

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