Can we treat our current pandemic of chronic stress with the same principles that initiate the stress response? Studies investigating hormesis say yes. Let's take a look.
We’ve all heard the saying “fight fire with fire,” but what about fighting stress with stress? It might sound bizarre, but this area of study, called hormesis, is gaining traction.
The concept of exposing living things to stressors and toxins in short bursts to improve overall function is not new. It has been applied in plant biology, toxicology, spirituality and many other disciplines.
In medicine, an emerging body of evidence indicates that exposure to short episodes of pressure or physical stress — known as hormetic stress — can promote overall well-being and better stress management for humans, too.
What is Hormesis?
The literature about hormesis can be confusing and technical, so we’ll try not to complicate it too much. In simple terms, hormesis indicates that something dangerous or toxic in high doses — like various forms of stress — can actually be beneficial in small amounts.
Hormesis is scientifically defined as a dose–response phenomenon. It involves exposing an organism like a plant, animal or microbe to a low dose of a chemical or environmental agent that would damage that organism in higher quantities. Radiation is a good example, in that large amounts cause cancer, while lower levels can treat it.
Hormesis appears to cause organisms to adapt to the damaging agent in ways that benefit their overall health and improve tolerance to more severe challenges in the long term. That’s surprising, considering high doses of the hormetic stressor are likely to kill it or make it very sick.
The idea of hormesis was first discussed by Chester Southam and John Ehrlich in 1943. They discovered that extracts from the red cedar tree improved the metabolism of certain fungi at low concentrations and inhibited it at high concentrations. They realized that the amount of exposure was key to determining whether it would be helpful or lethal.
Since then, considerable efforts have been made to investigate hormetic effects in plant biology and agriculture. In medicine, research into hormesis has regained momentum in the last two decades because of its potential for treating diseases and disorders. Considering 90 percent of diseases and disorders are stress-related, hormesis could be a welcome stress-management tool.
Why Do We Need Hormetic Stressors in America?
Chronic stress affects many parts of the world. If hormesis could help reduce that burden, a massive percentage of the population would experience improved quality of life.
According to the American Institute of Stress:
- Stress causes 57 percent of US respondents to feel paralyzed.
- 63 percent of US workers are ready to quit their jobs due to work-related pressures.
- Chronic stress is commonplace at work, with 94 percent of workers reporting strain in the workplace.
- Around 2 in 3 adults say the current level of uncertainty in our country causes them stress.
- Nearly 8 in 10 adults said the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life.
- The top sources of anxiety were inflation (87 percent), supply chain issues (81 percent), global uncertainty (81 percent), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (80 percent) and potential retaliation from Russia (80 percent).
- Other sources of ongoing stress include health care (66 percent), mass shootings (62 percent), climate change/global warming (55 percent), rise in suicide rates (51 percent), immigration (47 percent), widespread sexual harassment and assault reports in the news (47 percent) and the opioid/heroin epidemic (45 percent).
- Only reports of mass shootings have declined as a significant contributor to stress (at 62 percent, down from 71 percent in 2019).
So we know that most Americans experience stress, but what exactly is it? And how could increasing it in short-lived bursts possibly help us cope? To understand a little better, let’s look at the body’s natural response to stress.
Fight, Flight or Die?
The stress response, aka the fight or flight response, is a whole-body reaction to a perceived threat. It is designed to accomplish what the name suggests — getting you to fight for survival or run for your life. The mechanisms inside the body during stress responses are driven by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the endocrine system. The ANS is the subconscious part of the nervous system that operates outside of our control, regulating body functions like heartbeat and breathing, while the endocrine system releases stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol from the adrenal glands.
You may be familiar with the jittery feeling, rapid heartbeat, tremors, nausea and muscle tension accompanying an epinephrine rush when you are scared, nervous, enraged, or overwhelmed. These responses take place because your body is preparing for action. Your brain is literally telling your body to fight or run for your life.
In order to run or fight, the body does everything it can to give you the best chance for survival. It releases massive amounts of sugar and other molecules into the bloodstream to provide energy. Your muscles tense, and you develop tunnel vision as you focus and prepare. Your digestive and other bodily systems slow down, and your heart and lungs speed up to bring more oxygen to your cells for energy.
This short-term stress response has benefitted humans hugely and has certainly contributed to our rise to the top of the food chain. The stress response is designed by nature to be a short-lived response that helps us escape danger from predators and other physical threats.
When humans were hunter-gatherers and at huge risk of being eaten or attacked by a wild animal, the stress response kicked in until the human escaped or killed the enemy. Our modern reality is that we are no longer a primitive species and are rarely attacked in the wilderness. The modern predator — aka stressor — might be a bad relationship, work demand or other psychological threat that doesn’t go away. Then, we are walking around with high blood sugars, rapid heart rates, tense muscles, sluggish guts and all the other symptoms of the stress response — all day every day.
It doesn’t matter if a threat is a real physical one — like a tiger or bear — or a perceived/psychological one — like a work or family stressor. Your brain and body will react the same regardless. When stress becomes chronic, ill-health is sure to follow. Chronic stress is now linked to the majority of our non-infectious diseases — particularly metabolic and cardiovascular disorder.
The stress response was always designed to be a short-lived burst of activity. Nature did not intend for it to become chronic. Our society and perceptions have created the chronic stress response — not Mother Nature. We are certainly not designed to handle it well. But, maybe we are designed to become tougher, more resilient and more highly evolved — just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors — after short, intermittent exposures to stressors that quickly go away again. Let’s find out.
