high altitude mountaineering provides oxygen depletion and intense physical exertion. Stimulating hormesis

Hormesis – How to Stress Yourself Better

What is Hormetic Stress?

Hormetic stress, or hormesis, is a beneficial type of stress.  It’s a small dose of stress that in large doses would be dangerous. It’s the kind of stress from which you bounce back and grow stronger as a result of having experienced it.  You’re actually designed to thrive on short bursts of occasional stress, whether it’s physical, chemical, mental or emotional.  The best-known example of this is appropriate weight training.  When you do weight training, your muscles get damaged on a microscopic level which results in them repairing and growing bigger and stronger to minimise future injury.  

Another example of hormesis is the antioxidants we consume in the form of fruits and vegetables.  These phytochemicals, like resveratrol, catechins, polyphenols, bioflavonoids are in the plant as part of their defence mechanism against pests.  They are essentially the plants home-made pesticides.  The benefit from these plant-made pesticides isn’t from the antioxidant compounds themselves, but from the fact that these phytochemicals exert a stress on your physiology which then upregulates your own production of endogenous (in house) antioxidants like glutathione or superoxide dismutase (SOD). It’s then the glutathione or SOD that brings about the positive effects, like a better immune response and cellular detoxification for example.

Hormetic stress is in massive contrast to chronic stress.  Chronic stress is something that wears you down.  Literally.  It shortens your telomeres (the tail ends of your chromosomes- a key biomarker of aging), affects mental health and your ability to respond, and it suppresses your white blood cell function – AKA your immune response.  So, in times like we find ourselves now – with a crisis in the form of a declared global pandemic, if you will, creating so much stress and uncertainty on so many levels of your existence, how can you use hormetic stress to actually boost your immune resilience and calm your nerves?

Well that’s the wonderful thing.  There are very simple things you can do – even while in lockdown or isolation – to create hormesis.  And most of them are free.

Cold Immersion

ice bath stimulates hormesis

Cold showers.  Even if you start with a hot shower (like me!)  finish off with cold for 1-3 minutes.  Make sure you get cold water all over you – back, front, head, neck under arms, groin, all the places you normally like to keep warm!

Cold baths.  Depending where you live, just cold water from the tap could be cold enough to elicit a hormetic response.  If you want or need to make the water cooler, go to your local service station and pick up a bag of ice.  Just one bag will make it cold enough to get a hermetic effect (though you can go as far as filling your bath with ice cubes for a more severe hit).  Sit in the bath for 3-5 minutes.  Focus on your breath, breathing into your belly before filling your chest, then exhaling and letting go of tension and stress. 

Natural bodies of cold water – ocean, rivers, lakes.  If you have a natural body of clean cold water nearby, then you’ve hit jackpot!  Jump in daily or as often as you can.  Again, stay in for a good 3 minutes (longer if can do so safely). In natural bodies of water, you’ll not only benefit from the cold, but also from the nature bath, the negative ions (which are a positive thing!), the probiotics in the environment, fresh air and with any luck some sunshine too!

Sun Exposure

sun exposure

Speaking of sunshine, get some!  As with exercise and food, sun exposure is another hermetic stress.  At just the right dose of course, not too little, not too much.  You want sun on your unprotected skin without getting burnt (that’s the hermetic part right – the right amount gets your vitamin D levels up and a nice tan happening, while too much sun can cause damage.  The same with exercise, cold, heat, etc).


Sauna sessions for optimal ageing

If you have access to a sauna (infrared or steam), fantastic!  Jump in that daily if you can.  20 minutes to an hour depending on what’s appropriate for you and your current state of health.  If you have a lot of detoxing to do, you might need to start at as little as 10 minutes and gradually build up to an hour.  Saunas have so many beneficial effects other than detoxification including better cardiovascular fitness and mitochondrial function (energy production).  These are all a result of hormesis – your body’s efforts to restore balance back during and after an extreme exposure experience. A great tool in the optimal ageing tool kit.  1L of mineral rich filtered and remineralised water for every half hour you are in a sauna.

Weight Training

Weight training causes micro-damage to muscles, resulting in stronger bigger muscle development.  Another example of a beneficial stressor.

A 20 minutes weight or high intensity training session is a great way to stimulate hormesis.  If you don’t have gym equipment at home you can do these with body weight or get innovative and find some bricks, logs, large water bottles, or heavy pack of dry food goods in the pantry.  There are so many apps now offering home training solutions.  Find a QUALITY one that suits your needs, and train appropriately for your current state of health (including your stress levels, how much sleep you’ve had, physical health and so on).


Brightly Coloured Veggies and Fruit

Phytonutrients or phytochemicals in brightly coloured plant foods exert their benefits via hormetic stress.

Eat brightly coloured vegetables and fruit.  Make most of each meal a rainbow of plants, then add some good quality well sourced protein and fats.   Some of the hormetic effects of eating this rainbow of phytochemicals are anti-inflammatory, better blood flow and oxygen delivery to cells and facilitation of detoxification pathways in cells throughout your body and in particular your liver.  Join in our next round of 9V9 (the 9 day challenge to eat 9 cups of veg and fruit each day, for 9 days.  No dietary exclusions required.  Just that one addition.  You can have your cake and eat it too (along with your 9 cups of veg). More info here.

Intermittent Fasting

Ketogenic diet makes intermittent fasting easier and stimulates hormesis.

Intermittent Fasting (IF).  Don’t stress about the food running out at the store – instead, have a little fast!  IF is something you’ve been designed to do from an evolutionary perspective.  In time of starvation your body needs to function at it’s best in order to both conserve energy and also to be able to find or hunt your next meal. 

It’s best to step into IF from a well-nourished state to begin with.  So eat nutrient dense, low carb foods (lots of above ground veggies, good quality meats and fats) first.  This will nourish your cells with nutrients and regulate your blood sugar levels.  From there, you can gradually step into Intermittent Fasting by not snacking between meals, and then stretching out the time between you dinner and breakfast.  For more details stay tuned for my next article. 

Take a Breather

Breathwork and the wim hof method are ways to either cause oxygen deprivation or hyperventilation which provide hormetic stress

Oxygen deprivation.  You can achieve this with fancy masks that alternate between deliver high and low levels of oxygen while you train, or you can do it with breath work like Wim Hof’s guided 11 minute breathing sessions on Youtube.

Hormesis – Get Your Daily Dose

In as little as 3 minutes a day you encourage and train your body and mind to be stronger,  more adaptable, and more resilient.  Not much of an investment for such big returns.  What habit will you now adopt to bring hormesis into your life?