The Hormetic Stressor Secret

Getting stressed to boost tolerance against longer-term stress may sound strange but it works

Chronic stress has been well recognized to be linked to poor health and disease. Heart disease, stroke, depression, and even cancers have been associated with prolonged stress. At the same time, resilience to stress can be protective in nature and promote long-term wellness. Becoming able to increasingly adapt to stressors in life quickly can mitigate many health risks associated with such strife. But the question has been how to best build resilience. If only there was a proven strategy or technique to enhance our capacity to deal with stress! Interestingly, based on several research studies, it looks like there may be an answer: hormetic stress.

Hormetic stress is basically brief, intermittent bursts of controlled stress designed to boost our tolerance to longer-term stress. While many have suggested these types of activities may be effective, research is now showing hormetic effects to be noteworthy. There are many types of hormetic stress activities, and each carries different risks and potential benefits. But all types of hormetic stress helps build levels of resilience that can lead to better disease prevention. With this in mind, the following explores the advantages hormetic effects might offer.

Various Types of Hormetic Stress

There are a number of different activities that you might know that provide hormetic effects. The most common one involves high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, exercises. These types of exercises rapidly increase one’s heart rate into an anerobic or low-oxygen. As a result, the body experiences short-term stress that triggers it to adapt. Another common type of hormetic stress involves intermittent fasting. Brief caloric restrictions for several hours each day also stresses the body briefly and promotes better metabolism. Both of these activities are frequently used to promote better health and wellness.

In addition to these practices, other less-common hormetic activities include extreme temperature exposures. The hormetic effects of ice baths and cold frigid workouts have been touted as slowing aging effects. (Dive deeper into frigid workouts in this Project Bold Life story!) Similarly, hot saunas performed on a regular basis have been linked to lower mortality rates. In each of these cases, the activity is performed in a controlled setting and conducted for a short period of time. And when done repeatedly, they stimulate changes at a cellular level that builds adaptability and resilience.

Mechanisms Behind Hormetic Effects

Regardless of the type of hormetic stress, the basic benefits appear to result from cellular level changes. When brief stresses are experienced by our bodies’ cells, they are forced to respond. If the stress only occurs once, then lasting changes within these cells may never occur. But when done repeatedly over a period of time, significant alterations occur. Specifically, cells become more adept at repairing stress-related insults as well as DNA damage. At the same time, metabolism and glucose regulation also improves at a cellular level. Notably, these hormetic effects enhances these cells’ long-term capacity to handle chronic stress as well.

In addition to these cellular changes, hormetic activities appear to have the most profound impact on inflammation. In research studies, it seems that one of the most notable hormetic effects involves free radical formation. A boost in the production of free radicals is what reduces oxidative stress and inflammation within cells. This is important because oxidative stress is linked to a number of poor health conditions. These conditions include things like Alzheimer’s dementia, heart disease, cancers and more. Thus, not only does hormetic practices make cells more resilient in terms of stress. They also provide greater protections against known inflammatory health diseases.

Benefits of Hormetic Activities

At this point in time, several studies have explored the benefits of that each type of hormetic stress provides. Studies supporting the benefits of HIIT have been around for many years, especially in relation to heart health and weight loss. However, other activities also have noteworthy hormetic effects. For example, intermittent fasting and dietary restrictions without malnutrition have been identified as beneficial. Not only is this type of hormetic stress associated with greater longevity and reduced aging effects. But animal studies have also shown that these reduce risks for cancer severity, stroke, heart disease, and degenerative brain disorders. These studies show the potential that hormetics have in building resilience.

Other research has explored the hormetic effects of temperature extremes. In this regard, studies have examined lasting advantages of both hot and cold temperature stressors. Ice baths and cold showers stimulate an increase in metabolism, constriction of blood vessels, and increase demands on the heart. In essence, this simulates a vigorous workout in many ways. Likewise, routine hot saunas studied in large groups of men reduce risk of death from heart attacks. Even those who used hot saunas four or more times a week saw benefits over those using it once weekly. Their risk of cardiac mortality dropped nearly 50% as a result over time. Such studies support this type of hormetic stress and others in advancing wellness.

Slow and Steady Wins

To enjoy the advantages of these hormetic effects, a little appears to go a long way. In fact, there is also some evidence that choosing certain foods in your diet can achieve some of these benefits. There are a number of phytonutrients that appear to also challenge our bodies and reflect a type of hormetic stress. Curcumin, turmeric, broccoli sprouts, garlic and some berries contain plant nutrients that also induce mini-stresses and stimulate free radical production. Called xenohormesis, this approach represents a less extreme type of hormetic stress that may be more appealing.

In any case, starting small and advancing a hormetic activity gradually is generally recommended by most experts. Likewise, before engaging in temperature extremes or HIIT, a medical assessment is strongly encouraged. But assuming your physician gives you the green light, it’s increasingly evident that the hormetic effects of these activities have significant potential. They even appear to have some cross-adaptive effects, meaning hormetics that build physical resilience also increases mental adaptability as well. Notably, we are just beginning to unravel the secrets of hormesis. But it looks like these are great ways to increase our long-term tolerance to stress while optimizing our overall health.


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About the Author

Through timely and thoughtful articles, the book Project Bold Life: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success, and other media, we deliver engaging content that educates, motivates and inspires you to live a Bold Life.
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