The principle of hormesis can be seen in action in many contexts. In medicine, hormesis describes how cells respond and adapt to intermittent exposure to short periods of stress. Examples of common hormetic stressors studied in relation to health and wellbeing include (but are not limited to):
- Ischemic preconditioning — strengthening the heart muscle by depriving it of oxygen (hypoxia) for short bursts, then overloading it with oxygen in short bursts. This can actually make the heart more tolerant of low oxygen supply.
- Exercise — in particular high intensity interval training, which involves switching between brief explosions of high-intensity exercise and short recovery periods. It is associated with hormetic effects and a range of cardiovascular and other health benefits.
- Dietary and energy restriction — particularly intermittent fasting. Studies show the hormetic effects of intermittent fasting to include improvements in weight and other risk-related outcomes, and a lower prevalence of coronary artery disease and diabetes.
- Exposure to low doses of certain phytochemicals — compounds found in plants that can be toxic in large quantities. Hormetic effects include protecting against chronic disorders such as cancer, inflammatory diseases and cardiovascular diseases.
- Exposure to temperature extremes — this includes everything from steaming hot saunas to freezing ice baths. Temperature extremes are associated with improved physical, mental and emotional well-being.
- Breath manipulation — a practice that works similarly to ischemic preconditioning.
How Does Hormesis Work?
Many other terms are used to describe hormetic responses in the scientific literature. Some experts believe this has led to the under-reporting of the related benefits. Other terms you may see in relation to hormesis are:
- Arndt-Schulz Law
- Biphasic dose responses
- U-shaped dose responses
- Preconditioning/adaptive responses
- Overcompensation responses
- Rebound effects
- Repeat bout effects
- Steeling effects
All of these terms encompass the principles of hormesis. The terminology is often complicated because scientists are studying the effects of hormetic stressors on body cells and functions. Specifically, how they react and adapt to the change in conditions.
Your body comprises many tiny cells, all working together. They need energy, react to change and communicate with each other. They do all this biochemically with compounds like enzymes, nutrients and signaling molecules.
Cells are made up of tiny parts, called organelles, that do different jobs. The nucleus contains our genes and DNA, the mitochondria convert food and oxygen into the energy we need to live, and the cell membrane protects the inner cell and signals to and from other cells. All these organelles and others are involved in maintaining homeostasis, or balance, within the cell.
Hormesis appears to promote cell organelles’ long-term homeostasis and healthy functioning. They work so hard to maintain homeostasis under hormetic stress that, essentially, they get really good at it.
Hormetic Stress vs. Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress refers to a disturbance in cellular balance, or homeostasis, due to the production of too many free radicals. Free radicals cause major damage to cells if they outnumber their antioxidant defenses. Free radicals are rogue and unstable molecules. When produced in excess, they can seriously alter a cell and how it functions.
Oxidative stress in a balanced formation is a natural detoxifying process; however, too many free radicals are associated with a host of disorders and issues, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurological disease
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Kidney disease
- Delayed sexual maturation
Hormesis has been found to play a role in increasing the antioxidants, DNA repair and protein-degrading enzymes that decrease oxidative stress and its related disorders. It’s also been found to slow the aging process.
Eating healthy food rich in antioxidants also ensures your free radicals are outnumbered. Green tea, spinach and lotus root are just some examples. Alternatively, experience nature’s antioxidant effects by engaging in some grounding practices. These all go towards promoting the benefits of hormetic stress.
Another one of the health-promoting mechanisms hormesis has is influencing the enzymes needed to initiate cells’ detox pathways. It also regulates the transcription vitagenes — a group of genes involved in maintaining cells’ balance and health during stressful conditions.
Wim Hof, better known as the “Iceman,” holds over 20 Guinness World Records for extraordinary human endurance. His feats include standing in a container covered in ice cubes for two hours, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in only shorts, swimming 60 minutes beneath the ice in frozen water and running a half marathon barefoot on snow and ice in the Arctic Circle.
After losing his wife to suicide, he used a combination of breath manipulation and extreme cold exposure to create what is now known as the Wim Hof Method. It was his way to survive the trauma, and now he shares that method with thousands worldwide.
Hof’s breath manipulation resembles the deep belly breathing in Tummo meditation techniques. His method combines periods of hyperventilation followed by voluntary breath-holds with the additional hormetic stressor of extreme cold exposure. Telling Rolling Stone he “may hold the key to a healthy life,” his hormetic-style regime just might.
Early studies on the Iceman show that he could voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system — an impossible human ability. Remember, the autonomic nervous system drives the stress response.
When examined in PET and MRI scans under extreme cold exposure, the results showed activation of areas in his brain associated with pain suppression, self-reflection, focus and well-being.
Another study injected 12 Wim Hof Method practitioners with endotoxin and found that they, too, could control aspects of their nervous systems and immunity. Their anti-inflammatory biomarkers (molecules that lower inflammation) were 200 percent higher, and their pro-inflammatory biomarkers (molecules that drive inflammation) were 50 percent lower.
Ways to Experience Healthy Stressors
The Iceman might just be living proof of the benefits of hormesis, but the research is ongoing as we try to understand this phenomenon. Meanwhile, there are many ways you can experience healthy stressors.
You can try:
- Exercise — particularly HITT. Alternatively, experience the benefits of an early morning workout or mindful walking.
- Breath manipulation — check out our article on the 4-7-8 method for beginners
- Introduce phytochemicals into your diet — check out our article on antinutrients to learn more
- Have an ice-cold shower or dip in an ice-bath
- Have a sauna or steam
- Try fasting one day a week or for 16 hours a day
- Challenge your brain with a puzzle or teaser
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